Looking back over my childhood in Washington, D.C., in the ’70s and ’80s, I realize what an inclusive utopia it was to everyone who lovingly referred to Chocolate City.
Despite being the nation’s capital and all of the propaganda that comes along with that distinction, there was a tangible air of Black achievement and historical presence that permeated my daily comings and goings. Aside from the elderly couple who lived next door or the passersby I saw as my mother and I made our way to our historically Black United Methodist Church in Georgetown each Sunday, I could go days without seeing or interacting with white people. My world was reflective of my family’s worldview: “For Us, By Us ” and “Uplift Us Through Your Brilliance.”
I’m not sure how young I was when I decided that I would watch the evening news regularly, but I do remember why: local CBS News anchor J.C. Hayward on Channel 9. I found her dignified and stunning, something like a young Cicely Tyson, reading headlines and keeping us informed. She is the first Black newswoman I remember who wore her hair in a low natural, adding a believability and soulfulness to her delivery. I wasn’t yet convinced that I wanted her job, but I wanted someone like her to always be the person who told me what the world was like outside of the bubble my parents created for me. She looked like truth.
And so did Sherry Carter. Angela Stribling. Downtown Julie Brown. Ananda. Free.
The ’80s roared in on the Reagan presidency, and so did a whole new wave of cultural access and visibility through MTV and BET. All of a sudden, Black and brown women were taking over my TV screen, providing information on my favorite music and the artists who created it, with some regular news thrown in for good measure. I heard the term spokesmodel for the first time, realizing that broadcast media was creating a platform to bring Hollywood to the news the same way it was brought to the White House.
It reminded me of the line from a Morris Day and The Time song, borrowed later by Salt-N-Pepa in their 1986 hit “Push It”: “This dance ain’t for everybody — only the sexy people.”
It made me wonder where J.C. Hayward would fit in this new wave, if she didn’t have the cool asymmetrical haircut and trendy clothes. Would her cultural pride get permed into submission? I thought of Oprah Winfrey. Harpo Productions. Dynasty building. The slow and steady climb.
Amid the sea of the new, pretty, pop-culture-influenced on-air personalities, in stepped the woman who would become queen. A bit too heavy by on-screen standards, maybe even a hint goofy, but with an unforgettable name and a mission. A Black woman’s voice and vision now cutting through the sameness of midday talk programming like Donahue, Sally Jesse and Ricki Lake. Opening a window into the everyday struggles of trying to look the part. To conform instead of transform. The reality I was living as a Penn student was the truth Oprah shared with her audiences every afternoon. It may look pretty, but ugliness and rejection lurk beneath the surface.
Just ask Melissa Harris-Perry. Soledad O’Brien. Pam Oliver. Joy-Ann. Tamron. Jemele. Lady B.
I was offered a position — first, as midday host, and then program director — on WURD (96.1FM/900AM) in Philadelphia around the same time that another massive wave of talented Black and brown newswomen were making huge strides on cable and major-network news. I welcomed an opportunity to sit at a mic in a top 5 media market, join the unofficial alliance and tell my truths. To address concerns and confront the backroom politics that undermined Black achievement in the 21st century, through the voice of Black womanism and empowerment.
Problem was, the fight inside the institution is often reflective of the issues being reported and analyzed on-air.
I unwittingly joined a sisterhood struggling to be heard separately and above the din of blowhard men of all ethnicities and their self-proclaimed expertise, finding little protection or support for our contributions on their own terms. Women penalized for calling out the disrespect and manipulation as they lived it, by being marginalized in the on-air schedule or fired outright. And being asked to apologize for things we did not regret saying or doing.
Singing a Black girl’s song takes more than courage. It means keeping a bag packed and resources ready for the inevitable moment when your perspective labels you as disagreeable, irrelevant and damaging to the bottom line.
But opening your mouth and belting your anthem anyway, for your peers and the little girls who need to see and hear you, for as long as the opportunity allows.
Trends may come and go, but your voices are timeless and enduring, sisters.
J.C. Hayward would be proud.