For as long as I can remember, writing has been one of my greatest passions.
As a child, even in elementary school, I would write poems, short stories and even plays which we showcased in different classrooms, thanks to the encouragement of a phenomenal woman who served as the school music teacher and my piano teacher as well, Oneida Lewis.
I worked on the staff of our school newspapers and yearbooks during elementary, junior high and high school. And I loved it. But back in those days, it was all for fun – not as a means of shaping my career.
And while my mother and several aunts, all elementary school teachers, had a profound impact on my academic development and love for reading and writing, it would be a chance meeting with one of America’s greatest Black poets that set me on my path as a journalist.
But at the time, I had no idea how significant that encounter would be.
One Saturday, my mother and I, along with one of her fellow teachers and best friends, Evelyn Crane, and her son, Michael, went to the main library in downtown Detroit to meet and listen to Gwendolyn Brooks – the first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (May 1,1950).
Her poetry often focused on the struggles of ordinary people in the community and was written in words that I could understand. The pictures she painted with her words resonated with my spirit and reminded me of things that I had already experienced, despite being only 10 years old.
Only a handful of Blacks were in the library that day – six in total if you added Brooks and her publisher, Dudley Randall. Brooks encouraged me to pursue my dream of becoming a writer. She told me if she could do it, so could I. And I believed her.
Many years later, I would learn about another trailblazing Black woman named Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a former teacher who began her career in journalism in the early 1880s in Memphis.
By 1892, she had transformed her newspaper, the Memphis Free Speech, into an important voice for Black rights.
Wells faced injury and death in order to address the scourge of lynching that had escalated to unprecedented highs in the U.S. in the later part of the century. White Americans paid little attention to the rise in the lynching of Black men and women. But Wells refused to allow Americans to put their heads in the sand.
She concluded that Blacks should resist with any means possible, including boycotts, publicity through the press – even with guns.
I was already a budding journalist, working in my hometown of Detroit and then in Chicago, when I first learned of the fearlessness that fueled the drive behind Ida B. Wells. Her resilience in the face of incredible odds led me to cast my lot with the Black Press.
As a beat reporter in Chicago for seven years, two women emerged as catalysts in my ongoing development as a journalist: Tracy Baim and Hermene Hartman.
These two women could not have been more different in their personal development, professional and philosophical perspectives and the focus of their publications. But they were both giants to me.
Baim, a white woman, an entrepreneur and a LGBTQ media icon, would be recognized by Forbes as one of the best in delivering the news about the LGBTQ community in Chicago. As the publisher of Windy City Times, which later grew to an even larger entity, she taught me why it was essential to give voice to the concerns of the gay community without the normal filters and prejudices employed by mainstream publications.
My years with Baim opened my eyes and expanded my sensitivities. Before sitting at her feet, I, like so many other Blacks, believed that the LGBTQ community was one kind of people with similar concerns, aspirations and fears. Boy, did I have a lot to learn.
As for Hartman, the publisher of N’DIGO Magapaper, she was a one-woman dynamo who led a weekly magazine which illustrated the successful rise of the Black middle and upper class.
Our stories featured many men and women from the Chicagoland Area.
However, because Chicago served as one of America’s leading cities, many people came to us.
As a senior writer, she put me at the table with some of Black America’s greatest minds and talents: Jim Brown, Cornel West, Dick Gregory, Louis Farrakhan, Harold Washington, Chaka Khan, Richard Smallwood, George Clinton, Angela Davis, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Kathleen Cleaver, Johnnie Cochran and Michael Eric Dyson, just to name a few.
Harman taught me to ask the difficult questions and to remember that while these men and women may have risen to celebrity status, they put their pants or skirts on just like anyone else – one foot at a time.
Other women would invite me into their circles and allow me to sit at their feet as my career continued.
There would be Janis Ware, the publisher of the Atlanta Voice – another powerful publication that was part of the Black Press. My time with the Atlanta Voice would not be long, primarily because I had taken a slight detour from writing to pursue teaching opportunities in journalism. But I learned what old, Black Atlanta was all about.
Even more, I gained a newfound respect for the Black businessowners, politicians, clergy and ordinary people who refused to submit to white supremacy and Jim Crow, no matter what the cost.
History became alive for me while working under Ware in Atlanta.
After moving to Miami, I was given the opportunity to work at one of the oldest Black publications in the U.S., The Miami Times.
Its publisher, Rachel Reeves, was a woman that made you hate and love her at the same time. She pushed me in ways that I never could have imagined. But she taught me so much that I will never be able to forget her.
Many times, we would be in the office until close to midnight, fine-tuning the front page or making late calls to secure interviews that we needed for breaking news stories.
Each word mattered to her and I was forced to find the perfect headline, the perfect hook to a story, the perfect caption for a photograph – the perfect word.
The result would be The Miami Times, one year, was chosen as the No. 1 Black Newspaper in the U.S. But as was her way, I was given little time to rest on my laurels. As she often told me, ‘You’re only as good as your last byline.”
And she had another saying which I took to heart: “Less is more.”
Today, I remain with the Black Press, this time in Washington, D.C. with The Washington Informer.
The publisher, Denise Rolark Barnes, like Reeves, may have encountered fewer hurdles had she been a man. But like Reeves, Rolark Barnes has made a way – often out of no way – and continued to illustrate that excellence should not and cannot be defined or limited to gender.
With over 25 years as a journalist, there have been times when I began to think I knew it all and had experienced it all. Rolark Barnes has showed me that there remains more to see, more to learn, more to understand and even greater challenges to face and to overcome as we bring the news to the Black community, sharing stories that often go overlooked and ignored.
Further, I have remained intrigued by her ability to take the conditions the Informer has faced as a small, Black-owned business and successfully kept the doors open – always remaining true to the mission first established by her father, Dr. Calvin Rolark, who formed the paper almost 60 years ago.
Yes, I know the nuts and bolts of the industry.
But she has allowed me to be creative in ways that no mainstream publication would have permitted. It’s a freedom that cannot be measured in dollars or described in words.
Most important, with Rolark Barnes, and under the tutelage of the previous editor who trained me to take over as she fell victim to cancer, Denise Barnes (yes, the names are similar), I have discovered that Washington, D.C. remains a city that most people do not understand.
I have learned why those born and raised in the District say they are “native Washingtonians” and say it with such pride.
The reports that have been published in most of our nation’s newspapers and magazines often miss the point.
Why? Because their reporters don’t speak with the men, women and children who have experienced life beyond the pristine halls of Congress or who reside in the city’s multi-million dollar homes or who are fortunate enough to have prestigious, six-figure salary positions.
Those reporters have failed to explore why men like Marion Barry, despite his shortcomings, continues to be revered. He, like so many others, loved this city and gave their all to make life better for those who were relegated to the sidelines and forced to live in less-desired portions of the District.
Finally, a chance meeting with another woman, Dorothy Butler Gilliam, deserves mention.
As the first Black woman at The Washington Post, her life has been an amazing adventure. But with six decades of media history under her belt, she has remained one of the most inspiring women I have ever met.
Could I have withstood the hatred, the madness and the countless examples of prejudice that she faced in her career, while always maintaining poise and professionalism? I do not know. I actually kind of doubt it, although I wish I could say otherwise.
She is a phenomenal woman. Gilliam and the other women I have mentioned, have all made a difference in my life and in the shaping of my career as a journalist. They have helped me realize many of my dreams – and I have more living and writing and dreaming to do.
They have mattered in my life in profound ways. They still matter in my life – even those who have since gone on to glory.
And I am sure, that they will matter in the lives of journalists who come after me – in ways that even those writers may never know.