Mark Whitaker, a former network news executive who spent the bulk of his career at Newsweek magazine, has produced a reader-friendly biography of entertainer Bill Cosby, an icon who has been part of American life for 50 years. The book seems destined for the fall best-seller lists and hits shelves on Sept. 16.
Whitaker's biography and an instructive memoir by journalist and Movement veteran Charles E. Cobb Jr., "This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible," join six other books in this edition of "Book Notes," spotlighting nonfiction work by, about or of special interest to journalists of color. Part II will be posted in the coming days.
Charles M. Blow
Charles M. Blow, op-ed columnist for the New York Times, has "Fire Shut Up in My Bones: A Memoir" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27).
As reported in this space on Monday, Blow, the only African American op-ed columnist at the Times and a cable news pundit, discloses in this book that he is bisexual but says he has problems with how the term is defined. He also says fighting the idea of his sexual attractions almost ruined his life. Those declarations come at the end of a coming-of-age story that also reports on an incident of childhood sexual abuse that haunted Blow for most of his life and on abusive hazing at Grambling State University, his alma mater.
Most of this book gives the reader a well-crafted narrative of growing up in northern Louisiana that some reviewers have found rich in meaning but that might strike others as a tale in search of a theme. Journalists who have attended industry jobs fairs will appreciate his story about persuading a New York Times interviewer to see him at one such fair in Atlanta after turning him away because he had not preregistered.
Journalists will applaud Blow's inventiveness as an intern in the graphics department of the Times of Shreveport, La., when he went to the house where an entire family died that day of carbon monoxide poisoning. Denied entrance to the home, Blow visited houses with the identical floor plan, searched and found a generator identical to the one that produced the deadly fumes, and diagrammed the circumstances of the tragedy so impressively that it earned front-page display. "I knew then that I could be what was coming to be known as a visual journalist," Blow writes.
The book is scheduled for publication on Sept. 23.
Judy Christie, the Times of Shreveport, La.: National commentator tells painful story of growing up in Louisiana (July 9)
Charles E. Cobb Jr., a former field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a co-founder of the National Association of Black Journalists, has "This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible" (Basic Books, $27.99 hardcover, $14.99 Kindle).
Cobb makes his goal plain from the outset: "My goal has been to help us understand ourselves as a nation, cutting through platitudes and romance about the southern Freedom Movement as well as persistent stereotypes about black people. I have wished to demonstrate in an unexpected way how black people and their responses to white-supremacist oppression continue and advance the struggle that was articulated as a constitutional ideal in the formation of the United States: 'to form a more perfect union.' "
Specifically, Cobb is talking about guns. "Although nonviolence was crucial to the gains made by the freedom struggle of the 1950s and '60s, those gains could not have been achieved without the complementary and still underappreciated practice of armed self-defense. The claim that armed self-defense was a necessary aspect of the civil rights movement is still controversial. However, wielding weapons, especially firearms, let both participants in nonviolent struggle and their sympathizers protect themselves and others under terrorist attack for their civil rights activities. This willingness to use deadly force ensured the survival not only of countless brave men and women but also of the freedom struggle itself." Even Martin Luther King Jr. let guns be kept in his home for self-defense, Cobb writes.
Cobb's service as a field secretary for SNCC from 1962 to 1967 has defined his life; he teaches about the movement now at Brown University. But his book is not limited to those years. He explores the subject of African Americans and guns throughout American history, from the colonial era and slavery through service in the world wars. Moreover, Cobb's Movement experience has given him a worldview that he contends is underappreciated in the media and by scholars.
The history-making actions of ordinary people are subordinated to those of iconic figures such as King, he contends, and the intellectual underpinnings of others in the Movement are too often dismissed. "These activists rarely wrote down their thoughts and analyses of the movement they fashioned, nor are their thoughts and analyses given much respectful prominence in academic and mainstream media discussions. But their reflections are as authoritative as the interpretive assumptions found in refereed or peer-reviewed scholarship," he writes.
With facts and perspective, Cobb attempts a corrective.
Charles E. Cobb Jr., C-SPAN: Book Discussion on This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed (video) (June 28)
Charles Shea Lemone, Roanoke (Va.) Times: Book review: Violent times preceded nonviolent civil rights movement (Aug. 10)
"Tell Me More," NPR: 'Guns Kept People Alive' During The Civil Rights Movement (June 5)
Craig R. Whitney, New York Times: Arms and the Men (June 19)
Joe Grimm, editor in residence at the College of Communication
Arts and Sciences at Michigan State University, is series editor for a "Bias Busters" cultural diversity guide featuring "100 Questions and Answers" about specific ethnic groups. Four of the guides were written by Michigan State University journalism students.
Grimm first created "100 Questions and Answers About Arab Americans" in 2000. He posted that guide the day after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, and it became a timely and heavily trafficked publication. That guide is a partial inspiration for the J-school’s guides to cultural competence.
Included are "100 Questions and Answers about East Asian Cultures"; "One Hundred Questions and Answers About Hispanics and Latinos"; "One Hundred Questions, 500 Nations: A Guide to Native America"; "One Hundred Questions and Answers About Indian Americans"; and "One Hundred Questions and Answers About Americans." All are available in paperback for $9.95, and all but the Native American volume are $6.95 on Kindle.
Helen Zia, the Asian American activist and journalist, writes in her foreword to the volume on East Asian cultures, "Listening to one person after another struggle to name the few Asian countries they ever heard of taught me at an early age how little most Americans knew about Asia or Asian people and cultures. 'Are you from Taiwan? I just love Thai food!' some would exclaim, confusing Thailand with Taiwan. For the most part, the questions were well-meaning, just ill-informed. How I wished for some easy material to hand my questioners, short of sending them back to school or the library. . . ."
Grimm wrote Journal-isms, "One reason we do this series is because it is important work that needs to be done and that the journalism industry, which used to do some of these, no longer seems able to. It is a great project for students, who need to interview across cultures, write and edit."
Joyce King, broadcaster for 20 years, has "Exonerated: A Brief and Dangerous Freedom"
King resigned from CBS Radio in Dallas in 1999 to write "Hate Crime: The Story of a Dragging in Jasper, Texas." After that, life intervened. A blurb about "Exonerated" from Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, picks up the saga: "A gripping yet tragic story of how imprisoning an innocent man for 27 years destroys him and traumatizes the woman who loves him. This very personal account of a wrongful incarceration, and its victim, will deeply touch not only those who fight for justice but also folks who sit on the sideline."
Phil Latham of the Longview (Texas) News-Journal explains what took place. He concludes, "This is a sad but important story that doesn't just teach lessons about injustice, greed and sickness, but also about the human condition that we all share, the need to love and be loved. Just like drugs, the wrong love can endanger your life but the addiction is so strong that even knowing that you just don't care."
Amy Helene Kirschke and Phillip Luke Sinitiere have edited "Protest and Propaganda: W.E.B. Du Bois, The Crisis, and American History" (University of Missouri Press, $45).
Kirschke is a professor of art history and history at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and Sinitiere is a professor of history at the College of Biblical Studies in Houston.
The public history of the revered W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) perhaps begins with his role as a progenitor of the Niagara Movement, which gave birth to the NAACP. Du Bois went on to become one of the foremost black intellectuals of the 20th century. For many of those years, he edited The Crisis, the NAACP magazine created to guide African Americans out of Jim Crow. It is still publishing, currently edited by critic, poet and fiction writer Jabari Asim.
"This book germinated as a conference panel on The Crisis at the 2010 annual meeting of the American Historical Association," Shawn Leigh Alexander writes in its introduction. "Conceived as a commemorative gesture toward the NAACP and The Crisis for their respective centennials, this essay collection took shape following the conference with a lineup of scholars whose work represents many disciplines that intersect with American history, American religion, American literature, women's studies, communications, art history, and political science."
He continues, "Collectively, the essays in Protest and Propaganda: W.E.B. Du Bois, The Crisis and American History document the multifaceted ways in which the magazine responded to critical issues in American history and culture. In the magazine's earliest years the publication survived and thrived to publish essays, columns and visuals that demanded a proper cultural, political, and social accounting of white supremacy's destructive ways. But these chapters also show how essays, columns, and visuals published inThe Crisis changed conversations, perceptions, and even laws in the United States, thereby calling a fractured nation to more fully live up to its democratic creed. Moreover, in a reflection of Du Bois's own internationalist outlook, these essays also present ways that The Crisis attacked the color line that encircled the globe.
"The chapters in Protest and Propaganda represent a collective first step to archiving tremendous odds, document how the voices of justice rose above the clamor of injustice, and demonstrate how relevant such literary, journalistic, and artistic postures remain in a twenty-first-century world still in crisis."
Alexander is an associate professor of African and African American Studies and director of the Langston Hughes Center at the University of Kansas.
Phillip Luke Sinitiere, Baldblogger: Just Published: Protest and Propaganda: W. E. B. Du Bois, The Crisis, and American History (March 6)
Clarence Page, syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune, has "Culture Worrier: Selected Columns 1984-2014: Reflections on Race, Politics and Social Change" (Agate Bolden, $17, paper). Publication date is this coming Tuesday.
Page's first collection of his columns is published to coincide with the 30th anniversary of his first Tribune column in 1984. The volume collects 172 pieces, 16 under the headline "Diversity Anxiety." "I've always portrayed myself as a good Midwestern, middle-of-the-road voice for the sensible center," Page says in a promotional question-and-answer session.
Asked how his identity as an African American has informed the politics of his column, Page replies, "It is interesting to me that I and every other black columnist I know get occasional complaints from conservatives that we write about race 'all the time'.
"I don't write about race all the time, but the very fact that so many people seem to see race in my columns [tells] me just how intensely feelings about race, among other tribal considerations, inform everybody's politics — whether they want to acknowledge it publicly or not. As an African American who grew up in the last days of Jim Crow segregation and the hard-won victories of the civil rights revolution, I write about racial issues more often than most white columnists do. But when I write about climate change, mortgage defaults, student loans, the besity epidemic, the future of public education, are those racial issues? Maybe not on the surface, but my experience informs my awareness of how differently those issues play out in white communities compared to communities of color."
Page went on to note that white poor people outnumber black and Hispanic poor, but that one would never know that from daily news reports. He concludes, "Growing up black in America has made me more sensitive to the value of facts against a flood of rumors and the importance of empathizing with disadvantaged people, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, or other background."
Jason L. Riley, the only black member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, has "Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed" (Encounter Books, $23.99).
Riley is the latest black conservative to recycle attacks on "black liberals" and progressives of all races to the applause of the like-minded. The book jacket features praise from those who might be considered the usual suspects: Charles Krauthammer, Juan Williams, John McWhorter and Robert L. Woodson Sr. Thomas Sowell wrote, "There is nothing to match Mr. Riley's book as a primer that will quickly bring you up to speed on the complicated subject of race in a week, or perhaps over a weekend." Riley has been so eager to spread his message that he has used the police killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., as a platform to charge that black leaders are ignoring black-on-black crime, an inaccuracy and change of subject for which he was called out.
One critic, Ian Blair, wrote in Salon, "Many of Riley's criticisms echo the oft-cited talking points of the right wing. Which makes his polemic, one that excoriates liberals for 'more of the same' particularly laughable. It is not new ideas he yearns for, but old ones that conform with his limited pre-established political leanings. But on a deeper level, Riley’s invective sheds light on the twisted logic that continues to pervade Republican circles. He thinks that once the liberal spell is lifted, black liberation will be realized. That when blacks no longer drink the liberal Kool-Aid, believing in their status as victims, they will be made whole. Republicans, desperately trying to convince blacks to abandon the Democratic Party, have imparted the same messaging (evidence be damned): Liberals have made your lives worse; but we can save you. Rid yourselves of liberalism, and follow us down the road to salvation.
"But the truth is no political ideology can save black people from the tireless forces of racism. White supremacy knows no party or clique. . . ."
Joe Saunders, bizpacreview.com: Top black journalist hammers Obama for playing 'healer-in-chief' while Holder stokes racial fears (Aug. 20)
Mark Whitaker started working on "the first major biography of an American icon, comedian Bill Cosby," after leaving CNN in January 2013.
Scheduled for release Sept. 16, "Cosby: His Life and Times" (Simon & Schuster, $29.99 hardcover; $14.99 ebook) seems poised to become a best-seller.
Whitaker was executive vice president and managing editor of CNN Worldwide, but the more salient part of Whitaker's biography is his service at Newsweek magazine, where he was editor from 1998 to 2006.
The book reads with the flow of a newsmagazine article. "Each chapter is constructed in such an organic way that it sometimes feels like you’re reading a work of fiction," one reviewer wrote.
Critics of Cosby's personal responsibility message, such as social critic Michael Eric Dyson, won't find much sympathy here. "Respect for hard work is also a key to Cosby's much-debated views on racial issues," Whitaker writes in the prologue. "It's not that he is oblivious to racism — far from it. It's just that he believes that playing its victim has never gotten blacks very far, and that ultimately his people always have and always will have to work for any meaningful advances they achieve."
Whitaker also has a few words about Cosby and the news media:
"Experiences with the media have only compounded his wariness. As far as Cosby is concerned, it's been annoying enough that for fifty years reporters and critics have persisted in dwelling on the presence — or lack — of racial themes in his work, when he's always viewed himself as searching for universal humor that can touch anyone. But in recent decades, he's endured invasive coverage of a devastating family tragedy and an embarrassing personal scandal.
"He's had to respond to what he sees as deliberately mean-spirited questioning of his lavish philanthropy and his advanced academic degrees. He makes no secret that he doesn't trust reporters, and in return some of them have spiked coverage of him with words like angry and difficult to insinuate that there's another side to his personality besides the soft and playful one so openly on display with fans and friends. . . . "
The Hollywood Reporter ran an excerpt of the book as the cover story for its Aug. 20 Emmy award issue. Cosby is pictured holding his statuette.
Trade publications have produced glowing reviews. The marketing push includes a video in which Whitaker discusses his subject.
"We expect major review coverage for the book and Mark Whitaker will be doing several national media appearances this fall," Maureen Cole, the book's publicist, told Journal-isms by email.
Joe Hempel, topoftheheapreviews.com: [REVIEW] Cosby: His Life and Times — Mark Whitaker (Aug. 25)
Kirkus Reviews: COSBY His Life and Times by Mark Whitaker (July 27)
Publishers Weekly: Cosby: His Life and Times (July 28)
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Journal-isms is published on the site of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education (mije.org). Reprinted on The Root by permission.