“Outsiders” have often dictated the trends of African American Culture, sometimes doing the job themselves, sometimes using what authors John A. Williams called “surrogates.” Both W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington accused each other of being manipulated by outsiders.
With the introduction of cyberspace, younger writers have the ability to reach audiences unheard of during the sixties when African American writers produced broadsides and saddle-stitched chapbooks. As access to cyberspace becomes less expensive, more voices will be heard and this period, the most prolific in the history of African American Literature, will rise to worldwide prominence, no longer having to obey the tastes of the outsiders in power or the dictates of the establishment-manufactured Talented Tenth.
—Ishmael Reed (Black Issues Book Review; November-December 1999)
During the period Ishmael Reed wrote this I would have agreed with him. A year earlier, I’d started AALBC.com with just that belief in mind. But I was naive, and today I strongly disagree with the statement. I wonder if Ishmael disagrees with it now too. I will reach out to him, and see if he is willing to share his thoughts here. He is active on Facebook so…
“Cyberspace,” or the World Wide Web, as it is more commonly known today, has actually made it easier for “Outsiders” to dictate the trends of African American Culture. Nothing has changed indeed it has gotten much worse for us.
Market forces drive us to conform to the dictates of the “Outsiders” referred to by Reed. The most popular “Black” websites are not owned by Black people. The ones that are owned by Black folks take their marching orders from the white owned sites they minick, in an attempt to attract visitors. Anyone who has been online for 5 minutes knows about the-celebrity-scandal-click-bait content that drives our most popular, so called, Black sites.
Sure there may be more Black writers with the potential to reach more people, but they are finding it increasingly difficult to be heard, unless of course they are cosigned by one of the massive sites run by “outsiders”; which then of course requires conforming to their dictates.
Despite all of this virtually free access to the web and numerous tools to publish content, we do not drive the narrative, rather the “outsiders” created narrative drives us. Anyone attempting to do something other than what the “outsiders” have prescribed will fail or struggle miserably.
I often read old magazines for a historical perspective. I subscribed to Black Issues Book Review (BIBR) for it’s entire run. The issue from where I transcribed Ishmael’s quote was brilliant. I’m unaware of any other magazine that comes close to producing the content Black Issues Book Review did during it’s prime. Both the magazine and the associated website are long gone.
Part of the problem is the we simply do not work in our own self interest. Sure there are some great exceptions, but not enough to really make a difference. When I was a corporate employee, this was not apparent to me, but the minute I became a business owner it became very obvious. It is very sad.
For example, I would listen to Black writers give Black Issue Book Review, a lot of grief for not paying them enough, or fast enough, for the articles they wrote. Of course if you say you are going to pay someone, you need to pay them. But I also observed some of these very same writers proudly write for the Huffington Post for free! Just the idea of having a HuffPost byline was enough compensation. There was never as much pride in having a BIBR byline.
Today we have fewer websites dedicated to Black books. One would think there would be an uproar, but media, like a BIBR, who would report on this problem, no longer exists. I’d image the general public has no idea a problem even exists. Even saying there are few Black book websites, would not mean much absent a historical context. Meanwhile, the “outsider” has sold us on the idea popularity on their platforms is the only meaningful measure of success.
Sites like AALBC.com who are inclined to report on this issue, an issue that does not conform to the “dictated the trend,” defined by the “outsiders,” have to fight to be heard. Trust me; it is a fight. Social media is pay to play, and search results skew away from Black independent websites. But most importantly, our people will not sacrifice to support, no invest, in our own platforms. Paying a bit more or clicking away from a massive social media site is apparently too much of a sacrifice for us to make, to control our own narrative.
Black websites certainly don’t matter to the massive corporations who control the World Wide Web, but based upon our behavior they don’t matter to us either.
Our future may be cyberspace, but that future looks pretty bleak. I hope to tell a very different story in 15 years.