Blacking Out "Black Journal": Race, Resistance, and the Politics of Public Broadcasting

Curator's Note

Black Journal first aired on public television in 1968.  Initially funded by National Educational Television (NET), the series was a hybrid of public affairs discussions, creative performances, documentary, and educational pieces and was produced by and for African Americans. Black Journal, as Laurie Ouellette has characterized it, functioned as a black counterpublic sphere.  In segments on African American culture, politics, art and history; in analysis of contemporary events that emphasized their impact on the black community; and in its embrace of black power and black nationalism as legitimate responses to racism in the U.S., Black Journal countered mainstream media’s images and narratives of African Americans and decentered the white spectator as the imagined audience of television programming. This clip, for example, which focuses on an African American toy manufacturer, blends a discussion of black economic empowerment with a critique of white normative assumptions about beauty and consumer preferences.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, southern public television stations refused to air the series.

Stations in cities including Little Rock, New Orleans, Jackson, Norfolk, Nashville, Chapel Hill, and Jacksonville would not carry episodes of Black Journal, nor would the statewide educational television network in Alabama. While upset over many NET productions, southern stations were especially outraged over series focused on African Americans (or even the presence of African Americans; Mississippi stations initially refused to air Sesame Street because of its integrated cast). Though frequently cloaking their objections to national public programming in racially neutral language—the Alabama network ostensibly rejected Black Journal on indecency grounds—their refusal to air the shows was directly related to their racial politics.

The South, along with the Midwest, had been the region most active in noncommercial television in the 1950s and 1960s, their stations committed to paternalistic ideas of education and uplift that series like Black Journal sought to upend.  Their backlash against black public affairs programming not only complicates the “liberal bias” assumption about public broadcasting but, along with Nixon’s infamous attacks in the early 1970s, points to another origin narrative of it, in which current presumptions about the politics of PBS are intertwined with the strange career of educational television in the South.


 Allison, thanks for the post.  I appreciate your observation that the discourse of liberal bias within PBS has been shaped by a host of issues, including racial politics.  I'm also excited to see an excerpt from this program.  Spotlighting the production of black dolls can be read on so many levels--it is a rich clip.

My knowledge of Black Journal is limited, but having played around in the Variety archive, I've read one article about it--an article that described a walkout of angry African-American employees who felt their authority over the show had been lessened.   Can this discourse of racial politics and liberal bias be complicated even further by considering the contradictions within the production culture of NET and the wider public television network of stations?

Hi Allison, working off Karen's response, your post nicely complements your recent discovery that southern segregationalism in the 1950s and 1960s was almost as influential for public media policy momentum as years of educational advocacy. 

This raises a pretty tough problem: progressive thought often rests upon the assumption that grass-roots strategies and inculcated utterances of ethics/equity will elicit social change. But when it comes to actual policy deliberations, significantly different discursive positionings sometimes overlap and constitute the support necessary for policy implementation. While public media is usually viewed as a progressive institution, though not without significant problems (as chronicled by Laurie Ouellette), ultimately your findings show that it was populist sentiment that provided an extra push for the PBA67 to pass the legislature. Progressive educational advocacy couldn't do it alone.

So I wonder -- now that current populist movements have sided with privatization of 'public spaces' (perhaps, as your post argues, having regretted their support for the CPB as early as the 1970s), and the CPB is gradually being defunded, what new advocacy will need to be instituted to protect 'the public'? 

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