'Black Voices in Commentary'

The black columnists organization "The Trotter Group" has released their third collection of "no-holds-barred" works by top black commentators. Farai Chideya talks to Wayne Dawkins, editor of Black Voices in Commentary and Betty Baye, a contributor to the book and a regular on News and Notes.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Commentators, they can make us laugh and say amen. They can also make us write an angry letter to the editor. The new book “Black Voices in Commentary: The Trotter Group” might make you want to do both.

It's a collection of no-holds-barred works by today's top black commentators. I recently spoke with the book's editor Wayne Dawkins and Betty Baye, a contributor to the book and to NEWS & NOTES.

Wayne started by explaining how the organization for black columnists called the Trotter Group got started in 1992.

Mr. WAYNE DAWKINS (Author, “Black Voices in Commentary: The Trotter Group”): The group is named for William Monroe Trotter. He was the first black Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard. He was a classmate of W.E.B. DuBois. And he was the editor and publisher of the Guardian newspaper of Boston. And he was probably considered the rudest black journalist ever in American history. And 18 of us got together at Harvard and we organized this society in Trotter's name. We thought he was a good role model.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: So does that mean that part of the role of being a black journalist is being someone who kind of sticks it to the powers that be.

Mr. DAWKINS: We come at America and its leaders in different ways, and I think that was the spirit guiding The Trotter group.

CHIDEYA: So Betty, when did you join the group and what does it mean to you?

Ms. BETTY BAYE (Contributor, “Black Voices in Commentary: The Trotter Group”): I have been there from the beginning. I have attended every Trotter meeting. I didn't realize it was since 1992. My goodness, I am so young and I don't know how I have been in something so old. But in any event, it is a real coming together. It's a celebration of black columnists.

You know, sometimes when you write a column in your own city or town, you can get to feeling, you know, isolated. So Les Payne and Derrick Jackson at the Boston Globe and DeWayne Wickham of USA TODAY, they were the three that came together and said we need to have this group to really talk about the issues that confront columnists. For example, criticism, being able to take it. You have to be strong because people have very strong opinions and there's no subject that you can think that is an innocent topic that won't evoke some kind of outrage from somebody. It's amazing.

CHIDEYA: Speaking of pain and sorrow, you did a commentary that you wrote for your newspaper that came out of a commentary that you did here on NEWS & NOTES. Tell us about the painful subject and what it meant to you to put it to paper.

Ms. BAYE: Well, I wrote about my nephew's father, Sergeant Clarence Floyd Jr., who was killed in Iraq last December. And my nephew is a beautiful child, eight years old. And so I wrote about Von's(ph) funeral. I had never attended a full military funeral before. And one of things that I said was that they sure know how to throw a funeral. We bury our soldiers very well. The question is: How do we protect them when we send them to war?

CHIDEYA: Wayne, you write about Reverend King's death and you tie it to Taylor Branch's book about King and also to music. How do you make these connections that go into writing a complex commentary?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DAWKINS: Well, I'm a lover of history but somehow I can tie it into music, which is my other passion. But that makes my style different.

CHIDEYA: And so many of these essays just catch my fancy and, Wayne, that is a very beautiful moving piece. But there is another one that is much lighter and that's one of the fun things about this book, is that you go all the way from super serious to super funny, although, there is serious in it. There was an essay by Tannette Johnson-Elie…

Mr. DAWKINS: Oh, yeah.

CHIDEYA: - it's on fashion, and I'll just read a little bit of that.

Whether at work or play, we sisters like to look good. For some of us, the louder and more flamboyant the outfit, the better; but, and are you really surprised, that tight orange outfit with that sheer leopard-print top, black fishnet stockings and high-heeled shoes that you sometimes like to wear to the nightclub, may get you stares of disapproval in the office.

Now, Betty, I love the way that this column starts out and then it turns to experts to explain why, you know, there's things called work wear, casual wear and club wear, which people don't always understand. What did you make out of that piece?

Ms. BAYE: Well, you know, I do think that some of us don't get it about how to dress.

CHIDEYA: Well, you know, from fashion to war, you guys really have staked out a whole bunch of territory. What challenges lay ahead, do you think, for black commentators especially those at majority white publications? I'm going to ask you first Betty and then Wayne.

Ms. BAYE: The whole industry is changing. There's a move now to make things as they call it local-local. And so a lot of columnists, even some members in our group, who sort of wrote about broad issues, are now being instructed that they are to write strictly local.

And local can be very interesting. But I do think that if we do not contextualize the topics that we talked about, in other words, I think a column by Condoleezza Rice is as local as anything else, because what people are doing in other places affects our lives.

So I think that for a lot of us it's going to be different. But I think, at the same time, the world is infinitely interesting and the approaches to topics and the topics that we have to write about is so rich. So what we want to do is, is not simply provoke people to rage, but really, to provoke people to think.

CHIDEYA: Wayne?

Mr. DAWKINS: It's also the idea does the op-ed or local columnists will they even exist later on in the 21st century. You know in this age of blogging and -we're in this multiplatform media era, will columnists still be relevant down the line. I sure hope so.

CHIDEYA: On that note, Wayne, Betty, thanks a lot.

Mr. DAWKINS: Thank you.

Ms. BAYE: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Wayne Dawkins is the editor of “Black Voices in Commentary: The Trotter Group.” He's also an assistant professor at the Scripts Howard School of Journalism and Communications at Hampton University.

And Betty Baye contributed to the book and is a regular on NEWS & NOTES. She's a columnist at The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, and joined us from WFPL in Louisville.

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