Jinx C. Broussard. African American Foreign Correspondents: A History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013. x + 268 pages. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-5054-2.
Reviewed by Justin C. Williams (City College of New York)
Published on H-Diplo (February, 2014)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach
An exciting development of the last twenty years has been the emergence of black internationalism and black press as major fields of academic inquiry. Histories of how black people sought to engage with the world, often as a way to better conditions at home, have done a great deal to illuminate not only big themes like race, nationalism, and globalization but some engaging personal sagas as well. The media is an indispensable component in the creation and dissemination of ideas, so in order to better understand black internationalism, we must take a critical look at the black press that reported the news and shaped opinions about black people’s place at home and in the world at large. Jinx Coleman Broussard’s African American Foreign Correspondents: A History makes an important contribution with a survey of African American reporting from abroad spanning roughly the mid 1800s through the 1990s.
The book’s first chapter “The Genesis,” begins by analyzing the foreign reporting of Frederick Douglass (from Great Britain), Mary Ann Shadd Cary (from Canada), and George Washington Williams (from the Belgian Congo) via brief profiles. This section does an effective job of immediately establishing the theme that black foreign reporting, even before the end of slavery or establishment of the black press, would always be looking inward back to the United States in varying degrees.
The technique of focusing on individual personalities, their historical context, and their works, continues with the establishment of black publications that often covered African American troops serving overseas. For the next few chapters, Broussard’s narrative moves to World War I, the interwar years, the Spanish Civil War, and World War II. This period was not only critical for its coverage of “our boys” serving across Europe, but also marked the rise of important black publications like The Chicago Defender, The Crisis, The Associated Negro Press, and The Negro World. Always looking back to the United States, some reporters in this critical period depicted Europe in utopian terms, while others placed racism in the colonial context.
Since the European wars put in place a black press infrastructure with a global racial consciousness, Broussard's narrative pivots to coverage of African nationalist movements that gathered momentum during the Cold War. A major contribution of this section is the focus on reporting from more popular black publications, like Ebony. In this portion of the book, the author shows the degree to which black reporters continued to bring their readers the biggest stories of the day from Ghana, Cuba, Vietnam, and Iran. But as the U.S. Army and society at large became more integrated, so did the press corps.
The author's final profiles focus on black foreign reporters who worked for mainstream institutions like CNN and the New York Times. After a survey of many personalities reporting on an array of issues over roughly a century-and-a-half, Broussard concludes, “This book shows that overwhelming the writers successfully navigated their dual role as members of the black community and as journalists. Most objectively present factual, verifiable information in the same way that white foreign correspondents did. They often interjected themselves in their reportage, just a mainstream correspondents did, often when providing war coverage. The difference is that the majority of black writers wrote to reposition the race” (p. 208).
While scholars will debate how we should read black foreign reporting, there should be no question that we must if we want greater insight into the evolution of the black press, public opinion, and black internationalist ideas more generally. Even at the most basic level, the stories of people who made long journeys to bring us the news, at great expense and sometimes personal risk, deserve to be told. The author explores a range of examples--from iconic figures like W. E. B. Du Bois and J. A. Rogers to lesser known reporters at black publications. Of course, another major strength of the book is its consultation of a large number of stories produced by the black press over the last 150 years.
However, there are a few places in chapter 10, the section most heavily involving modern African history, which needed minor intervention from peer reviewers. For example, the statement that Ebony reporter Era Bell Thompson visited “eighteen African countries” in 1953 should have been corrected to “colonies” (p. 126). Also of note is Portugal’s omission in a list of major colonial forces in Africa (p. 129) and the incorrect assertion that Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah “fled in fear” (p. 130) during the coup of 1966 (he was actually abroad on an official visit to North Vietnam).
These relatively minor points aside, African American Foreign Correspondents is certainly a welcome addition to the recent scholarly movement studying the life, times, and works of black reporters. The author has surely made a contribution that will be cited often in an expanding group of histories of the black press. Broussard’s exploration of the black press and its reporting on global issues is particularly important in our current age of corporate media consolidation. We should not only take a look at alternative takes on major stories of the past, but also ensure they have a place in our present and future.
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Justin C. Williams. Review of Broussard, Jinx C., African American Foreign Correspondents: A History.
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