Message to the Grassroots Media Convention
by Mumia Abu-jamal
Brothas, Sistas, Journalists-to-be:
Before we discuss the nation’s, and especially Urban America’s, media, we must define our terms, so that it’s understood what is being said. When I use the term “media”, I’m speaking about urban radio, but also other media of communication; TV, the newspapers, magazines, CDs, and the like. When we look at the portrayal of Black America through the media, it’s impossible to see anything positive, except probably that Black Americans seem to be an awfully happy bunch.
We are dancing, flossin’, shakin’ our heinies, and glorifying pimpin’. We also seem to be quite wealthy, given all of the shiny jewelry we wear. Remember—I speak not of the truth, but of the imagery projected in the U.S. media. And we must know that there are millions of people, perhaps even billions, who consume those media projections, and because they know little else, believe them to be true.
That is the power of the mass media.
It is impossible to look at how the media works in the U.S. and not conclude that it is a tool of white supremacy, and a weapon in the long war against Black life. When we understand that, we have to ask, how did our people survive such psychic onslaughts over our long history here? The short answer is that many of us did not. But the other side of the coin shows us that many Blacks consumed their own media, in the form of Black newspapers, Black radio, Black magazines and Black books. For entertainment, we appeared so rarely on the TV, that for several decades Black movie companies produced ‘race movies’, which were shown all across Black America, showing us as competent, wholesome, and feeling human beings.
The Black filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux put together some remarkable work, and surely these images saved many a Black soul huddled in the dark on some segregated balcony in a movie house in the South. That was then; this is now.
In the years since the apparent victories of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, we have seen the loss of Black institutions of all kinds, not just media, under the aegis of integration.
Black movies, while well beyond the technical skills and costs of Micheaux, are largely comedy ventures, or poorly written “gangsta” flicks.
Black radio stations have been purchased by larger corporations, and many Black newspapers have ceased publishing. More Blacks consume TV, and movies, than any other demographic in the U.S.
Daily TV is a toxic sludge of stereotype, silliness, and a race to the lowest common denominator.
There is a lower percentage of Black journalists working on dailies than 10 years ago.
In the 1960s, Canadian communication researcher, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, “the media is the message.” His work got people thinking about the power of media to shape ideas, and ways of seeing the world. If the media is the message, and white, corporate media has bought out (or overwhelmed) most Black media of information, what is the message that they are reflecting to the world?
So, if that’s the problem, what’s the solution, you ask? As the saying goes, once you know the pitfall is there, hopefully you won’t fall into it.
Don’t think that your mere presence (as a Black journalist) in a predominantly white institution will change them. If possible (and given the fluidity of internet-related businesses) build your own independent business, and if you sell it, sell it to someone who shares your vision.
When you get into the business, whether in radio or newspaper, don’t sell out. Remember—he who owns the business determines the output. Only a corporate-owned media could have suckered millions of Americans into believing that Osama bin Laden and Saddam’s Iraq were homies. The media that sold the lies that led to war, chaos and death, will hardly be changed by the addition of a few Blacks on their staffs.
Think of it this way; decades ago, the media was always influenced by corporate and government interests. Today, the media is owned by larger corporate interests, and that is the interest they serve. You can either serve these interests by getting a job at some soulless radio station, or some dead-end newspaper, or you can start your own.
In short, become the media. Give your people an intelligent, viable alternative to the garbage being spoon-fed to the masses. Tell them the truth. Raise hell. In the tradition of our ancestors, “Speak truth to power.” Make a difference, by being different.
—Copyright 2006 Mumia Abu-Jamal, March 26, 2006