African Americans in the Mass Media

Edited by Jannette L. Dates and William Barlow

Howard University Press. 493 pp. $29.95

Paperback, $14.95

THE HISTORICAL value of Split Image: African Americans in the Mass Media alone is enough to warrant praise and a hearty recommendation. It is the first comprehensive attempt to explore the crucial relationship between African-Americans and the mass media. Issues of race relations -- from the trauma of slavery to the turmoil of the civil rights movement -- have shaped the American character as nothing else has, and since cultural media are so influential on and reflective of America's racial zeitgeist, it is a relationship in great need of exploration. While there have been occasional articles in scholarly journals -- and a smattering of books -- examining various aspects of the treatment of black Americans in this country's mainstream media, nothing has been written with as broad a scope as Split Image. Editors Jannette L. Dates and William Barlow deserve kudos for both conceiving and completing this unprecedented effort.

The book is a compilation of historical essays that survey the treatment of black Americans in the music, film, radio, television, news and advertising industries. The title refers to the difference between the way mainstream media historically has caricatured African Americans, and black image makers' response to those distorted portrayals. The book, in the words of Dates and Barlow, "attempts to use the cultural prism of race in order to assess the development of the American mass media in the twentieth century and, within this historical context, specifically to trace the negative portrayals and restricted participation of African Americans in the mass media, on the one hand, and their responses to such stereotyping and discrimination, on the other." The editors base their theoretical framework on the concepts developed by the Marxist Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci, who "argued that ruling-class alliances in modern societies maintain their power by cultivating a consensus among subordinate classes . . ." and that cultural domination was the most effective way to achieve "ideological hegemony" and forge that consensus.

But in Dates and Barlow's reading of Gramsci, cultural domination automatically provokes resistance among the subordinate social groups, thus ideological hegemony is always an "unstable equilibrium." The point being obliquely made here is that African Americans have long been engaged in an image war to counteract the mainstream media's unrelentingly negative portrayals, from black-face minstrelsy to the grotesque characterizations of D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation," to the blaxploitation film fare of the '70s.

Luckily for readers, the editors confine most of their theoretical musings to the introduction. The bulk of this hefty book is devoted to unearthing nuggets -- for example, the way "race music" boosted the profits of early record labels, such as Columbia and Paramount, or the unlikely success of black composer W.C. Handy in establishing his own publishing company -- that traditionally were devalued and disregarded. Still, Datess and Barlow's thesis forms the organizing principle for the essay collection. And no wonder; in addition to the introduction and conclusion, Barlow and Dates contribute six of the volume's nine chapters. Between them, they cover sections on music, radio, television, print news and advertising. The other contributors are Thomas Cripps on black Americans' historic role in the film industry, Reebee Garofaloon the crossover phenomenon in the music industry and Lee Thorton on broadcast news. The book maintains a tone of relaxed authority; uniformly, the authors' prose is crisp and surprisingly concise, as if the intrinsic value of the material relieved all the book contributors of the tempting urge toward verbal exhibitionism.

And the material is indeed valuable. In his chapter on music, "Cashing in: 1900-1939," Barlow traces the historical interface of black music and the recording industry from the development of the phonograph and the "coon" songs of blackface minstrelsy, to the hey-day of race music records in the late 1920s and early '30s. He chronicles white record company owners' shameless exploitation of talented black performers and he shows how, in a larger sense, mainstream culture profited enormously from expropriating African American musical idioms. But he also notes how many black musicians and performers triumphed in the face of America's cultural imperialism.

Garofalo's section, "Crossing Over: 1939-1989," is invaluable for the wealth of information it contains regarding, what he terms "black roots, white fruits." By this term, Garofalo is describing a pattern that "is built not only on the wellspring of creativity that black artists bring to popular music but also on the systematic exclusion of black personnel from positions of power within the industry and on the artificial separation of black and white audiences." Garofalo's chapter also contains a table listing a number of songs originally recorded by black artists, but which became hits only when "covered" by white artists such as Pat Boone.

Barlow's chapter on "Commercial and Noncommercial Radio" unearths the work of writer Richard Durham, who scripted a groundbreaking radio series on WMAQ in Chicago called Destination Freedom. Durhan's half-hour weekly broadcast featured hard-hitting dramatizations of African American history and ran from 1948 to 1950. The rest of the chapter -- as is the book itself -- is a virtual treasure trove of historical jewels.

If this review seems somewhat celebratory, so be it; the book is worth it. The information it contains makes it indispensable for serious students of American history and media. The theory that frames that information, however, is a bit more problematical. Gramaci's notion of ideological hegemony as an "unstable equilibrium," didn't factor in the unique debilitations bequeathed to black former slaves by a white supremacist culture. Americans of African descent, more than any other ethnic group, have a real identity problem. Unlike Poles, Italians, Japanese and other groups with familial and other explicit connections to their lands of origin, the children of enslaved Africans have no such links. These ancestral sources of identity and cultural continuity were severed by the institution of slavery. Consequently, African-Americans have yet to develop a cultural consensus on which image could best contest the media's caricatured portrayals. The war of images cited by Barlow and Dates doesn't only pit the mainstream media against black de facto image police, it also provokes conflict between different segments of the black community.

But, hey, that's a minor quibble. This collection successfully performs its self-appointed function of "deconstructing" America's cultural media to discern the patterns of ideological (read: white supremacist) presumptions it routinely transmits. By using the critical theories of Marxists like Gramaci and postmodernists like Jacques Lacan to illuminate the Eurocentric biases inherent in this country's mainstream media, the authors of Split Image join other influential African-American critics -- e.g. Henry Louis Gates Jr., Houston A. Baker Jr., Cornell West, Greg Tate -- who have readily adopted the high critical theory of European thinkers to make their Afrocentric points.

Salim Muwakkil, a senior editor of In These Times magazine, writes frequently about the arts and politics.