Part 2: From 'My Times in Black and White' - Gerald Boyd at Mizzou
I found that my four years at Soldan prepared me well for the University of Missouri. I was not overwhelmed by any of my subjects and, in fact, found some surprisingly easy. At Soldan, I had always struggled with algebra. But in my first semester, I breezed through the course, receiving an A.
I decided to major in journalism and political science. A second degree would make me more marketable as a journalist, I believed, though I later came to realize that a good journalist needs only a keen interest in a particular subject. Curiosity plus legwork becomes expertise.
I also decided to try out for the campus newspaper, the Maneater. To qualify, I had to write a story based on information on a handout. Many of the so-called facts were misleading or wrong. I knew from the start to check everything. I also knew not to assume the words were correct just because they appeared on paper. My story showed two qualities critical to journalism: accuracy and skepticism. I passed and joined the staff.
It was not long before I began to chafe from openly racist attitudes and slights. The university, with an enrollment of about 20,000, had fewer than 500 black students. The year I arrived, the college had just appointed its first black faculty member, Arvarh Strickland, a history professor.
It angered me that blacks were forced to operate as a student body within the student body. The troublesome incidents were a sign that the university needed to accept and adjust to the fact that its student body was changing. I saw the university as a relic out of step with the profound changes that were sweeping through the country. I became determined to do whatever I could to fix these problems, even though I had no knowledge, experience, or plan. I simply determined that the university could and should do better, and I began to say so.
I soon found myself labeled by fellow students and teachers as a campus militant. I reinforced that view with strident rhetoric and belligerence over slights I believed that the university inflicted on black students. I had not come to Columbia that way, but Columbia shaped me through what I saw and experienced.
Our biggest problem, and one faced by all revolutionaries, was the inability to communicate our concerns to the broader campus. As we sat around reviewing our options, I threw out my idea: Why not start a black student newspaper? Missouri was ripe for one, I argued. The university had a healthy pool of black journalism majors, and enough freshmen and sophomores planning to pursue journalism. That would form the nucleus of a reporting and editing staff. Students from other majors could help by selling the paper or advertising.
The group loved the idea. We agreed that we could produce the paper ourselves and not have to depend on others. We had a passionate staff that was eager to work. My Upward Bound experience had taught me how to publish a newspaper. I quit the Maneater to devote my time to editing.
All we needed was a name. We settled on Blackout. I can't remember if it came as we sat in a dorm room drinking cheap wine or at a formal meeting of the newspaper staff. Whatever its source, Blackout reflected how we felt: black and excluded from participating fully in the university. It was not nuanced or poetic, but nothing we did those days was subtle.
We printed the first editions of Blackout on a mimeograph machine like the one at Upward Bound. I served as the editor. ... We had a strong staff of budding journalists and bundles of energy. Staffers fanned across campus, shoving the papers in the hands of black and white students passing by and demanding 10 cents. By no means a legitimate circulation strategy, but it worked; the several hundred copies we produced at a time always sold out.
Still, there was no comparing Blackout to other campus newspapers, especially our main competition, the Maneater. The Maneater had university recognition and funding through a student activity fee. I realized that the only way that Blackout could grow was to receive similar recognition and the dollars that came with it.
The debate at the newspaper mirrored the discussion then raging throughout black America: would we be selling out by accepting money from white authorities? How else to survive and maintain our own identity? Finally, we agreed: as long we did not allow the authorities to censor us or pull our punches, we could take the money. In that sense, we rationalized, we were using the system to our own advantage, just like whites. Black students paid the same student activity fees as whites.
Why shouldn't we have a voice?
With our newspaper in hand, I appeared before the Missouri Students Association to argue for university recognition. Blackout became only the second student newspaper sanctioned by the university and the first "black student" newspaper funded by any university. The funding enabled us to produce a professional-looking tabloid newspaper, written by "revolutionaries" and paid for by the establishment. The partnership was strange at best.
From “My Times In Black and White” by Gerald M. Boyd © 2010, to be published by Lawrence Hill Books on February 1st, 2010. Reprinted with permission of the author. All rights reserved.