Walls on Haywood, 'Let Us Make Men: The Twentieth-Century Black Press and a Manly Vision for Racial Advancement'

D'Weston Haywood
Eric Walls

D'Weston Haywood. Let Us Make Men: The Twentieth-Century Black Press and a Manly Vision for Racial Advancement. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. 352 pp. $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-4339-7; $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-4338-0.

Reviewed by Eric Walls (Johnston Community College) Published on Jhistory (January, 2021) Commissioned by Robert A. Rabe

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55896

Race and gender are currently two of the more popular lenses of historical and historiographical inquiry among historians, and much ink has been spilled over questions of the influence of racial and gendered discourse in the discipline of history during recent decades. With the current sociopolitical trends surrounding these issues in modern American society and the growing popularity of intersectionality as an interpretive tool within the humanities in general, such lines of investigation display no signs of abating any time soon. D’Weston Haywood, Hunter College at City University of New York associate professor of history, enters this fray with Let Us Make Men: The Twentieth-Century Black Press and a Manly Vision for Racial Advancement. Haywood, however, takes a slightly different tack than most scholars currently mining this field. Where most scholars examine issues of gender through a distinctly feminine lens, Haywood focuses on manhood and masculinity. This approach is not unprecedented, but it is certainly underutilized as an interpretive tool. His application of the gendered lens of masculinity as a framework through which to study the influence of African American journalism on American society, and the African American community in particular, is also a fairly novel approach that yields some interesting insights.

The central argument of Let Us Make Men is that a distinct theme of black masculinity, particularly the promotion of models of defiant yet socially and personally responsible images of black manhood, can be traced in the pages of the black press throughout the twentieth century. Haywood makes this argument through detailed investigations of the lives and work of six of the leading and most provocative and controversial black journalists and publishers of the twentieth century: W. E. B. DuBois and his publication Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races; Robert S. Abbott and his nephew and protégé John Sengstacke and their paper, the Chicago Defender; Marcus Garvey and Negro World; Robert F. Williams and the Crusader; and Malcom X and Muhammad Speaks. Through this investigation, Haywood traces a trajectory of increasingly militant and often combative gendered discourse that simultaneously united and divided the black press and the black community while providing similar yet competing models of black advocacy and black manhood.

According to Haywood, “black people’s ideas, rhetoric, and strategies for black protest and racial advancement during the twentieth-century black freedom struggle grew out of a quest for proper black manhood led by black newspapers” (p. 3). This focus on black manhood and masculinity was a key component of the black freedom struggle precisely because white society consistently used gendered discourse to emasculate black men and justify a dominant position in American society. The black press in the age of segregation “represented one of the few spaces with a public function that black men could shape, if not control, at this time” (p. 5). As a result, the black press became the locus of the twentieth-century black freedom struggle as it was the one public space through which the black community in general, and black men in particular, could safely articulate their grievances and establish a set of mores and values in conscious and concerted efforts to redeem and elevate the black community to a more respectable and equitable place in American society. It was precisely the “embrace of a proper black manhood for the benefit of the race” that, Haywood argues, guided the rhetoric of the black press, “making the fight for racial justice a fight for manhood as well” (pp. 6, 7).

Haywood begins with an examination of the lives and work of DuBois and his publication Crisis, backed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Abbott and the Chicago Defender, one of the longest running, most widely distributed, and most influential black publications of the twentieth century. The Defender began in 1905 and Crisis in 1910, a period that witnessed the solidification of Jim Crow laws in the South and the dawn of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to urban centers in the North, a profound legal, social, and demographic change that undergirded both the inauguration of the modern black press, as exemplified by Crisis and the Defender, and the nascent civil rights movement itself. Indeed, both publications openly encouraged black migration and couched it in terms of the redemption of black manhood from the emasculating effects of the Jim Crow South. Haywood identifies Abbott’s efforts in particular as critical to this phenomenon. He notes that it was Abbott, more so than DuBois, that laid the foundation for the trajectory of the black press, its use of gendered discourse, and its influence throughout the twentieth century. “Abbott’s particular approach to covering the migration,” he asserts, “helped fuel the movement and ultimately turned the black press into a leading force in the urban struggle for racial advancement” (p. 22). This approach was steeped in appeals to black masculinity as Abbott and the Defender framed black migration “as the first step any black man could take to begin restoring his manhood” (p. 23). By framing black migration in such gendered terms, early twentieth-century black publications like Crisis and the Defender established a foundation for black racial advancement and intimately tied civil rights into notions of black masculinity and manhood, a model that the black press in general quickly assimilated and consistently used thereafter.

The second chapter focuses on the highly polarizing and controversial figure of Garvey and his publication Negro World. Garvey’s entrance into the early twentieth-century black press milieu marked a more militant turn in the rhetoric surrounding African American civil rights. He particularly caught the attention of black soldiers returning from World War I who found “they remained second-class citizens despite their service to the country” (p. 60). The reaction of the established black press, like Abbott’s Defender, to Garvey’s militant and separatist message initiated an internecine war of words that, Haywood demonstrates, was steeped in appeals to black masculinity. Black publishers fought among one another not only for the hearts and minds of the African American population in the United States but also over the very essence and meaning of black manhood itself.

Established black publications like the Defender viewed Garvey’s separatist message as an affront and threat to their more integrationist position on black civil rights and made it their mission to delegitimize Garvey and his work through scathing editorial diatribes that sought to undermine the public perception of Garvey’s own masculinity. Garvey responded in kind in his own publication, turning his ideological opponents’ tactics against them, defending his own masculinity and offering emasculating rhetoric, and initiating a tit for tat smear campaign on both sides that used ideas of black manhood and masculinity as ammunition in a high stakes struggle for readership and influence within the African American community. Having established black masculinity as intimately correlated and even interdependent with black racial advancement and civil rights, the black press came to use the rhetoric of masculinity, or the perceived lack thereof, as the very core of its strategy to not only uplift the black race in general in American society but also simultaneously denigrate those within that same community who offered competing visions of black advancement in efforts to strengthen their own position and influence. This internecine conflict “transformed the black press into both a tool for the promotion of black male leadership and a tool for its destruction” as newspapermen like Abbott and Garvey attempted to cement their own ideas of black manhood and racial advancement as the best way forward for the African American community. As Haywood points out, this internal conflict directly “counters the traditional historical narrative of the black press coming together to rail against racial oppression and promote racial unity” (p. 60).

Chapter 3 returns to the world of the Chicago Defender as the reins of the paper, and with them claims to black male leadership within the African American community, were transferred from Abbott to his nephew and protégé, Sengstacke. By the end of the 1920s, Garvey’s opponents had successfully managed to discredit him, signaling a victory for the more moderate and integrationist approach to black civil rights. Abbott and the Defender emerged from this fray stronger than ever, having “outstripped much of his competition and achieved levels of commercial success unseen by many black publishers” (p. 98). This success made Abbott a model of black manhood and his paper arguably the leading voice of black masculinity and the black struggle for civil rights. Abbott bequeathed this mantle to his protégé, Sengstacke, who sought to use it as a unifying force for the institution of the black press, a position that was at least in part a direct response to the fracturing of the institution that resulted from the row between Garvey and his detractors in the pages of the black press, and in part a representation of a new generation of black male leadership that responded to the growing socialist/communist influences that spread throughout the country and within the black community as a result of the economic upheavals of the Great Depression. Sengstacke was certainly influenced by these developments, a distinct break with his uncle and mentor’s approach, and came to view organizing the institution of the black press along such models as essential to the progress of black manhood and black racial advancement. He recognized the power of the press to shape public opinion and perception. Only through an organized front could the black press use its power and influence to achieve its ultimate goals—the thorough redemption of black manhood, with newspapermen and other successful black men like Sengstacke as models, and through such the redemption of the entire race. 

With these ideals in mind, Sengstacke initiated the formation of the Negro Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) in 1940. He pitched this organization in distinctly masculine terms as a “fraternity for the common good and welfare for all,” which echoed the rhetoric of “Communist’s and labor organizers’ ideas and ideals of brotherhood” that “helped construct a vocabulary of masculinist terms that many activists,” including an increasingly activist black press, “used to articulate demands for rights, and mobilize for them” (p. 126). Indeed, Haywood notes that the communist and labor organizers’ influence did much to foster a new, more militant aesthetic among the black press as a whole, a development that seemed to vindicate, at least in part, the previous efforts of Garvey and his ilk. The NNPA did much to unify the spirit and message of the black press under this fraternal banner, providing a solid foundation through which black media helped to launch the social and political civil rights struggles of the next few decades—a struggle that put the very essence of black masculinity to the test.

The surge in militancy of the mainstream black press, however, was relatively short-lived as the rising tide of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and the advent and growing influence of new black male leaders, like Martin Luther King Jr. who advocated for a distinctly nonviolent approach, coupled with a new Cold War era fear of anything influenced by or resembling socialism/communism, made such militant rhetoric a faux pax to many that threatened the growing gains that King’s approach underscored. Such militancy did not disappear, however. The black community was certainly not completely unified around King’s message. A new generation of black male leaders and publications separate and distinct from those under the NNPA banner emerged to challenge the mainstream black press and called them to task for their abandonment of the more militant tone that highlighted the 1940s and secured significant changes in attitudes as well as policy, as exemplified by the Double V campaigns during and after World War II. Haywood uses the example of Williams and his independent publication the Crusader to highlight such challenges in chapter 4. The challenges issued by Williams and his ilk and the subsequent editorial battles between him and the mainstream black press, which overwhelmingly supported King’s approach, echoed the battles between Garvey and his opponents decades earlier, with similar appeals to notions of black masculinity and similar weaponization of the same.

Williams, perhaps best known for his highly controversial 1962 monograph Negroes with Guns, was one of the most vocal opponents of King’s nonviolent, turn-the-other-cheek approach to black civil rights. Although his independent, self-published periodical, the Crusader, did not have the financial resources or widespread circulation of his peers in the mainstream black press, the coverage of Williams in that press helped to increase the influence of his rhetoric far beyond his paper’s relatively limited exposure. In the face of a surge in violence against African Americans following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that began the long desegregation process, Williams’s advocacy of black self-defense stood in stark contrast to King’s approach that called for blacks to sacrifice their own bodies for the sake of advancing the civil rights agenda. Williams and King presented two opposing visions of black manhood that jockeyed for influence within the African American community. King’s approach “promoted the courageous nonviolent activist, or ‘strong man,’ as King came to call him, as the new model of black masculinity” (p. 140). To Williams, King’s “strong man” was anything but strong but rather an affront to black men’s dignity and manhood. The mainstream black press latched itself onto King’s message and used its platform to denigrate Williams and his supporters as a dangerous anachronism, ill-suited for the times.

In taking King’s side in the debate over the proper expression of black masculinity and civil rights, Haywood argues, the mainstream black press essentially sealed its own fate as the voice of the black public. As King’s nonviolent approach began to make headway and effect actual change in both attitudes and policy, interest in and advocacy of the black civil rights movement among whites increased exponentially and the movement garnered more and more coverage in the mainstream white media. This created a crisis in the black press. “For the first time,” writes Haywood, “black newspapers had to compete directly with the white press for black readers.” White papers also began to siphon away many of the most talented black journalists as they were deemed “more suited than white ones to go into black communities for stories” (p. 178). Inexorably, the mainstream black press lost much of its influence as many of the ideals regarding black civil rights became more and more accepted in the pages of the white press and by the general public.

The black press did not die, however. The black civil rights movement took a more militant turn in the 1960s, despite and perhaps because of the embrace of King’s rhetoric and strategies by the mainstream black press. As white media began to attract black readers and black talent, the alternative and increasingly radicalized black press, as exemplified by Williams’s Crusader, became the de facto voice of a black public increasingly disillusioned with King’s nonviolent approach in the face of continued social and racial unrest. Haywood examines this shift through the lens of the Nation of Islam, Malcom X, and their publication Muhammad Speaks in his final chapter. Much scholarship has been focused on Malcom X and the Nation of Islam’s role in the black freedom struggle, but little of it highlights the role that Muhammad Speaks had in advancing the organization’s message. Like its predecessors, Muhammad Speaks provided a vehicle for the redemption of black men and black manhood. Unlike many of those predecessors, with the notable exception of Garvey and his Negro World, the paper rejected the long-standing tradition of the black press’s advocacy of integration, focusing rather on the idea that the best way for black manhood to be redeemed was for African Americans to discard any desire to be “part of a society that was categorically incapable of giving black people their rights, respect as human beings, and real manhood and womanhood” (p. 182).

Haywood makes the case that the message of the Nation of Islam and Muhammad Speaks brought the vision of black manhood that emerged in the early twentieth century in the pages of black newspapers like the Chicago Defender full circle while simultaneously standing that vision on its head. While men like Abbott saw the Great Migration and theoretical integration of blacks into urban centers in the North as the path to black male redemption in the early twentieth century, Malcom X and the Nation of Islam saw the decay of the black communities in those urban centers by the 1960s as a sign that the path to redemption was a failure. Only through the rejection of the urban ideal for blacks and the embrace of self-sufficiency and self-responsibility could black men and black manhood be thoroughly redeemed, and black people finally be accorded their rightful standing in the world. Although the emphasis on self-sufficiency and responsibility or the promotion of the separation of African Americans from mainstream American society were not new ideas or positions, the context of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s put these ideas in a different perspective. Whereas the mainstream black press managed to successfully de-platform men like Garvey decades before when the foundation of a successful black civil rights movement as promoted in the pages of the black press was just beginning to be built, when it seemed that movement stood on the brink of success but had reached the limits of the gains possible through integrationist approaches like King’s, the separatist message and vision of a respectable yet defiant black manhood in the pages of Muhammad Speaks found new traction among an increasingly frustrated black public, particularly young black men.

Indeed, it was the radical militancy expressed by men like Williams and Malcom X that initiated a distinct shift in the tone and tenor of the black civil rights movement in the 1960s, especially after King’s assassination in 1968. As the integrationist approach long advocated by the mainstream black press became increasingly co-opted by white media, the radical black press exploded. Haywood notes the direct influence of both Williams and the Nation of Islam on new radical black organizations like the Black Panthers with its Black Power rhetoric, which became a new standard for black civil rights and a strident black masculinity. This was a double-edged sword, however: while Black Power gave new strength to the movement and to black men, it also engendered heightened backlash from a growing conservative movement in the United States that challenged the liberal turn in American politics of the 1960s.

Haywood’s work traces the trajectory and history of the twentieth-century black press and its use of the rhetoric of proper black manhood to underscore that trajectory. The gendered perspective that Haywood pursues breaks new ground in both the study of twentieth-century African American history in general and the ways the black press provided an ideological and rhetorical foundation grounded in concepts of manhood and masculinity for the civil rights movement of that century. For perhaps the first time, the significance of the debates surrounding concepts of black masculinity and the long mission to redeem black manhood in both the eyes of the African American community and the American body politic in general is revealed in all of its twists, turns, contradictions, and similarities. This work is especially poignant today as the last several decades have revealed a new crisis in black masculinity: the African American community struggles with issues of absentee fathers; chronic male unemployment; and a youth culture that celebrates violence, drug use, and misogyny. These are some of the very issues that the twentieth-century black press strove to address with its rhetoric of a strong, articulate, responsible, and confident black masculinity to counter long-held—and grossly overstated—stereotypes of blacks, and black men in particular, as idle, shiftless, ignorant, and not deserving of respect or a place in mainstream American society.

Haywood ends his work by briefly returning to Sengstacke as he took the helm of the NNPA for the fifth and final time in 1978. Sengstacke agreed to this precisely because he saw a new crisis emerging as the black press continued to lose influence and its message of what were and were not proper expressions of black manhood faded from view as American society struggled to reorient itself after the tumultuous social, political, and economic upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s. It is interesting that Haywood ends his study here, right on the cusp of a new revolution in black culture with the advent of rap and hip-hop, which promoted a version of black masculinity rooted in the radicalism of men like Williams, Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers’ Huey Newton, but in many ways in opposition to the general standard of black manhood long advocated by the twentieth-century black press in its heyday. This raises new questions of how the black press responded to these changes and how it countered and/or supported these cultural shifts and expressions of black masculinity. There is also the question of whether the responses to these changes by the black press were effective in any way as the last decades of the twentieth century and the first few decades of the twenty-first saw the phenomenon of the integration of black journalists into the mainstream white media identified by Haywood as beginning in the 1960s continue at an exponentially faster rate as the years progressed. There does still exist a distinct black press and journalistic tradition, but its voice has been muted considerably as the mainstream press steadily loses its whiteness and adopts and adapts to a more multicultural reality. Then there is the issue of the recent cultural shifts in concepts and attitudes of gender and whether the rhetoric of manhood and masculinity is not itself merely an anachronistic relic devoid of any meaningful impact in a society that is questioning the very idea of masculinity.

Indeed, Haywood’s work raises as many questions as it answers, but that is merely a sign of a job well done. Part of the historian’s role is to help raise such questions in the quest for a more complete understanding of history and the ways it shapes the present and the future. Haywood has laid a foundation for a gendered perspective on the history of the black press, the civil rights movement, and African American culture and society that leaves the door wide open for future scholars to pursue similar examinations. Even as concepts of gender shift and morph into forms that most people of the last century would find alien, investigations into how that gendered rhetoric and concepts shaped the ideologies, societies, and cultures of the peoples of the past can help illuminate the origins and meanings behind such shifts, how the present came to be what it is, and how the future may be navigated with a bit more nuance and finesse.

Citation: Eric Walls. Review of Haywood, D'Weston, Let Us Make Men: The Twentieth-Century Black Press and a Manly Vision for Racial Advancement. Jhistory, H-Net Reviews. January, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55896

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.