Sunday, August 1, 2021

From Wesley Morris to Wesley Morris; or notes on Black Journalists & Culture Writers, 2012 - 2021

Wesley Morris, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ta-Nehisi Coates

I've been thinking and sometimes saying that we've been witnessing really important developments among black journalists. But it's not something talked about much or even enough in African American literary studies in large part because the field has a history of privileging novels and then to a degree poetry and short stories. 

Still, when it comes to black writers, shouldn't black journalists matter too? Of course, they do, and I'd say that over the last decade and a half, we've gotten a chance to check out really important writers.

In a recent interview with Ezra Klein, I noticed Ta-Nehisi Coates, perhaps the most well-known black writer of our day, noting the subject of black journalists. He was pointing out that for the last decade "a number of African American voices who have been wielding power in the arena of journalism."

He cited Nikole Hannah-Jones's 1619 Project and noted that "Wesley Lowery" was now up to his second Pulitzer. Coates in fact meant Wesley Morris, who won a Pulitzer in 2012 and another one in 2021. (Of course, Lowery has done well too, first at the Washington Post, where he was part of a team that won a Pulitzer, and he is now a correspondent for 60 Minutes and CBS News).

Coates notes that this new shift in journalism was "a reflection of Obama’s election." Maybe. But we can trace important work by Coates and other black journalists since before Obama. I have long thought that publications begin to seek out more black voices with the rise of Condoleezza Rice. I recall all the attention that Robin Givhan's fashion criticism received when she wrote about Rice's Commanding Clothes in 2005. Givhan won a Pulitzer for Criticism in 2006. 

In 2010, journalist Isabel Wilkerson won the National Book Critics Circle Award The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration.

Whatever the case, 2012 is a good year to start with a recent history of the rise of black journalism. That's when  Morris won his first Pulitzer for Criticism. At the time, he was at The Boston Globe, and he was recognized "for his smart, inventive film criticism, distinguished by pinpoint prose and an easy traverse between the art house and the big-screen box office." 

For this recent history of black journalism, 2012 was also a defining moment, for during that year Ta-Nehisi Coates, Trymaine Lee, and Charles Blow all did groundbreaking on Trayvon Martin. Their writing  was widely cited and served as key models for what black journalists would do covering police brutality in subsequent years.  Many people understandably speak of the activist work defined as "Black Lives Matter," after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in 2013, but it's worth noting that the extensive pre-Black Lives Matter coverage and public knowledge we gained on that case began with many black journalists. 

In 2012, Coates published his article "Fear of a Black President" on Obama, which contributed to building the his (Coates's) reputation as a leading commentator on race and culture. That was a preview for his big breakthrough though. In May 2014, he published "The Case for Reparation" and quickly gained more national attention than he ever had. The article's blend of history and cultural topics also significantly reminded readers and publishers how important a talented black writer could be. 

From 2012 - 2015, Nikole Hannah-Jones led the way on this massiave project, "Segregation Now: Investigating America’s racial divide in education, housing and beyond." 

Also in late 2012, journalist Gene Demby began as a blogger for NPR, where he was "focusing on race, ethnicity and culture." By 2013, he was writing for NPR's "Code Switch" blog, and in 2016, he became co-host of the podcast of the same name.   

In May 2014, Dean Baquet was named executive editor of The Times, the first black person to hold the position. 

In August 2014, when Mike Brown was killed, many journalists, including Lowery, Lee, Yamiche Alcindor, Jamelle Bouie, Jelani Cobb, and Nikole Hannah-Jones, to name a few, began making essential contributions to the quickly expanding discourse on Ferguson, police brutality, and activist organizing, which became known as Black Lives Matter. And again, it's worth noting that many of the black journalists who covered Black Lives Matter had already been writing, for decades in some cases, about African American lives. 

The work in this area represented a large, crucial realm, but it was hardly the only area where we saw exmemplary work by black journalists. Let's return again to Morris. His first Pulitzer was for his writing about 2011 movies: The Help, DriveMission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, an experimental drama The Tree of Life, a British romantic drama film Weekend, the slasher film Scream 4, another romantic drama Water for Elephant, He also wrote reflections on the lives of Steve Jobs and Sidney Lumet, both of whom died in 2011. You read those nine pieces, and you get a sense of Morris's expertise and remarkable range as a writer and cultural commentator. 

The Boston Globe was not on my typical reading lists, so I was not fully aware of Morris until he won the Pulitzer. I went checking his previous works. In addition, I noticed him writing for Grantland after 2013, and then started following his writing regularly when he began with The New York Times in 2015. Hannah-Jones began at The Times in 2015 as well. 

Morris has been outstanding at The Times.  During his first year, he wrote about race and gender in pop culture, "America’s Latin Culture in the 1980s," and Mariah Carey. And he was just getting started, a point that was clear as he discussed his interests and what his duties as "critic-at-large" at The Times might include during an interview

It just so happens that 2015 was another really big year for Coates as he published Between the World and Me, and that work made him one of our most prominent black writers. It was his journalism that paved the way for him to gain this tremendous attention

In 2016, Morris teamed up with his Times journalist colleague Jenna Wortham to host the podcast Still Processing. There were additional pathbreaking moves by black journalists, including the launch of the sports and culture site The Undefeated. For that publication, I've been particularly interested in the television criticism by Soraya McDonald, a graduate of Howard University who wrote for The Washington Post before joining The Undefeated. McDonald was a 2020 Pulitzer in Criticism finalists. 

Vinson Cunningham joined The New Yorker in 2016, where he has covered various topics, and since 2019 has written about theater. Hilton Als, who was previously a staff writer at The Village Voice and editor at Vibe, became a staff writer for The New Yorker in 1994. He was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer for Criticism, and won the award in 2017: "For bold and original reviews that strove to put stage dramas within a real-world cultural context, particularly the shifting landscape of gender, sexuality and race."

Today, The New Yorker counts several black culture writers as contributors, including Cobb, Kelefa Sanneh, Doreen St. Félix, Sheldon Pearce, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and Lauren Michele Jackson. 

Rewinding a bit, in 2013, I took note of an intriguing profile on Dave Chappelle by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, a writer who was new to me. Next up, in 2014, Ghansah published an article on Beyoncé "How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You: The BeyHive." In 2015, for The New York Times Magazine, she published "The Radical Vision of Toni Morrison," and then she really amped things up. 

In early 2016, for the Times, she published "Chirlane McCray and the Limits of First-Ladyship." For BuzzFeed that year, she published "The Weight of James Arthur Baldwin," and for The New Republic, she published "The Philosopher and Her Camera" on Ava DuVernay. In 2017, she wrote a feature article on Missy Elliott for Elle, and shifting from her typical black profiles, for GQ magazine, she published a an extended treatment, "A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof." Ghansah's article on Roof was awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing. Cobb's writing for The New Yorker earned him finalist honors for Commentary that year.   

In 2019, the veteran journalist Brent Staples earned a Pulitzer for Editorial Writing: "For editorials written with extraordinary moral clarity that charted the racial fault lines in the United States at a polarizing moment in the nation’s history."

During the 21st century, perhaps no other black journalist-led project gained as much attention as the 1619 Project directed by Nikole Hannah-Jones and produced by The New York Times. The project was awarded a Pulitzer for Commentary in 2020.  

In 2013, a year after Morris won his first Pulitzer, Yamiche Alcindor received the "Emerging Journalist of the Year" award from the National Association of Black Journalists. In 2014, she was working for USA Today while covering Ferguson, and in 2015, she became a political reporter for The Times. In 2018, Alcindor became White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour, and in 2021, she became the Washington Week moderator, a position that had been held from 1999 - 2016 by the legendary black journalist Gwen Ifill. 

So far, I've mentioned only about two dozen or so names of folks who won major awards or who work for major newspapers or magazines. But consider that there are many additional black journalists, covering music, television, sports, and so forth. Over the last few years, I felt film critics like Angelica Jade Bastién, Robert Daniels, and Brooke Obie, to name a few, put out quite a bit of solid work. Then, there's the wide-ranging reporting on culture by Charles Pulliam-Moore. There's Eric Deggans, who since 2013, is "NPR's first full-time TV critic."

All these folks and more have been producing work and gaining recognition, during a moment when journalism is said to be "dying." So despite all this talent, the availablility for positions in the field in general have diminished; newsrooms have cut many people; and indepdent publications have go under.  

There's more on the gloomy parts, but let's close with that good news from 2021. The Pulitzer foundation recognized yet again an extradoinary talent for his "unrelentingly relevant and deeply engaged criticism on the intersection of race and culture in America, written in a singular style, alternately playful and profound." 

In remarks to his colleagues at The New York Times after he won the Pulitzer, Morris celebrated folks like his late mother who made sacrifices so he and his sister could "be singers and see the world." It turns out that no one liked his singing, not even mother. But, as he noted, his mother "did like the sound of my writing. 'I always hear your voice,' she would tell me." 


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