Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

Introduction

In 2008, historians Sam Wineburg and Chauncey B. Monte-Sano published the results of a survey that asked two thousand high school students who they considered to be a “famous American.”  The students were asked to list 10 names, including at least five women, and to exclude Presidents and their wives.  The top three names listed by students were African Americans: Martin Luther King Jr. (listed by 67% of respondents); Rosa Parks (60%); and Harriet Tubman (44%).  “Some eighty years after [historian Carter G.] Woodson initiated Negro History Week…the prominence of African Americans at the top of our lists is the most remarkable finding of this survey,” Wineburg and Monte-Sano write.  The authors see the “fame” of King, Parks, and Tubman as a direct result of Black History Month becoming an established part of school curricula. “Black History Month still reigns as the crowning example of curricular change, recognized by school celebrations and assemblies, civic commemorations, billboard notices, and television documentaries,” Wineburg and Monte-Sano suggest.

While I am thrilled that these African American figures have emerged as some of the most famous people in American history, I worry that most people’s knowledge of black history does not extend too far beyond these iconic figures. This concern is one of the reasons that I created the digital history project Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers. From January 2016 to January 2017, each day I posted at least one black newspaper article from that date in history, accompanied by brief commentary. Black Quotidian also includes guest posts from scholars and students. The project now includes more than 365 daily posts and more than 1,000 media objects, which are arranged in flexible pathways that enable readers to explore the text and media in different ways.

Black Quotidian developed as a response to researching and teaching African-American history in the era of Black Lives Matter. As a teacher, I have tried to offer my students historical context to understand police shootings of black people and the implications of viral videos of these killings circulating on social media, but I am concerned that my students only see black history as a story of tragedy and struggle, without appreciating the joyous complexity of everyday black lives and communities. For Black Quotidian, I chose to focus on African-American newspapers because I wanted to focus on the lives, and not only the deaths, of black people. Violence against black people was a frequent topic in black newspapers, but so too were debutante balls, dentists, dolls, and discos.  Taking the ordinary aspects of African-American history seriously means recognizing the richness and diversity of black culture and history.  By emphasizing that black history can be mundane, not only triumphant or tragic, Black Quotidian offers a thematically diverse foundation from which to research and teach African-American history.

Claiming the right of black people to experience and enjoy the mundane aspects of daily life have taken on a renewed resonance in an era marked by quotidian violence, fear, and mourning.  "Though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering," poet Claude Rankin writes, "there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black: no hands in your pockets, no playing music, no sudden movements, no driving your car, no walking at night, no walking in the day, no turning onto this street, no entering this building, no standing your ground, no standing here, no standing there, no talking back, no playing with toy guns, no living while black."  Black lives mattered everyday in papers such as the Chicago Defender, Los Angeles Sentinel, and Pittsburgh Courier, and by focusing on the twentieth century black press, Black Quotidian offers hundreds of snapshots of "living while black."

Black Quotidian uses Scalar, an open-access, multimedia web-authoring platform that enables authors to assemble images, videos, maps, and other media and to juxtapose these resources with text. Visitors to Black Quotidian can read news coverage from the black press while also watching or listening to contemporaneous musical performances, athletic events, or political speeches that are difficult to describe textually. My post on Marian Anderson’s landmark performance at the Lincoln Memorial in April 1939, for example, features embedded PDFs of newspaper articles from the Chicago Defender and the Norfolk Journal and Guide, as well as the two-minute newsreel video from the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s Hearst Metrotone News Collection. Similarly, my post on the 1952 title fight between “Sugar” Ray Robinson and Joey Maxim includes a PDF of a newspaper article from the Pittsburgh Courier as well as a video of the fight. My goal is to offer visitors a contextual frame for engaging with a wealth of primary sources, without dictating a specific interpretive or analytical position. Visitors looking at the front pages of black newspapers after Malcolm X’s assassination, for example, may notice different details (e.g., the Norfolk Journal and Guide ran a picture of Malcolm X holding his young daughter Ilyasah; the Philadelphia Tribune ran a picture of Betty Shabazz and others gathered around Malcolm X after he was shot; and the Baltimore Afro-American featured a featured a story about Nat King Cole’s funeral above news about Malcolm X). Engaging directly with primary sources encourages visitors to attend to small details in the materials, as well as the larger socio-historical contexts in which the sources were produced. By foregrounding primary sources I hope to illuminate the historical research process and introduce both specialists and non-specialists to new materials. Using Scalar, Black Quotidian creates a circumscribed field in which visitors can explore the ideas, sounds, images, and movements that are so important to African American history.

While Black Quotidian includes posts about iconic figures such as Carter G. Woodson, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman, I also try to call attention to people and events that are not commonly featured in textbooks, documentaries, or Black History Month celebrations. I was browsing the February 20, 1969 issue of the Los Angeles Sentinel, for example, when I stumbled across a column called “Bowling Around L.A.” by Juanita Blocker. After searching through the Sentinel digital archive, I learned that Blocker was the first black member of the Professional Women’s Bowling Association and that she wrote a bowling column in the Sentinel for over two decades. Who knew that the Sentinel had a regular bowling column written by a trailblazing athlete? Similarly, I was surprised to learn about dancer Blanche Thompson when flipping through the digitized issue of the Norfolk Journal and Guide from February 25, 1939. Thompson performed with the “Brown Skin Models,” a Ziegfeld Follies-style music and dance revue that featured African-American dancers. Thompson was a star in the 1930s, but her name and the history of this black burlesque troupe were new to me.

The March 27 post is a New York Amsterdam News article about South Carolina civil rights activist Victoria DeLee’s campaign for Congress. DeLee had been fighting for civil rights for nearly three decades when she launched her campaign. DeLee ran as a member of the United Citizens Party, a group she helped found because black people were excluded from the Democratic party in Dorchester County, South Carolina. DeLee’s campaign flier described her as “Champion of the Underprivileged. Undaunted Crusader for Human Rights.” When DeLee died in 2010, the Washington Post described her as being “little known beyond her state’s borders,” but having “historical significance similar to that of Daisy Bates in Arkansas and Fannie Lou Hamer in Mississippi.”

The June 1 post is from a Cleveland Call and Post report that Dollree Mapp, a twenty-nine year old woman, was arrested for possessing obscene literature (or “naughty books” as the Call and Post headline read). Mapp’s arrest became a landmark case regarding police searches and seizures. One law professor called Mapp “the Rosa Parks of the Fourth Amendment.” Finally, the December 4 post was based on a Philadelphia Tribune advertisement announcing that the Standard-Theater was hosting a return engagement of the Whitman Sisters Company. The Whitman Sisters were the highest paid act on the Negro Vaudeville circuit and toured extensively from the 1910s through 1930s. The troupe featured four sisters, Alberta (“Bert”) who performed in male drag, Mabel, Essie, and Alice, who was one of the best tap dancers of the era.

Women like Juanita Blocker, Blanche Thompson, Victoria DeLee, Dollree Mapp, and the Whitman Sisters are not traditionally featured in Black History month celebrations or history textbooks, but each of these stories contributes to our understanding of the complexities of African-American history and the everyday pleasures and sorrows of black lives. I continue to be surprised by the amazing stories that live in the archives of black newspapers, and this project enables me to share several hundred of these stories with online audiences. Black Quotidian changed how I think about, write about, and teach African-American history, and my hope is that the project will spark the imaginations of other scholars, teachers, and students.

This path outlines my motivations for creating Black Quotidian and the digital project’s methodology and scholarly contribution.  The first section discusses what is at stake in looking at ordinary lives rather than iconic figures in black history.  The second section examines the importance of exploration in doing research with digital archives.  The third and final section considers how the Scalar multimedia web-authoring platform encourages new approaches to scholarly communication.

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