Pen, Paper and Prose: The Legacy and Future of Black Literary and Scholarly Journals

By Phillip, Mary-Christine | Black Issues in Higher Education, February 9, 1995 | Go to article overview

Pen, Paper and Prose: The Legacy and Future of Black Literary and Scholarly Journals


Phillip, Mary-Christine, Black Issues in Higher Education


Pen, Paper and Prose: The Legacy and Future of Black Literary and. Scholarly Journals

by Mary-Christine Phillip

Words and images on paper, some eloquent, some critical, but all melding into a symphony of voices that tell of Black life and thought through the eyes of writers, social scientists, historians, intellectuals, academics and artists, are the raison d'etre of Black literary journals.

The legacy of Black literary, scholarly and professional journals and magazines is one of triumphs, great and small, in the face of overwhelming odds. It is a legacy that has recorded the aesthetic, ideological and social fabric of the Black experience, where the art of expression is synonymous with the act of liberation. Since these publications do not have the popular appeal of consumer magazines such as Ebony, Essence or Jet, they are not easily found at bookstores or newsstands. They have few, if any, advertisements; their scholarly articles are highly specialized; and their critical essays are often dense.

Yet for almost every academic or professional organization and discipline there is a journal or magazine, however obscure or popular it may be. Several contemporary Black journals and magazines have recent provenance -- they came into existence in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And not only are they attached to universities, but their appeal is primarily to an academic and scholarly readership. This should not be surprising, since most of the writers and contributors are professional scholars.

In the academy, the "publish or perish" pressure on scholars is great, and much of what scholars have to say is invested in the pages of these publications. But it is the literary journals which grab most of the attention, partly because they address topics that have mass appeal, and partly because some are visually attractive.

Nevertheless, as Mae Henderson, associate professor of English and African American literature at the University of Illinois at Chicago, explains, "Many, if not most, Black magazines, especially those edited by writers themselves, have been short-lived. Magazines such as Fire, Harlem, Challenge and New Challenge, The Negro Quarterly, Liberator, The Harlem Quarterly, Yardbird, Umbra, and others -- from the '20s to the present -- have failed to survive. That failure," she says, was "by and large because they were undercapitalized, had no real distribution network and lacked the broad audience appeal of more popular and mainstream journals and magazines."

A Journal of Her Own

To underscore Henderson's observation, in a few months the only journal that gives Black women scholars an independent voice will cease to exist. SAGE, one of the older, more established, scholarly journals on Black women, affiliated with the historically Black women's college Spelman, will cease publication in Fall 1995 so that its editors can "chart new directions" that include new publishing projects.

The passing on of SAGE means that Black women will no longer have under their control a creative outlet for their literary and cultural expression. Still, SAGE's co-editor Beverly Guy-Sheftall announced in a news release that the editorial directors of the journal remain committed to a national dialogue which frames and advances the discourse on Black women's studies.

In a recent interview, she said: "There are lots of magazines for women. I suppose the assumption is that there are lots of Black journals and lots of women's journals, so there won't necessarily be a need for a specifically focused journal on Black women.

"The situation now, with respect to the ability of Black feminist scholars to be published in mainstream feminist journals, is quite good. There is a demand and interest in issues having to do with women of color. The situation is not like it was 15 years ago," said Guy-Sheftall.

Henderson agrees, but is mindful of the fact that "as Black women writers and critics, we write for and publish in feminist, African Americanist and mainstream journals, and we should continue to do so. …

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