Years ago, when Gary Puckrein was lecturing at Rutgers on the 1920s Harlem Renaissance--a time of rich creativity for black intellectuals--he told students the movement suffered from isolation. Although black writers and artists were published in several small journals of the black intelligentsia, they lacked access to magazines reaching a broad national audience.
Puckrein thinks the same is true today.
"There isn't really a place," he said, "where intellectuals interested in Third World life and Afro-American life can exchange ideas and get them out to people . . . "
Recently, on a fellowship at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History, the 33-year-old history professor was expounding on this theme at lunch with museum director Roger Kennedy. "What would you really like to do?" Kennedy asked.
"I'd really like to do a magazine," said Puckrein.
One thing led to another and Puckrein received a $17,000 Smithsonian grant, plus a salary supplement and a year off from Rutgers, to explore ways to start what he envisions as a glossy "Afro-American version of the Smithsonian magazine" with opinion, critical surveys, book reviews and letters to the editor: "Almost like Commentary, but full color . . . pop-scholarly" in tone.
Puckrein wants his magazine to be mass circulation, and to appeal to middle class whites as well as blacks. While reporting relevant to Afro-American life will form the centerpiece of the magazine, he said, "We're not going to be limited to that. We want to do American life, community life, plus an international focus."
He hopes the magazine will appear six times a year and will "expose America to black art and black literature." The key target will be the black middle class, which Puckrein estimates to include 10 million of the country's 27 million blacks. The tentative title is Visions.
According to a prospectus, authors and subjects could include "David Driskell and Sharon Patton on black art; Andrew Young, Donald McHenry and Cyrus Vance on the future of African and U.S. relations; Michael Harper and Amiri Baraka on black poetry; Leon Higginbotham and Barbara Jordan on blacks and the American legal system; John Hope Franklin, Nathan Huggins and John Blassingame on slavery and its aftermath; and Thomas Sowell, Jesse Jackson and Walter Fauntroy on blacks in the American economy."
Puckrein plans to group related articles to give readers "several different aspects of the same general subjects," such as "The Presidential Candidates Comment on Black Unemployment; College Presidents on Black Athletes; Physicians on Afro-American Health Problems; Black Photographers."
Puckrein sees Visions as more scholarly than Ebony (with 1.2 million circulation) or Essence (700,000), less specialized than Black Enterprise (300,000) and more popularly appealing than small-circulation journals like The Black Scholar, Black Art and Journal of Negro History.
Puckrein is trying to develop a broad backing for the magazine. Kennedy calls him "a very distinguished, energetic, responsible scholar . . . I've talked about it with other people here and we will encourage him in every way we can."
Brown University President Howard R. Swearer, a member of the magazine's tentative board of directors, said the project looks "very interesting, but I'm not a journalist and I don't know if there's a market for it."
According to Leonard Bethel, chairman of the department of Africana studies at Rutgers, there is, if not a market, certainly a deep need among black academics, writers and artists for such an outlet.
"I think the media is still closed to us," Bethel said. "I think it's one of the great American tragedies. When people have ideas, they want to express them, and if they're closed out of established media then they go in their own direction."
Gerald N. Grob, chairman of the Rutgers history department, said that when the magazine is launched, Rutgers will provide office space and other help, serving as the magazine's base of operations.
While Puckrein wants the magazine to carry advertising, he is seeking several hundred thousand dollars in foundation funding. He said he is being aided in the search by an official of the National Museum of American History.
"If we don't get the support that will give us a first class magazine, then we're not going to do it," said Puckrein. "This magazine will be viewed as representative of Afro-American life. We have to be the best we can be."
Puckrein, who recently attained tenure at Rutgers and the rank of associate professor, is the author of "Little England," a study of 17th-century Barbados, scheduled for publication later this year by New York University Press. As a Smithsonian fellow, he studied the history of medicine for a year. His work on the magazine will be his second year on a Smithsonian fellowship.