[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #7 in December 2008]
Negro Digest/Black World is a fascinating artifact because the content of each issue seems to evade rigid binaries like integrationist or nationalist, and therefore became a very real space for public debate. For instance, the November 1966 issue contains an article entitled Black Power Symposium features 12 different opinions on Black Power, offered by a diverse group of black individuals ranging from Conrad Kent Rivers, founder of Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), to Anita Cornwell, a writer and former state employee, to Dudley Randall, founder of Broadside Press but also a librarian and poet. The sheer range of voices about this particular concept indicates how useful this resource is for constructing a historiography of the time from an African American perspective. A fascinating example is June Jordan’s White English: The Politics of Language, part of the August 1973 issue’s Focus on Language feature. In this essay Jordan makes an extremely cogent appeal to readers about the importance of “black” English. At the end of the article, the political implications are amplified by the postscript that reads “Both her [June Jordan] award-winning teen novel His Own Where and Dry Victories, a history book, were written entirely in “Black Language.” “One consequence,” she writes, “is that the novel has been banned from the public schools of Baltimore Md.” As this example illustrates, the magazine both hosted literal debates and articulated more conceptual and long running problems such as the one addressed by Jordan.
Negro Digest/Black World also showcased original aesthetic theory and reproductions of rare artworks. For example, the October 1971 issue features the article, AFRICOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists): 10 in Search of a Nation, by AFRICOBRA artist Jeff Donaldson. Not only does this article contain the group’s credo in the words of one of its most prominent member, but also features a variety of rare images, such as Africobra member Jae Jarrell modeling her “revolutionary suit.” This fascinating image has fallen almost completely into obscurity, only existing in this periodical’s yellowing pages.
Negro Digest/Black World constitutes a massive archive. A renewed scholarly interest in these periodicals offers new perspectives and could profoundly change the way we consider the Black Arts Movement and Black activism during this period. ◊