Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The rise of black journalists during those eight years

Nikole Hannah-Jones, recent recipient of MacArthur Foundation Grant

Scholars of African American literature typically focus their energies on analyzing the works of novelists, poets, and other creative artists. We cite the works of historians and other literary scholars. Those important focal points, however, may have led us to slightly underestimate the rise of an emergent group of black writers over the last several years, and during the eight years of Barack Obama's presidency in particular.

In his book We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates contends that "Barack Obama is directly responsible for the rise of a crop of black writers and journalists who achieved prominence during his two terms." Coates points out that "these writers were talented—but talent is nothing without a field on which to display its gifts. Obama’s presence opened a new field for writers, and what began as curiosity about the man himself eventually expanded into curiosity about the community he had so consciously made his home."

Some of the journalists that Coates likely had in mind include Nikole Hannah-Jones, Jelani Cobb, Trymaine Lee, Yamiche Alcindor, Wesley Morris, Rembert Browne, Wesley Lowery, Jenna Wortham, Jamelle Bouie, and Kelefa Sanneh. Isabel Wilkerson, another black journalist, published her expansive and award-winning book The Warmth Of Other Suns (2010), during this time period as well. Melissa Harris-Perry became most visible during the Obama years, and during that time, the sports journalist Jemele Hill began making a name for herself on ESPN.

Of course, it wasn't simply Obama, as the aforementioned writers produced work preceding that presidency. Still, those years were crucial, even when the subject wasn't Obama. Lee really first established his national visibility as he covered the terrible killing of Trayvon Martin. Several other journalists became more widely known as they covered Mike Brown and police brutality. Lowery, for instance, was part of a team of Washington Post reporters who earned a Pulitzer Prize for creating a database to track police shootings.

Developments in online media no doubt played a role in the accessibility and circulation of works by journalists on Facebook and Twitter. Coates's blogging during the Obama years was vital to the large following that he gained and nurtured prior to his most well-known writings, "The Case for Reparations" and Between the World and Me.

African American literary studies will necessarily continue to maintain its primary focus on the works of novelists, poets, short story writers, and playwrights. However, some consideration of the growing capabilities of black journalists might also be in order.

Black intellectual histories

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