Last month I covered some of the history of racism in Maine. Specifically, I wrote about how the government and culture of this state have historically been far more effective in reaching the KKK’s goals than the KKK could ever have been themselves. As some of you might guess, a number of readers didn’t really care for that history lesson. Some reactions were condescending, others angry, all hilarious.
The thing about discussing the history of race in America is that when the arguments come, they’re never really about facts. It’s rarely argued that something isn’t true. Instead some white people will tell you that you shouldn’t say it because they don’t like it.
As a Black person, I try to imagine the levels of privilege necessary to not only disappear truths I don’t like, but to also demand others go along with it. Unfortunately, my imagination isn’t that good, but what I can do is get into some more history that will make some folks real uncomfortable.
Let’s talk about the history of journalism in America!
The very first newspaper in what would eventually become these United States of America was called Publick Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestick (POBFD). It was published in Boston on Thursday, September 25, 1690. We had a British governor at the time and he was offended by the publication, so he shut it down after the first issue.
Entrepreneurship, a ruling class, truth told to power, government censorship. So much of The American Story was realized in that one incident over 300 years ago. Something else began that day, too. It was an idea, a belief. A unifying trust. Even though POBFD was short-lived, it established a rule.
That singular moment birthed a realization that will forever be a fundamental part of America’s national identity. From that point on, decisions made by the few affecting the lives of the many could no longer reliably be kept secret. No longer was information – the most powerful of weapons – monopolized by the wealthy. No! In that moment, power began to drain from the elite. Monthly and weekly newspapers began to pop up. James Franklin, Benjamin’s older brother, would soon start the New-England Courant. A few years later, William Bradford would follow in his footsteps, creating the New-York Gazette.
It wouldn’t be long before the country gained independence, largely because of greater access to information – an idea of such value that it would be enshrined in the first amendment to the new country’s founding document. Soon Americans would enjoy such access to information that they came to expect it. If a powerful person was making decisions that affected you and yours, someone was going to tell you about it. Maybe a kid would sell it to you on a street corner. Maybe it would be left on your doorstep before you woke up. Whatever the case, it was your right and someone was going to let you know… Sort of.
We’re forgetting something, aren’t we? It’s about to get uncomfortable. Can you feel it?
That’s right, the first enslaved Africans had been kidnapped to these shores in 1619, nearly 20 years before POBFD was printed. Black people would remain enslaved in this country for another 175 years thereafter, during which time Black literacy was made illegal under penalty of death. And so, while generation after generation of white people grew to take information for granted, Black folks were brutally murdered for just trying to read what white people were saying about each other.
Once abolition arrived, everything changed. In 1865, all American media came together, forging an agreement to not only reflect Black experiences but also include our voices, which had been excluded for nearly two centuries.
Just kidding. Not a damn thing changed.
However, in the 1920s radio became popular and the information previously restricted to print now flowed freely through the air! Hooray! Literacy was no longer a barrier to receiving the news! Of course, you needed to live within reach of the radio signal, on an electrical grid, be able to actually afford a radio and find a white man who’d sell you one. One barrier down, many rise up in its place.
When TV arrived, most of radio’s barriers still applied, but there was something white people didn’t know. From the very beginning we’d been teaching ourselves to read. We made our own newspapers, radio stations and TV channels. While white people spent centuries taking information for granted, Black folks did the opposite. Restricted access meant information was not only dangerous to acquire, but immeasurably valuable because, as you may have heard, knowledge is power.
Now that the Internet has given access and voice to so many, a certain segment of whites dislike the viewpoints they’re exposed to. To them I would say, “Close your eyes, because there’s nothing else you can do about it.”
Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker. He can be reached at email@example.com.