From Ida B. Wells to Oprah Winfrey, tracing the impact of Chicago's Black Press : It's Been a Minute Host Brittany Luse sits down with Arionne Nettles, author of We Are the Culture: Black Chicago's Influence on Everything. Arionne shares how Black media in Chicago influenced the way Black Americans see themselves and why the city deserves to be called 'the heart of Black America.'

How Chicago's Black press shaped America

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Hello, hello. I'm Brittany Luse, and you're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR - a show about what's going on in culture and why it doesn't happen by accident.


LUSE: Every now and again, an age-old debate surfaces within the Black community - which city lays the greatest claim to being the epicenter of Black cultural life? Some say it's Atlanta, with its legacy of civil rights organizing.


MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: The leadership of Atlanta must be commended for the great strides that we've made in this community over the last...

LUSE: Some say it's the jewel of my home state, Detroit - the birthplace of Motown.


THE SUPREMES: (Singing) Stop - in the name of love.

LUSE: And of course, there are many others - D.C., Houston, Memphis - the list goes on. But today's guest looks at it a different way.

ARIONNE NETTLES: Chicago just can't get left out. We're the heart. Everybody gets to be a body part, though. We're a heart. We're in the heart of the country.

LUSE: That's Arionne Nettles, journalist, professor, and author of the new book, "We Are The Culture: Black Chicago's Influence On Everything."

NETTLES: When we think about Chicago, we think about music, art. Throughout history, so many of these things started and grew right here in Chicago.

LUSE: Today, on the show, we're focusing on Chicago media and how it shaped the way Black Americans see themselves.


LUSE: Arionne, we are going to get all up in your mind.

NETTLES: I'm ready. I'm ready. I don't know what it means, but I'm still ready.


LUSE: I like that attitude. I like that attitude. All right. OK, so we're talking about Black Chicago today. We're going to be talking in our conversation specifically about Black journalism and how it played a crucial role in shaping both Black Chicago and Black America.


LUSE: I mean, and it's been like that for over a century. And Chicago has long been a magnet for Black journalists. I mean, we could take that all the way back to Ida B. Wells in the late 1800s...

NETTLES: Yeah, yeah.

LUSE: ...Who eventually found a home in Chicago. But what many people might not recognize is that the Chicago Defender - you know, a foundational Black paper of record - was somewhat responsible for the first wave of the Great Migration. Can you lay that out for us?

NETTLES: Yeah, absolutely. The Pullman porters, who were oftentimes formerly enslaved Black men who worked on the trains - they would take copies of the paper, and they would distribute it on routes down south. Not only are there editorials that are saying, listen, come on up north - pack your bags, move - there's also job ads that's telling you, hey, this is where you can come to work. There are places that tell you, hey, this is where you could come to live. This is where your kids can go to school. So the Defender is not only telling you, come on up here, but they're like, this is how you can make it.

LUSE: Hmm. You say in your book that the newspaper started talking about those things in 1917, which, of course, is, like, right at the beginning or right before that first wave of the Great Migration, where Black people were moving from down south to up north. And it was so interesting to me that the paper would print these headlines, like "Northbound, Hear Their Cry" and "Goodbye Dixieland." I mean, it was really telling Black people, to a certain degree, that they could have a better life away from Jim Crow South if they moved up to Chicago. And at least a few Black people listened, according to your book.


LUSE: Before the Great Migration, Black people took up 2% of Chicago's population. And after, Black Chicagoans accounted for one-third of the population. That's a big shift.

NETTLES: Yeah. My grandma, when she moved up here in the '40s, she was still picking cotton before she moved up here, right? So imagine going from a time where you're like, well, this is the only way that we know how to make money to the opportunity to do something new - to try something new that can feel solid.

LUSE: Hmm. Hmm. Just thinking about how Black Chicago may perhaps not exist in the same way were it not for the Black press was so interesting to me. That also comes through in the way the Black press in Chicago reported on its own community. Like, in looking at some of the early Black Chicago newspapers, like the Defender, you really see the necessity of having a nationwide journalistic voice that can go out and report on Jim Crow America. You know, the Defender also offered critical reporting on Chicago's race riot of 1919.

NETTLES: Yeah, yeah.

LUSE: Well, first of all, if you could lay out quickly what the race riot of 1919 was and why was the Defender's reporting so important?

NETTLES: Yeah, yeah. Like what was happening in other places, during this red summer of 1919, Chicago also experienced violence. It started when a group of Black kids were swimming in a segregated beach.

LUSE: Yeah, you said it was like an imaginary line on this beach that was meant to separate white people and Black people.


LUSE: So how do you hold a line in the water?

NETTLES: Exactly, how do you hold a line in the water, right? So it was said that the kids accidentally went over this imaginary line into the white side. What we do know is that a young Black boy named Eugene was hit in the head with a rock, and he drowned. In firsthand accounts, they said the police really were not trying to help the Black kids. It just became this thing that turned into days of unrest.

LUSE: What were the differences between the reporting that you saw coming out of the Defender during that time versus the reporting in mainstream newspapers?

NETTLES: You know, if you go to the mainstream papers, even the, I guess, quote-unquote, "nicest" articles will say, well, you know what? Of course the Negroes would get this way because it's not their fault that we have this Negro problem, right? There was kind of this idea that it's Black people's fault that you're a problem to the society. And those were the nicest articles talking about it.

Then you go over to the Defender, and you get to experience a lot of the anger of how people were actually feeling that week. But it just is always a reminder that when - in these times of violence, who's going to be our voice? And of course I know we have people doing it today, but, like, the reminder that we still need voices and perspectives.

LUSE: I think about, you know, us being, you know, journalists - reading that portion of your book really illustrated what our archives of that moment could have looked like...


LUSE: ...If we didn't have a paper like the Defender to be able to get those perspectives across. I want to jump forward a little bit in history. We can't talk about Black journalism, Black media in Chicago, without talking about this organization. One institution that really cemented Chicago's role as a major hub for Black media in the middle of the 20th century was Johnson Publishing Company, which was...


LUSE: ...Started by John H. Johnson. At the time, I attended Howard University.

NETTLES: Oh, yeah.

LUSE: Our School of Communications was named after him.


LUSE: If you don't recognize that name - right? - you would recognize the magazines under it. We've got Jet, Ebony. So many of the publications at Johnson Publishing Company defined how Black Americans saw themselves and also, to a certain degree, created the record of Black culture. How crucial was Chicago to the founding of Johnson Publishing Company?

NETTLES: Yes, yes. And I think that this is a place where I truly do believe that location matters. I also often think about its connection to advertising. If you're thinking about Vogue, for example, you're like, well, it would have to be based in New York, where fashion is, right? Well, in Chicago is where you had all these major Black advertising companies. Geographically, Chicago was, like, a really helpful place. And thinking about visually what Johnson Publishing Company represented - like, it really did try to represent modern Blackness, right?

LUSE: The description that you provided in the book about one of the offices at Jet having wall-to-wall leopard print carpeting, which is...


LUSE: ...My dream...


LUSE: ...For myself. That's my dream for me. And I was like, oh, you can do that in office? (Laughter).

NETTLES: Exactly.

LUSE: This is just their place of work. I also want to talk about just, like, the hustle that Chicago...


LUSE: ...People have (laughter). What were some of the methods and strategies that John H. Johnson used in the early days of Johnson Publishing Company...


LUSE: ...To be able to get his company on the ground?

NETTLES: Yes. That is really a great question because if this is not Chicago hustle, I don't know what is. So the first thing is, is that he used his mom's furniture to get the money.

LUSE: (Laughter).

NETTLES: I don't know if he convinced her or if he just did it and just said, Mom, I promise this will pay off, right?

LUSE: (Laughter).

NETTLES: Second of all, he would have his friends go around to different newsstands and say, hey, do you carry this? So his first publication was something called Negro Digest. And it was kind of like this Black version of Reader's Digest. And so he would have them go and say, hey, do you carry Negro Digest, right? And so, you know, the people at the newsstands are like, no, I don't. Like, should I? Like, people keep coming up and saying, do I carry Negro Digest? What is this Negro Digest? Let me get you on the stands.

He also was working at a insurance company, and he used their list to, like, get his subscribers up. I don't know if that was legal. I don't know if you could do that. I don't know. But he hustled. It worked. So he did all these things, and he made himself successful. And his wife, Eunice, also did something very similar much later. Even after they were already famous, they never lost that hustle. So even Eunice Johnson, she started this Ebony Fashion Fair - like a show - like a modeling show - just a big fashion show. But that actually led to what we know as Fashion Fair makeup.

LUSE: Yes. One of the first and biggest makeup lines for Black women - they launched it in 1973.

NETTLES: Yeah, yeah. So Eunice noticed that the models were mixing up their own shade. So they would, like, use, like, eye shadows and other stuff to try to, like, make the makeup dark enough for them, right? So, like, they got to be chemists and models, right?

LUSE: (Laughter).

NETTLES: That's how she decided to make Fashion Fair cosmetics. And it became one of, like, the first Black lines to really be in these major department stores. And we know, looking back to, like, the '70s, '80s, there was no internet, so it was really important to be in a department store. To be able to get that line into these really fancy department stores was, like, a really big deal.

LUSE: I remember going with my mom to our local department stores. And we would go to the makeup counters, and they would have the Fashion Fair. And I remember seeing the pink compacts and the pink tubes...

NETTLES: Yeah, yeah.

LUSE: ...Of lipstick. Now, to continue talking on the note of Black-owned, that makes me think of one particular very Chicago Black media figure. I think you might be able to guess who I'm talking about.

NETTLES: I am now. I am now. I am guessing that you are talking about the Oprah Winfrey (laughter).

LUSE: The Oprah Winfrey, exactly, exactly. You know, we could go on and on about all the things that people know about, you know, Oprah the icon and about her show. But I want to ask you about her decision to set up her Harpo Studios in Chicago.


LUSE: Why was that such a big deal?

NETTLES: Yeah. So she really kind of had a lot of foresight because the area that she opened her studios in - now it is this booming area. You know, everybody wants to be in the West Loop. It's, like, one of my favorite places to go - out going Saturday nights. But at the time, you know, it was our meat-packing district. So not...


NETTLES: ...A lot was over there. And so Oprah was really able to kind of create this facility that worked for her.

LUSE: Right. Mmm hmm. By the late 1990s, the Oprah Show had 20 million regular viewers, $150 million in annual revenue and about 200 employees. I mean, that's a big company to be based in Chicago and making media like that.

We're discussing this rich history of Black media and Black journalism in Chicago. But looking at the present, it's looking a little shakier. Many of the publications that you celebrate in your book are shuttered or digital-only these days. I mean - and there's been something of an exodus when it comes to Black Chicagoans - 85,000 Black residents left Chicago between 2010 and 2020. I mean, one reason could be because, you know, lots of affordable housing has been demolished or converted. I don't know. Where does all of this leave Black culture?

NETTLES: Yeah. Well, I'm still extremely hopeful 'cause I think that, now, we just live in a different and more digital world. So the people, for example, who leave Chicago - I don't think they ever truly leave. And even the way that I view the Black press - so many of the places that I see doing a lot of great work - they have virtual newsrooms. So in Chicago, we do have a place that I love called The TRiiBE, and they do a lot of so much important local work here. I see so many extremely smart Black journalists, like, trying to create a new Black press. And I think that that's worth loving on and supporting and, like, paying some dollars to and (laughter) - because I think it's going to look different. I'm so sad that I'll never get to see that wall-to-wall leopard-print carpet, you know?

LUSE: (Laughter).

NETTLES: But we just might have to start us up our own thing and put a little leopard-print carpet in there.

LUSE: (Laughter) Well, Arionne, thank you so much for joining me today to talk about your book. It was a joy to read. Thank you so much.

NETTLES: Thank you for having me.

LUSE: That was Arionne Nettles. Her new book, "We Are The Culture: Black Chicago's Influence On Everything," is out now.





RUDY: Hey, Brittany, this is Rudy (ph) from Chicago, and my favorite Met Gala theme is from 2019, which was Camp: Notes on Fashion. I remember it being very pink. This was years before Barbiecore (ph), but I just remember Lady Gaga's many layers. And luxury fashion is often seen as ridiculous and exaggerated, so why not lean into it? Thanks.

LUSE: Hey, Rudy. Thank you so much for calling in with this memory of yours. For those of you who don't know, the first Monday in May is closing in quickly, which means that the Met Gala is right around the corner. So we'll see how people stick to this year's theme, which is Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion. And the official dress code is The Garden of Time, whatever that means.

As far as favorite themes, I have a toss-up. My top two favorites were 2015 China: Through The Looking Glass, which showed, like, China's influence on Western fashion and was absolutely amazing - featured one of the best Rihanna looks of all time when she wore that long, yellow cape that draped all the way down the Met Gala stairs. Absolutely perfect. And also, I really loved the 2012 Met Gala theme - ooh - Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations. Two of my favorite designers of all time, period - having their work shown together in the actual exhibit that year was incredible, so I was really into both of those.

But you know what, Rudy? I also feel you on Camp. That was a good year. My favorite look was actually Kacey Musgraves. Kacey Musgraves that year dressed up as Barbie. When she rode up to the pink carpet that year for Met Gala, she rode up in a convertible (laughter), like, waving her arm kind of robotically and cocking her head to the side, the way that Barbie would. It was epic and so, so, so cool.

Funnily enough, I know that a lot of people follow the Met Gala now, but I have been following the Met Gala before they used to post the photos, like, on every single blog in every single magazine or every single newspaper. I would have to sit there on the no-longer-functioning for days after the Met Gala, just clicking over and over again (laughter), trying to see the different outfits and who stayed on-theme. Oh, my gosh, waiting for those photos to load, not feeling like I had anybody to talk to, but, like, a couple of my friends who really cared about what people were wearing to the Met Gala. It was fun. It felt like you were kind of in, like, a little secret club of fashion nerds.

I know that there are some people that like to lament how the Met Gala has become this huge spectacle that now everybody has opinions on. But I don't know. I think it's kind of fun. I think it's nice that people are finding a way to appreciate the craftsmanship and the vision that goes into so many of the beautiful clothes that we often see on red carpets or in museums or on catwalks. To me, the more people understand the level of skill that goes into this work, perhaps the more they'll begin to understand just how much skill you even need to have to make a t-shirt or a pair of sweatpants. So Rudy, thank you so much for calling in with this memory. And to the rest of you, I cannot wait to see your Met Gala judgments on the timeline.

Now, if you want to be heard on an upcoming Hey Brittany, I have a question for you. Now, Mother's Day is coming up. And I know some of y'all are out there scrambling, trying to figure out what to do for your mamas. So I wonder, do any of y'all have ideas on how to celebrate Mother's Day? Let's activate the hive mind. Also, I'd love to hear your favorite Mother's Day memory. Send us a voice memo at That's


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