The following article is authored by two of my dearest comrades.
In the quest for What Needs to be Done!
IN SEARCH OF ‘B-SPAN’:
The Promise of Black Media Self-Determination NOW
By Drs. Jared A. Ball and Todd Steven Burroughs
“If the people only knew/ The power of the people”
—From the 1970s song of the same name
“The Negro race has enough power right in our hands to accomplish anything we want to.”
—The late, great Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
“Power, culture and communication are indissolubly linked.”
–– John Downing
Cell phones that record sound and take pictures. CD burners. iPods, audio and video. Digital cameras. Scanners. Mixtapes. Audio recording and posting software. Sites like youtube.com where anyone can post video.
Is this enough for a revolution? Nope, because revolutions overturn systems. But it’s enough for an evolution, or at least a movement toward one—if we choose to evolve.
We have historically spent decades complaining about mass media’s power to set the agenda of our minds, and we should. We must always remember that the term “media” is most often described narrowly and inaccurately by their technologies or methods of conveyance. Media are not merely “television, radio, film, books, internet, etc.” These are the technologies that make media available. Such a definition discourages a proper understanding of media as societal symbols, definitions, norms and ideology all intimately linked to questions of who will hold power and how will that power be maintained. As media are primary shapers of consciousness and, as the late, great Black psychologist Amos Wilson said, “consciousness may be perceived as the fundamental and essential form of power,” the charge with which we are faced is evident.
So we have slowly begun to take command of what’s in front of us.
- Many of our national gatherings, including the National Urban League and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, are webstreamed from beginning to end by broadcastURBAN.com.
- Activists from across the country have created websites that contain large portions of audio, some historical some current (ex: voxunion.com, brothermalcolm.net).
- The Chicago Defender, a historic Black newspaper, has begun “Chicago Defender Inside Black America,” a podcast. Interview subjects have included journalist/author Robin Stone, cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson and Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan.
- We have established at least two national oral history interview projects–the National Visionary Leadership Project, based in Washington, D.C. and The HistoryMakers, based in Chicago.
Obviously, the five corporations that control the vast majority of what Earth knows about itself are not losing sleep over any of this. They still have access to political and economic power, and they have used it well to block any education or inspiration not sanctioned by them. (Our great ancestor, the African world historian John Henrik Clarke, repeatedly wrote and said that Europeans not only colonized the world, they colonized information about the world.) Unfortunately, we, like the other groups of consumers that comprise America, are following the “program.” And the scores of websites that now exist do not compare to the easy accessibility of CDs and DVDs from Hollywood and Bad Boy, or the so-called “free” media of radio conglomerates who pump the worst hiphop on the air 24 hours a day.
And it’s not like we can depend on cable channels and radio conglomerates such as Black Entertainment Television, TV One, the Black Family Channel and Radio One. They want to make money. Period. And with very few exceptions, they would not “waste” money providing information that would get Black people to critically examine their cultural environment. Programming like that won’t get you enough money to buy a mansion, a stable and some horses. Today we are in no greater proportional control over media or Black image and cultural expression than at any other point in our history. Ours is to reclaim a mission begun so many years ago to produce and provide media generated for our community’s benefit. We need to assure the production of news targeted to Black America that is not filtered through a dependency on White-elite-corporate funding. It is precisely this model that has resulted in a vapid substitute where ostensible Blackness is presented as authentic control or concern. A new mass medium (or media) must be cultivated in an insulated manner that allows for Black-centered news to reach the mass of Black America. It is essential and today’s need is no less so than at any other point in our history.
So, with apologies to the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. and the title of his last book, where do we go from here—chaos or community? Only the future knows, and it’s not telling.
But since King was brought up, the past has some bearing. King once said of education what could equally be said today of education and media. “Whatever pathology may exist in Negro families,” King wrote in that last book of his, “is far exceeded by this social pathology in the school system that refuses to accept a responsibility that no one else can bear and then scapegoats Negro families to do the job.”
Or how about this quote, from the same book? “How shall we turn the ghettos into a vast school?” King wrote. “How shall we make every street corner a forum, not a lounging place for trivial gossip and petty gambling, where life is wasted and human experience withers to trivial sensations?”
With the vast majority of Black America concentrated in about 30 metropolitan areas, what is becoming increasingly clear is that with increasingly less and less money, Black people could establish and sustain either an educational channel—or, at least, a forum for downloads, since channels could soon be a thing of the past. Such an institution could, eventually, help to solve some of our informational and spiritual needs. We could clear out our attics and basements and provide the world with raw historical memory not edited for the white, corporate mainstream—“content” that would make the Ancestors content.
The implementation of that idea, though, would require a kind of unity that wouldn’t get a 21st century “race man” or “race woman” a Porsche, a prestigious fellowship or a spot on the lecture circuit. We would need more than leadership summits on C-SPAN every February. We would have to want, and pay for, the same power over our own (perception of) reality as those who formed the broadcast networks and public television wanted—and got, thanks in no small part to white supremacy.
Any attempt at community uplift must consist of community consensus. This requires unfettered communication. We cannot continue to hold “State Of The Black Union”’s that are dependent either on white corporate giants like McDonald’s and Exxon or the graciousness of a C-SPAN that was created by the power players in the lily-white cable industry to protect itself from federal regulation. The 21st century must have an improved, multi-media Black national news service far more substantive than a Black-faced conduit for Disney, a la Radio One and its constant pipelining of ABC Radio Network News on its many stations. National agendas need national news on an ongoing basis. A B-SPAN would be part of that solution.
Jared A. Ball, Ph.D., is a professor of African American and Media Studies at the University of Maryland and Frostburg State University. Ball is the founder of “FreeMix Radio: The Original Mixtape Radio Show.” He is also the managing editor of Words, Beats and Life Journal, the nation’s first academic hip-hop journal. Details on his activist work, including many of his media efforts, can be found at voxunion.com. Todd Steven Burroughs, Ph.D. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a media scholar and historian who lives in Hyattsville, Md. His media criticism column, “Drums In The Global Village,” ran in Black newspapers nationwide from 1992 to 1999.