• Chalkbeat

The Power of the Press: A Look into the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Haven't been able to get a ticket to the highly anticipated National Museum of African American History and Culture? Well, worry no further! HYPE! has got you covered on all there is to know behind the famed Smithsonian glass walls. With Black History Month coming to a close, we here at HYPE! are commemorating the Black entertainment greats that made shows like ours possible.

The museum is set up in stages, working from the bottom to the top, with exhibitions ranging from “Slavery and Freedom” to “Musical Crossroads.” Each space filled with artifacts, interactive components, and storytelling-- it comes to no surprise that people from all walks of life are eager to learn more about African American history through this art in motion.

Exhibit “Taking the Stage” located on the fourth floor of the culture galleries focuses on giving visitors a run down on how black artists changed entertainment as we know it today. In expressing their creative talents, artistic visions, and cultural identities, Black individuals have made their mark, all the while combatting racial discrimination and stereotypes.

African Americans have fought for equality in various workspaces like medicine and education-- media has been no exception. Black artists had to not only fight for inclusion in mainstream media, but also fight against the stereotypical imagery and unrealistic portrayals that were distributed to the masses.

According to the NMAAC, the 1960’s and 1970’s was the time black entertainers defined the image of American popular culture. Talent, skill and integrity can only take someone so far in the industry. The entertainers that came before us inevitably had to reach the marketplace with the necessary connections to the industry, (some) money and a little bit of luck.

In print, the first African American newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, was published in 1827-- a medium that was established to put the independent voices of black communities on a platform to challenge racism and other acts of bigotry. This was, and publications alike, continue to be a space for the truth of black identities and the diaspora to be revealed, all the while challenging and exposing the injustices of the world. “It was a test, being the first N---- under those conditions, said Robert Churchwell in 2002.

In music, African Americans carved a space for themselves, pushing past the barriers that stopped the production of Black songwriters, recording artists, publishers, promoters, record labels and for many-- radio stations.

In fact, George W. Johnson, a former slave and street performer from New York City was the first African American recording artist, with his song “The Whistling Coon,” a now offensive title, that back in the day was the material listened to by his audiences.

Black Swan, founded in 1921, was the first record label owned and operated by Adrian Americans, producing various sounds including jazz, blues vocals and classical piece. Later on came Philadelphia International Records of the 1970’s that shaped the sound of soul music as we know it today.

This breakthrough of music eventually translated into Hollywood, as African Americans were commonly casted as musicians and performers in films for decades. Now, Black music is praised by many, and often times appropriated by some.

In television, was Oprah Winfrey, a black entrepreneur that changed the meaning of what it means to be a journalist. Hosting her own talk show from 1986 to 2011, she showcased her stories to the American public on her 4 p.m. daytime slot. Winfrey tackled the hard topics, hardly straying away from conversations on addiction, abuse, and more. Most importantly, Winfrey served a positive, self-empowered message, which is that despite race, one can become a house hold name in media.

As for radio, WERD of Atlanta, Georgia was the first radio station owned and programmed by African Americans, while WDIA of Memphis, Tennessee, was the first radio station dedicated entirely to black content. Since the early days of Black radio, Martha Jean “the Queen,” Petey Greene, Frankie Crocker, Jack “the Rapper” Gibson and Herb “Cool Gent” Kent infused their radio programming with the wit and humor that we so appreciate today.

Back in the day was “black voice radio,” where shows like The Beulah Show and The Amos ’n’ Andy Show were based on a popular programming where white actors performed black characters in an exaggerated “black voice” style.

Luckily because of predecessors highlighted in the museum like Oprah and Martha Jean “The Queen,” shows like HYPE!, a radio show hosted entirely by people of color in the diaspora, are made possible. The entertainers described paved the way for the successes of modern day entertainment as we know it.

Together the story of HYPE!, the stories we share on air and the lives highlighted in the museum suggest how in taking the stage or in our case “the mic,” we as people of color have the power to be a force of freedom and social change in the creative spaces we claim.

Highlighted on the fourth floor is a quote by Bell Hooks stating, “People resist by telling their story.” Here at HYPE! we will continue to tell those stories.

To all a happy Black History Month. ’Til next year.