As an undergraduate student and English major at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Torie Wheatley fondly recalls taking a class on “Early African American Women Writers.” In that class, she and her fellow students read every first text written and published by a Black woman.
Among them were Phillis Wheatley’s book of poetry (Torie Wheatley doesn’t know if she is related to the author), Harriet E. Wilson’s novel, “Our Nig,” and “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” by Harriet Jacobs.
Jacobs’ 1861 publication is the first slave narrative published by a Black woman. In the text, she tells the tale of her life. Using the pseudonym Linda Brent, she shares her experiences as a slave girl who attempts to escape brutality and sexual assault. In an effort to find some measure of comfort, she watches her children grow up through a tiny hole in the floor of a crawlspace-sized attic she spends seven years in, until she’s finally able to escape to the North.
As Tori and her fellow students delved into each of these riveting texts, she recalls how her professor consistently lamented the relevance of each text and how it connected to the erasure of the lives of Black women whose stories were either told or not told by those who did not share or care about their life experiences.
No longer a student, Wheatley, a Black lesbian and LGBTQ advocate, has become a teacher herself. She is currently working on a doctoral degree in Curriculum Instruction, with a concentration in Urban Education.
In speaking to qnotes about the importance of stories being told by those who live the experience, she passionately recalled her reaction to reading “Incidents…” and why it’s so important to allow folks to shape, control and share their own narratives.
“I remember feeling heartbroken for [Harriet Jacobs], but I also felt inspired because she eventually escapes some of the traumas she endured. I think metaphorically, the fact that she was hidden inside that small space for so many years, like a closet, her story played out like so many of the lives of those of us in the LGBT community today who are often defined by others, watching the world go by like she watched the lives of her children go by through a hole in the floor.
“Her story is as complex as the intersectionality of so many LGBT people whose stories need to be told and need to be told by those who live them. There’s power in that. I just wish stories like those [told by the people who lived them] were more exposed and people didn’t have to take a college course to experience them. That’s why, as a teacher, I feel like it’s my duty to share them with my students and share them completely, which includes LGBT folks. My students need to see themselves in the stories they read.”
Fortunately, the Media 2070 project has also taken up the charge from a broader perspective, and then some. In the 21st century, text is no longer the only vehicle of storytelling. Additionally, who presents the storytelling is just as important as how they are told. This has laid the groundwork for Media 2070, a 100-page research essay detailing the history of U.S. media participation in anti-Black racism and harm.
As one might imagine, intersectionality also plays a role in oppression and the fight for social justice. Like any race, cultural or ethnicity, Black people are not myopic. Simply stated, all Black folks are not heterosexual, so racial discrimination impacts the Black LGBTQ community with intersectionality, often creating additional stigma, discrimination and inequality.
Under the direction of Alicia Bell, the Media 2070 project became the result of more than a year of information gathering and was built on the foundation of Juan González’ and Joseph Torres’ New York Times bestseller “News for All the People.”
The essay is free and accessible at mediareparations.org. Within the first few pages of the essay readers are given “A Snapshot of Anti-Black Harms” perpetrated by the media from 1704 to 2017.” As the essay unfolds, reports on how the press has played a role in shaping human interaction and contributing to the oppression of Black people is documented through heinous devices such as racial profiling, erasure and discrimination.
All are noted through documented statistical data, incidents, articles and advertising; a blight the essay aims to bring awareness to and seeks reparations. “Together, we can advocate for media institutions to make reparations to the Black community and for regulators and lawmakers to make reparations for policies that have baked inequities into our media system.”
Queer and non-binary journalist, advocate and project director Alicia Bell shared with qnotes a bit on the importance of the project and how it relates to the LGBTQ community. Bell stated that one of the reasons Media 2070 feels so important to her/them is because of the way that media stories create conditions and lived realities.
She/they continued to say, “Holding all of the intersections that we hold as people, when I think about Black queer, trans and non-binary folks, I think we deserve a world that cares for us.” When asked why call the project Media 2070, Bell explained how the project was named in part to draw attention to and “honor…how every 50 years there is some sort of government commission or popular organizing [effort] that connects media and journalism to racial injustice.
“By 2070 we shouldn’t be having the same conversations that we’ve had for the past 100 years. I think part of that future means we live in a world where Black folks of all identities have the ability to steward tenderly our stories from creation, to production to distribution. And we have a role to play in the institutions and policies that carry those stories. Because of that, it [we need] an economy, a government and a media that cares for Black people.”
The Media 2070 project, along with its numerous contributors and supporters, dream of a day when “together, we can advocate for media institutions to make reparations to the Black community and for regulators and lawmakers to make reparations for policies that have baked inequities into our media system.”
So far, they’re off to a pretty good start.
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