by Reya Mosby
I sat in the newsroom of my high school newspaper surrounded by various members of my staff. In front of me was a copy of our most recently published issue; however, the n word was boldly written in huge letters across our cover. Throughout the paper, these offensive marks continued — racist caricatures, phrases and messages were on nearly every page. Male genitalia was drawn over the faces of young children of color. Advertisements displayed in the paper for Chinese food were surrounded by racist cartoons. The n word was written over each one of my stories.
My anger bubbled just below my shock. To make matters worse, everyone in the room just looked at me with sad eyes — pity. I didn’t need pity. I needed justice.
However, despite reporting the incident, nothing was done. This act of racism and prejudice slipped through the cracks which is now something I’ve come accustomed to. It has always been me and my work against a world that actively tries to prevent my success, but this has always been the case for Black female journalists.
Historically, during the late 19th century, Black journalism in the south began to rapidly spike. Enslaved people had been “freed,” and the United States entered the Jim Crow era which fostered the disenfranchisement of Black people, lynchings, and brutal institutional ways of destroying the Black body.
During this time, white women of the South were seen as precious ornaments for men to show off and subjected to “womanly” chores and duties. However, Black women were seen as beings with low intelligence, harsh abrasiveness, and insatiable sexual desires. They were not put on the pedestal that white women were, so they were not prevented from working. As a result, many Black women pursued activism through journalism.
These women used the Black press circuit to shed light on the harsh and dangerous realities that Black Americans had to face living in the Jim Crow era. However, it was not easy for these women to get their stories out and spread these truths.
Black women struggled to gain a wide audience as well as respect from their readers, so they had to go to extreme lengths to legitimize their work. In 1854, Mary Ann Shadd Cary published her newspaper, The Provincial Freeman, making her the first Black woman to publish a newspaper. She was forced to move to Canada to publish the paper in order to avoid US laws that suppressed Black press and activism. When she was published, she had to use the names of her male collaborators in order to increase the chances of her success. She also wrote under the name M.A. Shadd in order to have a gender-neutral byline as many women of this time did.
Journalism was a dangerous job for Black women during this era. The public’s reaction to the work of Ida B Wells-Barnett, an activist journalist who rose to prominence for her journalistic work on lynchings made her constantly a target for hate fueled threats and scrutiny. She focused on condemning lynchings and defending the rights of Black citizens, so her work was put under fire in a public setting. A white journalist, James Jacks, wrote a scathing editorial as a response to the activism and journalistic work of Wells, calling Black women “prostitutes” as well as “natural thieves and liars.”
It was not easy for Black females to do well as journalists in a society that worked actively to counteract their success. These journalists relied solely on their skill, hard work, passion, and determination to shed light on Black stories. There were no handouts, no big breaks and no nice deeds to help them.
Black female journalists are never given the recognition they deserve. They were pioneers, giving a voice to Black women during a time in which Black women could not advocate for themselves and were not seen, heard or represented.
It wasn’t until the twentieth century, when the US was still largely segregated, that Black women began to break through and report in predominantly white newsrooms. However, these women were subjected to constant poor treatment. For example, in 1961, Dorothy Butler Gilliam made history as the first Black female Washington Post reporter, and her career was full of injustice and unfair treatment. She would have to bite her tongue and resist commenting when editors and coworkers would say insulting or make racist jabs in fear of losing her job and in fear of her behavior preventing the Washington Post from hiring additional Black journalists. She frequently felt isolated from her white colleagues who pretended not to know her in public. Additionally, she could not even go to lunch with them because restaurants were segregated, so she had to walk farther to the closest restaurant for people of color.
Because of these many troubles, she had frequent panic attacks going to work, but she persisted because she was passionate about reporting. More specifically, she yearned to change the narrative of Black stories that white reporters would write. There were mainly negative images of Black stories in the media at this time, and Gilliam hoped to change that. Rather than writing about how Black people were scared and weak, she wrote about how they were brave, hopeful, and resilient.
Black female journalists knew they had to step up and change the narrative of Black stories in the press. Much of the accuracy in these stories can be attributed to Black female journalists.
To this day, Black female journalists still have the same unique struggle — being constantly targeted, underestimated, undervalued, and overworked. Despite all the time that has passed, we still face many of the same issues.
Today, we live in an era in which journalists have been deemed the “enemy of the American people.” Despite harsh public feelings of distrust and anger, the free press remains one of this country’s integral foundations of democracy. Additionally, despite the racial progress that has been made, America is still filled with hate and contempt for Black citizens. There are also still many barriers for women in this country as society still considers them inferior. Needless to say, being Black, female, and a journalist puts a target on one’s back. This is even seen with former president Trump calling CNN White House reporter Abby Phillip’s question “stupid.” He also called April Ryan, a journalist for American Urban Radio, a “loser” who “doesn’t know what the hell she is doing.” Someone as prominent as the president of the United States demeaning Black journalists of color has left a huge imprint on the American people and how they view and treat these women.
Although I am just a student journalist, I have also dealt with this hate and ignorance in and out of the newsroom. Out of the newsroom, emboldened readers full of malice targeted me with hateful sentiments and endless scrutiny, and I couldn’t defend myself because I knew I would be deemed an “angry Black woman,” tarnishing my journalistic credibility and reputation. I waited for people on my staff to come and defend me because I was a valuable part of their newsroom and contributed my heart, my time, my energy and my work to this publication and the betterment of the community, but this never happened. I soon realized I would just have to grin and bear it when presented with this hate.
In the newsroom, I was mistreated, underestimated, and limited. Being the only Black female at times on staff, I was not regarded the same as my colleagues. My credentials and talent matched theirs, but I was always seen as less than. This is where I learned, as a woman of color, I will forever have to be overqualified to be successful.
There is also this constant pressure from so many fronts being a Black female journalist. There is this pressure or need to be the best journalist possible because it is a privilege to be able to have this platform in which my writing can reach and influence so many people. It is a constant battle of proving that I deserve to be where I am. This pressure to be better than perfect also stems from knowing that it is so hard to succeed as a Black female journalist. For every step a white male journalist takes in his career, a Black female has to take 10 extra steps.
There is also this pressure to do your community right as a Black female journalist. Because we are so limited in the journalism industry, there is this pressure to be this overarching voice for disenfranchised groups — the voice of the minority. We must defend minority coverage in the paper, making sure minorities are being covered in a fair and truthful way.
Additionally, it is easy to get pigeonholed as a “race writer” being a Black female reporter. It is easy to get put in this box and be limited. In my time at my old staff, I was put into this position to make the paper seem “woke.” It was as if they only saw my race and my gender when looking at me. They didn’t see a multidimensional human being behind the minority. I love writing about race and gender issues, but as a reporter, I am more than that. At the core of who I am as a journalist, I am a storyteller, and that extends far beyond race and gender.
Although I have had to shoulder many hardships as a journalist, what keeps me going is my resilience, determination, and passion for journalism much like the Black female journalists before me.
It has been hard for me to succeed in the realm of journalism as a Black woman, and I am willing to bet that it always will be. There is always this uphill battle I have to constantly fight to prove myself, more so than others.
A multitude of people have wronged me in my time as a journalist. However, all the people that have targeted me and actively tried to push me down have forced me to be better. I have learned that the best response to these people is my success, and that is what I will continue to do in my journalistic path. Although I am not a professional journalist yet, being a Black female journalist has made me who I am today. It has made me resilient, strong, and powerful just like those before me.