“What we investigate is linked to who we are”

The Re-education of Me Table of Contents

  1. What we investigate is linked to who we are
  2. The Me nobody knew then
  3. Mrs. Jefferson’s “Sympathetic Touch” meets Mrs. Masterman’s Philanthropy
  4. Discovering Masterman, discovering myself
  5. The electronic music lab at Masterman School
  6. The Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers and the quest for computing diversity

Phliadelphia: 1963-67

Literary scholars of the Freudian sort sometimes speak of the fantasmatic, a kind of archetypal drama etched into a writer’s subconscious, rooted in childhood experience, that finds expression in the structural elements of that writer’s work. In her groundbreaking 1998 tome, Psychoanalysis and Black Novels, Claudia Tate (pictured below, left) used to concept to explain WEB DuBois’ penchant for eroticizing the quest for freedom in his creative writing. I recall a conversation with Tate not long after the book was published in which we speculated that writers would probably do well not to dig too deeply into the oedipal roots of their creations.

Nevertheless, this work would be incomplete without some exploration of the ways in which personal experience and social location helped shape my way of doing journalism and thinking about journalism education. Research related to the effort to enlarge and diversify the computing pipeline discloses that young people’s career choices are heavily influenced by parents, teachers and guidance counselors. (References) In plumbing my childhood experiences, I see evidence how I began to think of myself as a writer, and the values I began to internalize that would shape the kind of writer I ultimately became.

Investigative journalist Florence George Graves alluded to the impact of the personal on the professional in her May 2003 Columbia Journalism Review essay, “The Connection: What We Investigate Is Linked to Who We Are.”(.pdf) Graves speculates that her penchant for uncovering secrets was probably affected by the coded rituals of segregated life in the Waco Texas of her childhood,

“I couldn’t stop wondering about certain aspects of life in Texas. Why were there separate drinking fountains for “whites” and “coloreds” in public places? Why did my close friend’s parents treat her decision to marry a Catholic as if there had been a death in the family? Why weren’t Jews allowed to join the country club? Why should girls bother to excel in school if they were not entitled to use their knowledge in the world beyond the home?”

I was born in 1957 – the year of revolution in Ghana, federally-enforced integration in Little Rock, and the first human foray into outer space – accomplished by a Soviet regime considered the West’s chief global adversary. It was, in other words, a time when old orders were under siege, new power equations were being drawn and no one seemed sure whether the future held hope or annihilation. My childhood was lived in the space between the restrictive past and future possibility. On one occasion, my parents and I stood in one long line at an armory to receive a vaccine-laced sugar cube that promised protection against polio. On another, we stood in another long line to see the desk and other effects that had belonged to Pres. John F. Kennedy, who had been murdered in a Dallas street while I sat in my first-grade class and made a paper turkey to decorate our Thanksgiving table.

Unlike Graves, the adults around me openly discussed the reasons behind the inequalities that she observed in silence. The questions revolved around how those inequalities might be eliminated – or at the very least, how their destructive impact might be minimized. Racial justice and the quest for enlightened governance had been matters of vital concern in Philadelphia since the 18th century, when the Quakers debated the morality of slavery, and black freemen Richard Allen and Absalom Jones protested segregation within the Philadelphia Methodist conference by founding the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

From a sociologist’s perspective, I suppose my family’s prospects seemed fairly fixed in 1957.  My paternal grandparents had been part of the Great Migration of African Americans from the Jim Crow south to the de facto segregated north. Their parents had been slaves. The men in my family mostly worked with their hands, mostly in construction. My father had done that kind of work as well, although by the time I started school, he had landed at the Post Office, and there he saw other black men who were going to college. With the help of his veteran’s benefits, he enrolled first in trade school, and then Temple University, fitting his classes around his swing shifts at work.

We weren’t the kind of people whose lives and concerns took up much space in the daily newspaper. The scholar VP Franklin (pictured, left) notes WEB Du Bois’ pointed critique of American journalism as he experienced it in the 19th and 20th centuries:

“The American press in the past almost entirely ignored Negroes. Very little of what Negroes wanted to know about themselves, their group action, and their relationship to public occurrences to their interests was treated by the press. Then came the time when the American press so far as the Negro was concerned was interested in the Negro as minstrel, a joke, a subject of caricature. He became, in time, an awful example of democracy gone wrong, of crimes and various monstrous acts.” (Franklin)

Philadelphia, where I spent most of my childhood, was no exception to this general rule. In her 2008 doctoral dissertation, communications historian Nicole Maurantonio supplied the scholarly support for the sense of invisibility and alienation that I and so many others experienced as we searched for some reflection of our reality in the Philadelphia newspapers. Maurantonio argues that in the years between the end of World War II and the fatal 1985 attack on the headquarters of the radical group MOVE:

“[N]ews organizations were not merely impartial storytellers providing a language with which to narrate crises. Journalists inscribed a rhetoric of racial marginalization that shaped discourses surrounding race and ‘radicalism’ within the city.”

It was of course, the black press who tried to cater to the needs of African Americans in those years. From the time of its founding in the early 19th century, the black press had, as scholar Matthew Holden puts it, “facilitated the umbrella issues of freedom, racial uplift and the emancipation of the slaves.” My family, and most my peers regularly read the Philadelphia Tribune (which billed itself as  “The Constructive Newspaper” in those days) and Ebony magazine alongside the Philadelphia Bulletin. Many of us listened to black radio stations, where DJs such as Georgie Woods (“The Guy With the Goods”) would become indispensable allies of the Civil Rights Movement.

Maurantonio recounts how the Tribune tried to counter this dominant “rhetoric of marginalization”  by calling for police restraint during such moments of crisis as the Columbia Avenue riot of 1964 – a series of violent clashes set off by false rumors that the police had killed a pregnant black woman.  Maurantonio discusses the ways in which the Tribune and the other local newspapers framed their coverage  in the following video segment (from 9:12 to 15:03):

My teachers created what I now recognize as a hidden curriculum designed to reinforce our belief in our own humanity in the face of segregationist school district policies and a a culture that, as Du Bois had explained decades before, constructed us as a problem. Between school, the neighborhood library where I discovered Carter G. Woodson’s magical Encyclopedia of Negro history, the devotion to learning that my parents modeled, I came to understand education as a pre-requisite for personal and racial advancement.

When my parents and teachers noted my curiosity about certain aspects of science and writing, they shepherded me into Saturday morning writing workshops and science classes. My stepmother folded lined paper into little booklets that I filled with short stories.

When I was 8, I appeared as a panelist on a children’s version of the popular College Bowl television quiz show. The show ran on WHYY, our local public television station, and was hosted by Philadelphia’s answer to Mr. Wizard, Bess Boggs. (At least that’s her name as i remember it; having failed to find a record of the show during my research, I’ve posted a Facebook query to fact-check my memory.)  My parents dressed me in my Easter outfit for that year (a powder-blue tailleur with a faux-fur collar, don’t you know) and put my hair in a bob instead of the usual school-day pigtails. They cleared their work schedules to accompany me to the studio (no small feat, especially since my father worked swing shifts full time and went to school full time).

It will tell you something of who I was in those days to know that when Bess Boggs entered the studio, I jumped up and down and started tugging on my parents as if the Beatles and the entire Motown Revue had just strolled by. (Or maybe more – two years later, on a summer camp field trip, I was quite calm when we ran into Marvin Gaye in the Philadelphia International airport. It did please me mightily, of course, when he held my hand and planted a kiss on my cheek.) In any event, my admiration for Bess Boggs was in keeping with the fact that one of my other hobbies in those days was keeping journals on the Gemini space flights.

I don’t remember the show much, other than the fact that I was Kearny’s only representative. Kearny was not known for its academic prowess. The neighborhood it served included the Sunday Breakfast Mission, then at 6th and Vine. The tow-headed brother and sister in my class,  the only white children in the school, if memory serves, were the missionaries’ children. They had transferred in from somewhere, and I don’t think they stayed long.

Kearny was old school. We lined up on the concrete playground by class in the morning and stood at attention in the stairwells once we were marched inside. Two or our more imposing teachers, Mrs. Jenkins and Mrs. McCoy, patrolled our ranks to ensure that we kept our mouths closed and our hands to ourselves while we awaited the class bell. Any transgression would require that you step out of line to have them smack you with a ruler. The school day began with a salute to the flag, the pledge of allegiance, and a moment of silent meditation. (We were told that the silent meditation was a substitute for the prayer that had been required until the Supreme Court banned the practice.)

My teachers exhorted us to be a credit to our race. A local historian, Ed Robinson, spoke at one of our assemblies about the glories of our African past. They were also steeped in art and culture – the crossing guard taught piano, and one of the teachers sang opera. One of the few white teachers taught us about Woody Guthrie and Huddie Ledbetter. They got us some instruments to start a small string ensemble, and had us learn two pieces for my one and only instrumental recital: an aria from Verdi’s “Aida” and “Go Down Moses.”

In Mrs. Moore’s class in second and third grade, I sat next to a handsome, sharply-dressed, husky-voiced and mischievous boy named William Cook. His brother, Wesley, who was three years older, was a fixture at the Friends’ Neighborhood Guild, whose library was one of my favorite haunts. My clearest memory of Wesley, whose neighborhood nickname was “Scout,” was of him sitting at a table at the Guild, telling another older boy, “Listen Up! Eli Whitney didn’t invent the cotton gin!” If I was 8 or 9, then, he was 11 or 12.

Two years after that, in November, 1967, after Wesley went to Stoddard-Fleischer Junior High School, we heard about the police cutting loose on a throng of high school and junior high school students who had gone down to school district administration building to petition for black history classes in the curriculum. We heard that Frank Rizzo, the inspector to whom mild-mannered George Fencl’s civil disobedience reported, had reportedly unleashed his men on the peaceful crowd with the command to, “Get their black asses!”   (The year before, Time magazine had cited Fencl’s unit as an innovative way of managing protests with minimal conflict.) In later life, after he changed his name to Mumia Abu Jamal, embarked on a career as a journalist and activist, and ultimately landed on death row.

By the way, the city’s new superintendent of schools, Mark Shedd, earned the enmity of Fencl’s supervisor, Frank Rizzo, when he criticized the aggressiveness of police response to the demonstration, leading to Shedd’s ouster when Rizzo became mayor in 1971. In a subsequent section of this work, I will treat Shedd’s legacy in more detail, but for now, I merely want to note the controversy over the police action.

All of that would be later. Suffice it to say that by 1967, I had internalized my parents’ and teachers’ messages about the power of the pen, the fun and necessity of learning, and the certainty that Lord have mercy, we were moving on up!


  1. 1. Franklin, VP. “W.E.B. Du Bois as Journalist,” Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 56, No. 2 (1987). P. 240-244
  2. Philadelphia Tribune page one flag, Sept. 1, 1964
  3. For example, see: Cohoon, J. M. and W. Aspray, (eds.) Women and Information Technology: Research on Underrepresentation, The MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2006; Barker, L. J., E. Snow, K. Garvin-Doxas, T. Weston, Recruiting Middle School Girls into IT: Data on Girls’ Perceptions and Experiences from a Mixed-Demographic Group, in Women and Information Technology: Research on Under-representation, Cohoon & Aspray, The MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2006. pp113-136;
  4. References on the black press during this periodFor an on overview of the black press generally, see the PBS website for Stanley Nelson’s documentary: The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords. Pamela Newkirk’s Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media (NYU Press, 2000) offers a comprehensive and concise overview of the process of integrating white newsrooms and its impact on the black press.

Of The Meaning of Progress: Today’s Black Journalists Within the Veil

Author’s note: This part of my unpublished 2002 essay, “Not the Subject but the Premise: Postcards from the Edge of Du Bois’ Black Belt,”  is reproduced here for comment and as fodder in the body of work upon which I am drawing for my sabbatical project. I consider it to be a failed work with some useful nuggets.

There were few institutions that escaped Du Bois’s critique, and the media was no exception. As editor of The Crisis, “[H]e challenged African-American newspapers to report on more serious social matters than weddings and murders,” David Levering Lewis recalled. (Biography, p. 416) Near the end of his life, Du Bois delivered his own considered judgment on the function and impact of mass media under monopoly capitalism. In a 1953 article in the Monthly Review, he declared,

“The organized effort of American industry to usurp government surpasses anything in modern history. From the use of psychology to spread the truth has come the use of organized gathering of news to guide public opinion and then deliberately to mislead it by scientific advertising and propaganda. This has led in our day to suppression of truth, omission of facts, misinterpretation of news, and deliberate falsehood on a wide scale. Mass capitalistic control of books and periodicals, news gathering and distribution, radio, cinema, and television has made the throttling of democracy possible and the distortion of education and failure of justice widespread.” (Lewis, Reader)

Just as the journalism of Du Bois’ era reflected the technological, political and cultural impact of the emergence of monopoly capitalism, contemporary journalists are struggling with the impact of the information-driven post-industrial economy. Black journalists are struggling not only to hold their own in an uncertain industry, but with their own sense of personal and professional mission.

“The media have an agenda,” says Natalie Byfield, former reporter for the New York Daily News, “and the agenda is to put across the message that the system works – whether it does or not.” (Byfield) Depending upon their experience and their underlying belief system, their conclusions about what’s not working may vary, but the disillusionment does not. As former Washington Post staffer and New York University professor Pamela Newkirk explained, “While black journalists occasionally succeed in conveying the richness and complexity of black life, they are often left…restricted by the narrow scope of the media, which tends primarily to exploit those fragments of African American life that have meaning for, and resonate with, whites.” (Newkirk, 5) Interestingly, Newkirk’s borrowed Du Bois’ metaphor for her book about black journalists’ experience in mainstream news, Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media.

Today, the number of minority students who seek journalism training is still relatively small. The number of journalism students of color who seek or stay in journalism careers is paltry. In the last decade, multiple studies and memoirs by black journalists and their professional organizations report that black newsroom staffers frequently find their expertise discounted, their news judgment questioned, and their work unfairly evaluated. (NABJ, Newkirk, Nelson) And while a flagging economy and corporate restructuring has hurt reporters of all races, the decline in the number of black journalists has been particularly steep.   (NABJ Journal, April 2002, pgs. 7-8)

Today, as the world’s dominant military and cultural power, America is loved and loathed, treasured and terrorized. The news industry is being simultaneously squeezed by corporate mergers and consolidations, and fragmented by social dislocation and the uneven proliferation of new technologies that make it possible for the economic elites of say, Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire to have an instant news and communications with Anaheim, California.

On the other hand, many working and middle-class Americans are less likely to read any newspaper at all, and millions rely on alternative news sources, such as late-night comedians and talk-show hosts, and news outlets with an explicit religious or ideological bent. Where the newspaper industry was expanding 100 years ago, both circulation figures and network news ratings have been sliding for years now. (New York Times Magazine) The industry’s response to these pressures has been bad for newsroom diversity.

As [Tom] Rosensteil, co-author of the book, The Elements of Journalism and executive director of the Washington DC-based Project for Excellence in Journalism told the NABJ Journal. (Davis, p, eight) “You need to have African Americans bringing different perspectives to the newsroom. The basic problem at the moment is that the newspaper industry does not seem to be interested in building circulation, but instead interested in building profit….”

Building circulation and building profit once were synonymous, but that’s no longer true. That’s partially because conglomerates now own many news organizations whose primary business is something else — and the earnings expectations are driven by the parent industry. So, Viacom, which owns the once-revered CBS News operation, expects its news operation to keep production costs down and ad revenue up. That mindset means such staples as investigative reporting and foreign reporting become luxury items. Reporting on poor neighborhoods and urban issues has been given short shrift as publishers chase advertiser-attractive suburban consumers.

In 2001, the highest-ranking African American in the newspaper industry, San Jose Mercury News publisher Jay Harris resigned to protest the industry’s devaluation of that larger social mission. Other respected veterans followed Harris’ lead. Sylvester Monroe, an assistant managing editor at the Mercury News, left the company in August, 2001 — ending 18 years as a staffer for nationally-recognized newspapers and magazines. Monroe told the NABJ Journal,  “My decision to leave was not just about possible layoffs. It was about what the unrealistic profit targets set by Knight Ridder [owners of the Mercury-News and several other major metropolitian papers] was doing to the character and culture of the newsroom. I went from hiring 16 people to identifying people for potential layoff in less than one year.” Monroe is now writing a book about the personal price that he and other black members of his Harvard undergraduate class as a foot soldier for Ivy League integration.

(Dawkins, p.11)

Journalists generally, and minority journalists in particular, are trying to understand what it means to function in a post-modern cultural environment in which truth claims, personal identity and community structures are contingent and contested. I bring this up in contrast to Du Bois’ contention that African American identity is shaped by opposing forces of racism and resilience that, depending upon white America’s response, would to either renew or destroy the nation.

Du Bois’ biological and intellectual hybridity make him the embodiment of his argument about the centrality and value of African Americans in the American project. It is reasonable to infer that he would feel African American journalists are equipped to make an essential contribution to the achievement of the Hegelian self-consciousness that he felt that the achievement of a society’s democratic potential required. However, the increasing corporatization of news that Du Bois perceived decades ago, along with the emergence of postmodern culture, complicates the realization of Du Bois’ ideals.

One measure of the distance between the nascent modernism of the era in which Souls was written and our own time is consider, momentarily, how difficult it would be to infer how someone with Du Bois’ ancestry, upbringing and education would define himself today. Would he, as Du Bois did, see himself as fundamentally African and American? Would he be part of the ‘multiracial movement” that succeeded in forcing the US government to change its categories in the 2000 US census? Given his careful delineation of the African American class structure, would he necessarily see a connection between his own destiny and the future of the one-third of African Americans who, according to the most recent government figures, remain below the poverty line?

It would be madness to presume to know the answers, but the point here is that African Americans’ responses to these questions, and the larger society’s response to African Americans — are more complex now than it was 100 years ago. Even if a modern-day Du Bois did perceive racial inequality as an important issue that affected him personally, one cannot logically infer that he would assume that he bore some mantle of racial loyalty or responsibility as a result. He might find himself in agreement with African American Harvard University Law professor Randall Kennedy who contended in a 1997 article for the Atlantic Monthly that, “The fact that race matters, however, does not mean that the salience and consequences of racial distinctions are good or that race must continue to matter in the future. Nor does the brute sociological fact that race matters dictate what one’s response to that fact should be.” (Kennedy)

Kennedy, a Princeton, Yale and Oxford graduate whose siblings are also Ivy-League educated legal professionals, argued that it is unjust and unwise for African Americans to claim kinship, pride or responsibility on the basis of race. African Americans should strive, Kennedy said, for the abolition of racial distinctions. Privileged blacks bear no special responsibility for the advancement of social justice; that responsibility belongs to all Americans.

Finally, Du Bois and his peers were acutely aware that whether they wanted it or not, their views and actions would affect racial policy and politics. Frederick Douglass called for the abolition of racial categories, but he knew that his pronouncement would be viewed as a black leaders’ statement about the aspirations of black people. The generation of leaders that followed him at the turn of the century held conferences to debate the future of the race; these evolved into political, fraternal and civic organizations that became the infrastructure of the black bourgeoisie. Since integration, the tight web of black colleges, greek-letter organizations, secret societies and church networks has become more diffuse, and the charge to” be a credit to the race” is not as consistently heard. Today, while one can speak of blacks in leadership positions in the news industry and elsewhere, it is more difficult to predict what, if any, racial responsibilities they think they have.

To be sure, black journalists and their allies have made prodigious efforts to improve the depth and sophistication of news coverage of African Americans and others who have historically been underrepresented or misrepresented in the news, and there are notable achievements, such as Bryant Gumbel’s successful effort to broadcast NBC’s “Today” show from Africa for one week. What’s more, the presence of blacks and other journalists of color in mainstream newsrooms has sometimes resulted in ground-breaking efforts to confront racial issues — most notably, The New York Times’ series, “How Race is Lived in America.” However, for every success, there are tales of frustration over what continues to look like a failure to assign equal value to the lives of people of color.

As I write this, for example, daily headlines for the last three weeks have covered the disappearance of affluent Utah teenager Elizabeth Smart. According to noted Black Studies scholar Lenworth Gunther, more than 800 stories have run on Smart. At the same time, Alexis Patterson, an black girl who disappeared three weeks before Smart, has been featured in fewer than 100 stories. (Gunther) These and other examples demonstrate that much work remains if the stated goal of serving democracy by covering all communities fairly is to be realized.