Negro Digest-Black World

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Negro Digest/Black World: Exploring the Archive 1961-1975

Publisher John H. Johnson introduced Negro Digest in Chicago in 1942 as a new Reader's Digest type magazine for the African American community. In its early days, the publication was mainly a collection of reprinted articles concerning African American interests. While early sales reached up to 150,000 issues per month, the magazine's success was soon extinguished by Johnson Publication's new magazine, Ebony. Becoming an unprofitable venture, Negro Digest folded in 1951.

However, Negro Digest's early failure would not reflect its later success. As critic and poet Kaluma ya Salaam wrote, "for the publication of Black Arts creative literature, no magazine was more important than the Chicago based Johnson publication Negro Digest/Black World." The early 1960s marked a growing interest in black consciousness, writing, and art. In 1961, Johnson revived Negro Digest under editor and notable black intellectual Hoyt Fuller. The second incarnation of the magazine would be much different, transforming it from a catalogue of stories that regarded black interests into a vanguard publication that acted as a leading forum and voice in the Black Arts movement. Under Hoyt Fuller's guidance, the magazine underwent many changes, reporting on controversial issues such as Black Power and giving voice to local Chicago poets such as Haki Madhubuti (don l. lee) and Carolyn Rodgers, who probably would have otherwise been left unknown. The publication's eventual transformation into the more politicized and globally focused Black World marked its desire to act as not only a literary space for African Americans but Black people through out the world. Fuller wrote in a rare editorial note dated May 1970, that the magazine would aim to "routinely publish articles which will probe and report the conditions of peoples and their struggles throughout the Black World," with newfound mission of "guarding against the opportunists and charlatans who would exploit Black Art and Literature for their own gain and the spiritual and artistic colonization of Black people."

Negro Digest/Black World is a massive archive. While the first issues of Negro Digest from the 1940s and early 1950s shouldn't be forgotten, the rebirth of the magazine in the early 1960s is of great use to those studying histories of activism, Black Aesthetics (both literary and artistic, local and national), and historical reflections of the period. While there is a wealth of phenomenal material, navigating this archive can be an extremely difficult task because of its breadth and the variety of material. Luckily this resource is still very available at many libraries since it was so widely circulated and read during its lifetime. A renewed scholarly interest in these publications could have a profound effect on the way we conceptualize the Black Arts movement and black activism during this period because many scholars rely on the valuable yet overly authoritative texts like Black Fire. Excavating key works from Negro Digest/Black World illustrates its utility for scholars and enthusiasts of the period across all fields. Further exploration of this untapped resource could have a profound effect on the scholarly direction of this field and a renewed interest of literature during the period.

Engaging Negro Digest/Black World is much easier if one is familiar with the format throughout its years of publication. Often, the issues are built around a common theme; but regardless, they always concern themselves with some aspect of the black experience. There are annual poetry and theater issues, which highlight works by well-known artists and critics such as Amiri Baraka and Addison Gayle, as well as lesser-known participants in the movement. The general format of the issue is an editor's note, several stories, poems, or political essays pertaining to the general theme of the issue, and then the "regular features," which include "Perspectives (notes on books, writers, artists, and the arts)," Humor in Hue," (witty political comics about race by various black artists), and selected poetry.

Negro Digest/Black World is such a fascinating artifact because the content of each issue seems to evade rigid binaries of conservative/liberal, reactionary/radical, and instead functions as a forum for different issues and ideas that were unavoidable realities of the black public sphere. For example, the June 1967 issue of Negro Digest (which cost 35 cents) contains an excerpt from Black Skin White Masks by the extremely influential psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon entitled "Black Man, White Woman," while at the same time a piece by Martin Luther King Jr. called "Stand on War and Peace: Martin Luther King Jr. Explains." Issues of Negro Digest/Black World, such as the June 1967 issue, leave the magazine's political stance rather opaque, making it all the more interesting in reconstructing a historical and ideological sketch of the period.

In addition to the exposition of various viewpoints, the magazine was also a very real space for the performance of public debate. For instance, the debate from the November 1966 issue entitled "Black Power Symposium" is an invaluable piece for those who are interested in the feelings people had about Black Power before it became a widespread and arguably diluted concept. This particular debate features 12 different opinions ranging from Conrad Kent Rivers, founder of OBAC, to Anita Cornwell, a writer and former state employee, to Dudely Randall, founder of Broadside Press but also a librarian and poet. The sheer range of voices about this particular concept automatically points to how important this resource in constructing a historiography from an African American perspective. Another way debates manifest themselves were in articles often preceded (but not always) with the label "Perspective." A fascinating example is June Jordan's "White English: The Politics of Language," part of the August 1973 issue's "Focus on Language" feature, in which Jordan makes an extremely cogent appeal to readers about the importance of "black" English. At the end of the article, the political implications are amplified by the postscript that reads "Both her (June Jordan) award-winning teen novel His Own Where and Dry Victories, a history book, were written entirely in "Black Language." "One consequence," she writes, "is that the novel has been banned from the public schools of Baltimore Md." As this example illustrates, the magazine can be a host of literal debates or more conceptual and long running problems such as the one addressed by Jordan.

The political debates recordied in Negro Digest/Black World are of great importance, but this periodical also houses reproductions of rare artistic works and original aesthetic theory. For example, the June 1970 issue features an essay by Chicago poet and theorist Carolyn Rodgers entitled "The Literature of the Black: Feelings are Sense." While the essay is powerful on its own, it becomes even more valuable after Rodger's links to other black artists (she was a member of OBAC) becomes apparent. The dialogue about literary aesthetics is not simply being stated in the text, it flows as part of a longer-term dialogue throughout the magazine. In that sense, the periodical aspect of Negro Digest/Black World allows for the tracking of developing ideas and dialogue through the years. Another instance of a rare but extraordinary "find" in Black World is in the October 1971 issue article, "AfriCobra (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists): '10 in Search of a Nation." by Africobra artist Jeff Donaldson. Not only does this article contain the group's credo in the words of one of its most prominent member, but it also features a variety of rare images, such as Africobra member Jae Jarrell modeling her "revolutionary suit." This fascinating image has fallen almost completely into obscurity, only existing in this periodical's yellowing pages.

Negro Digest/Black World was published out of Chicago and therefore, whether intentionally or not, showcased local up-and-coming talent and political concerns of readers in the city. Since much of the activity of the late 1960s, particularly the Black Arts Movement, was occurring in the city of publication, the magazine is an excellent resource for those interested in the happenings in Chicago. This is particularly the case for studying OBAC. Often essays will be followed with a biographical sketch about the author, thus figuring out their location is a relatively simple task. It also, as illustrated by "Symposium on Black Power," can offer perspectives by local people, or otherwise unpublished works by authors such as Sam Greenly ("Sonny's Season" October 1971) or "Unpublished Poems by Conrad Kent Rivers," (September 1975). These are just a few artistic works that pertain to the local Chicago arts. There is also special attention paid to local issues that would resonate with the national African American community as well such as the statement "Fred Hampton: Martyr" by William E. Hampton in the May 1970 issue.

The best way to navigate Negro Digest/Black World is to either track down a particular article of interest (they are often cited but rarely republished) and explore the surrounding articles and issues or find a copy of Roots of Afrocentric Thought: A Reference Guide to Negro Digest/Black World 1961-1976 compiled by Clovis E. Semmes. While Semmes book is a slightly clumsy compilation, it seems to be the only way to sift through the material and get a short annotation about each article without actually having to approach the issues individually. Though this book seems obscure in subject matter, it is readily available in many large Chicago area libraries.

Despite the many treasures contained within the pages of Negro Digest/Black World, there is surprisingly very little secondary literature available on the magazine. Listed below are a few sources, however, this archive still remains under analyzed and underappreciated. Even the periodicals existence on microfilm is an uncertain reality, since it seems most libraries only recorded issues sporadically. Due to age and neglect, archival work with this resource seems to be a fleeting opportunity.

Selected Bibliography

Homage to Hoyt Fuller. Ed. Dudley Randall. Detroit: Broadside, 1984.

"From Negro Digest to Ebony, Jet and EM,Special Issue: 50 Years of JPC- Redefining the Black Image." Ebony March 1992.
A short history of Johnson Publications Inc's publications.

Negro Digest/Black World. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company.

Salaam, Kaluma ya "Historical Overviews of the Black Arts Movement."
An excellent resource for the study of Black Arts Poetry, this particular article highlights the importance of Negro Digest/Black World as a resource.

Semmes, Clovis E. Roots of Afrocentric Thought: A reference Guide to Negro Digest/Black World, 1961-1976. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1998.
ISBN: 0-313-29992-7
A reference guide that is extremely useful for navigating this periodical.

Semmes, Clovis E. "Foundations in Africana Studies: Revisiting Negro Digest/Black World, 1961." The Western Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 25, No. 4 (2001): 195-201.
One of the few pieces of scholarship about the history of the magazine.

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