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For Us, By Us On The Low: A Movement For Black Media

As a longtime fan of the Melissa Harris-Perry Show, it didn’t take long to see the show—one of the only spaces on cable news that highlighted issues of concern for progressives and communities of color—was in trouble.

First, the branding was stripped away, replaced with the generic MSNBC logo. The content changed, with Sundays seemingly devoted to more newsy issues. Then the preemptions. First, the cut ins. The blizzard on the east coast. Up to the minute news on the San Bernardino terror attacks even when there was no new news to report. When the presidential primaries were in full swing, the show disappeared entirely. Any and everything.

The writing was on the wall, it wasn’t a matter of if; it was a matter of when.

The “when” seemed to culminate when news broke that Harris-Perry refused to return to her show, after what she described as a battle for editorial control and preemptions. In a sincerely worded letter to her staff that was later published by Jamil Smith on Medium [1], the Wake Forest professor laid out implications far beyond her two hour twice-weekly time slot.

“Here is the reality,” she wrote. “Our show was taken — without comment or discussion or notice — in the midst of an election season. After four years of building an audience, developing a brand, and developing trust with our viewers, we were effectively and utterly silenced. Now, MSNBC would like me to appear for four inconsequential hours to read news that they deem relevant without returning to our team any of the editorial control and authority that makes MHP Show distinctive.”

While fans of the #Nerdland brand are rightfully outraged, the departure of Harris-Perry follows a string of exits for black voices in mainstream media in the twilight of the Obama years. Roland Martin from CNN. Touré on MSNBC. Joy Reid’s short lived show on the same network (though she still appears regularly as a contributor) and now Harris-Perry. The latest episode is especially crushing because #Nerdland introduced America to a diverse cast of thinkers that didn’t find a place on other shows: Dr. Brittney Cooper, Dr. Imani Perry, Linda Sarsour and Dr. Jelani Cobb who recently tweeted, “I’m not surprised by this latest set of events. Perhaps we’ve gone out of style… Criticize Obama as much as you want—I certainly have—but his mere presence meant we had to be part of the conversation.”

While fans of the #Nerdland brand are rightfully outraged, the departure of Harris-Perry follows a string of exits for black voices in mainstream media in the twilight of the Obama years. Roland Martin from CNN. Touré on MSNBC. Joy Reid’s short lived show on the same network (though she still appears regularly as a contributor) and now Harris-Perry.

And part of the conversation we were. The rise of candidate Obama and later President Obama ushered in a slew of black faces and voices in the mainstream. Many served as analysts and de-facto cultural translators. Others, like Harris-Perry, Joy Reid and the Rev. Al Sharpton, received regular shows that often focused on communities of color. As consumers, it was change we could believe in. It was seeing us, looking back at us from our TV screens, newspapers and websites. It was our collective “Mama, I made it!” moment. It was also a time of a radical remaking of mainstream media. A world which saw black stories told by black voices, sponsored by non-black money.

It was, to paraphrase, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., integration into a burning house.

Perhaps we were too swept up in the moment, riding the tide of a faux-post-racial America to ask why the very people so invested in keeping us out in previous years, were now opening the door for us as though we hadn’t been trying to break through all along?

The black faces bursting into the mainstream were on always on borrowed time. And indeed, many of us may have mistaken eight years for ever more. In a 2013 conversation with bell hooks at The New School [2] she laid out the finite nature of her show and her voice on MSNBC: “I show up on TV and say words because, at the moment, I have the cover of a powerful white man,” her boss at MSNBC, she said. “The moment that that powerful white man no longer wants me to sit on TV and say words, I will not be allowed to sit on TV and say words anymore.”

There is much to lament about the departure of Harris-Perry and the inevitable re-whitening of mainstream news. At the same time, this is hardly new. Diversity in newsroom conversations, while important, are so old, they feel like watching a network that shows nothing but syndicated, black and white programming.

Perhaps we were too swept up in the moment, riding the tide of a faux-post-racial America to ask why the very people so invested in keeping us out in previous years, were now opening the door for us as though we hadn’t been trying to break through all along?

It’s time to change the channel.

It’s often said that mass media doesn’t tell us what to think, it tells us what to think about. And they aren’t thinking about black folks. Perhaps it’s time we stop thinking about them.

The beauty of our socially networked world is that we can collectively mourn the loss of things we love and lambast the things we loathe. While the mainstream is deserving of all the criticism it gets for the lack of diversity, technological advances allow us to reimagine a world where we build and support our own institutions. It’s time to dream bigger. And as the black community is seeing more social activism over the last few years than it has in decades, we need media to document the movement.

We don’t need a cosign from a powerful white man to have meaningful black media. But we do need the cosign of a powerful and influential black audience, backing black media with black dollars. Content creators can’t eat off likes, shares and retweets. We have an ecosystem of writers, thinkers, journalists and podcasters already delivering news and analysis of relevance to us. There are platforms that allow us to build sustainable mediums and foster substantive dialogue. Places where we can be informed, laugh, cry and take in the fullness of our humanity without worry that the infamous “they” will pull the plug when conversations stop being polite and start getting real.

Speaking of real, we have to keep it 100 about the importance of our voices in the mainstream while building the next generation of black media outlets. It’s too easy to be angry and reactionary when calling for a full scale exodus of us on the big stage in favor of building our own. Until our publications are telling original stories and actively engaged in newsgathering, the analysis from our media will almost always center on what mainstream media deems newsworthy. We need black faces in the spaces to tell those stories, while being mindful that black media figures still have to maintain some level of acceptance from a dominant society that not only doesn’t look like us, but is hostile to our very existence!

Next year, black media without a black president will be reality. A reality where our mainstream is a little whiter and a lot less open to our stories. While we need to keep fighting against the tide of white washed media, we have to acknowledge the black faces in white spaces for what it is: a consolation prize.

And no substitute for building and supporting our own.


[1] Melissa Harris-Perry’s Email to Her #nerdland Staff
[2] A public dialogue between bell hooks + Melissa Harris-Perry

By AJ Springer

AJ Springer is a writer, communications pro, nerd and nomad. Stomping competition is his hobby and job. You can find him on the Internets discussing current events, combat sports, pop culture and the finer points of pro wrestling. When not doing that, he can be found searching for a new home for his written words.