Foundations in Africana Studies: Revisiting Negro Digest/Black World, 1961-1976

Article excerpt

In 1971, when the formalization of African-American studies as a field of study in the mainstream academy was in its embryonic stages, social critic Harold Cruse (1971) observed a crucial rift in the historical knowledge of the 1960s generation of African-American scholars. This rift was characterized by a failed comprehension of pre-1930s, pre-World War II urban processes, which could have contributed to a more informed appraisal of the Black urban condition by Black scholars, as they found it. This epistemological break further retarded methodological and interpretive developments in the incipient field of African-American studies. These Black scholars, he observed, were hindered by, among other things, a White radical and liberal consensus--which generally dominated so-called "progressive" historiography and social science research--that, for the most part, shaped and limited production and interpretation of knowledge regarding African-American life. In short, Black intellectuals, as has been the case historically, were not free to cultivate and sustain continuity in Black intellectual traditions and, more importantly, to engage in independent liberation-oriented theory construction (see Cruse, 1967; Semmes, 1992).

In the current era, Black scholars who, by default or by conscious choice, find themselves in the field of African-American studies are directed away from serious study of the discourse and theorizing surrounding the Black Arts and Black Consciousness movement of the 1960s and 1970s. This represents a similar kind of knowledge break symptomatic of the experience of the 1960s group of Black intellectuals. Elite doctoral institutions, through their intrinsic reward systems, tend to deselect or quiet Black scholars who examine the Black experience from the standpoint of reconstructing Black culture and institutions, empowering Black communities, stimulating Black solidarity, and dismantling normative and extremist forms of White supremacy. The 1960s and 1970s Black Arts and Black Consciousness movements embraced these issues. I would argue that today, as in the past, we find a culture of Eurocentric radical, liberal, conservative, structuralist, and post modern inventions that serve to delegitimize and repress intellectual activity that is geared toward advancing the group status of African Americans (see Cruse, 1969).

Thus, to reestablish continuity in our understanding of Black intellectual traditions and to invigorate liberation-oriented theory construction in the field of African-American studies, serious and exhaustive study of the Black Arts and Black Consciousness movement of the 1960s and 1970s is necessary. Such study must extend beyond attention to a few prominent personalities or organizations. One way for scholars to proceed is to systematically and meticulously reexamine the most comprehensive voice of the Black Arts and Black Consciousness movement, Negro Digest/Black World.

Negro Digest was the inaugural publication of John H. Johnson, publisher of Ebony, Jet, EM, and other magazines. Through this venture, Johnson became the most successful African-American businessman in America. Using his mother's new furniture as collateral, Johnson obtained a $500 loan and launched Negro Digest in 1942 as a monthly publication. He modeled his publication after Reader's Digest and reprinted articles by and about African Americans from scholarly publications and from the White and Black press. However, Negro Digest generally contained reproductions of entire articles and not digests. It also developed several original features (Johnson and Bennett, 1989).

Negro Digest developed sales of 150,000 copies a month and proved to be very profitable. However, in 1945 Johnson launched Ebony, a picture-focused periodical similar to Look and Life magazines. Ebony quickly surpassed Negro Digest in circulation but was costly and could not support itself without advertising. After Ebony acquired advertisers, it became a powerful marketing conduit to a growing African-American consumer market because of its broader base of readers and the flagship magazine of Johnson Publications. …