Wednesday, July 18, 2012
William Raspberry paved the way for black columnist
William Raspberry set the gold standard among black columnist. He taught the rest of us how it’s supposed to be done. Raspberry, 76, died on Tuesday after a battle with prostate cancer.
I’ll never forget first meeting Raspberry. It was shortly after he was named the Knight Professor of the Practice of Communications and Journalism at the Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke University. Raspberry was introduced to the community with a lecture. The room was packed with people like me – those who write for a living.
It was like lingering in the shadow of a great guru. His words offered me hope in what could be mine one day. I listened as I took note of Barry Saunders, an impressive local columnist, who relished the moment like a disciple waiting for the rite of passage.
It’s not often that one meets a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist. Raspberry wrote masterpieces for the Washington Post for 39 years and appeared in more than 200 newspapers. He started in 1966 under the title Potomac Watch before using his own name. Rather than write about the obvious, the Washington DC political scene, Raspberry focused on crime, poverty, education, violence, drug abuse, parenting, civil rights and gay rights.
Raspberry impacted the way I approached column writing from the beginning. My first column appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on July 20, 1997. It was my birthday. Before writing that first column, I recounted the voice of Raspberry. He uncovered what others had missed. Like Raspberry, my work appeared in a white newspaper. I felt the weight of an entire community on my back.
Before writing that first column, I reflected on the column Raspberry wrote in 1993 about the lyrics in rap music. “I wish their songs could be less angry and ‘victimized’ and more about building a better world,” he wrote. Every word of that column stirred an amen from my soul. Something was happening in the streets of America, and I could feel things getting worse as rappers spit words with no thought of the implications.
I wanted my words to matter. My desire was to attack injustice with each word. I hoped to inspire. I prayed to open eyes. I wanted my space on the Sunday editorial page to evoke conversations regarding life among those with no voice.
Those words have power. Sometimes we, those who write columns, have to stand alone when we write. The challenge is in not becoming the tool of any given group. Column writers are forced to stand in the middle. Sometimes that means we function with no place to call home. Home is our words. It can be a lonely place. Raspberry helped me understand that I was not alone.
When I faced attack from the leadership of the Durham Committee on Affairs of Black People for columns that called into question their failure to move beyond the rhetoric of race, I went back to 1989. I was reminded that Raspberry faced criticism from NAACP officials and civil rights leaders for a column that criticized leaders as dwelling on racism, rather than solving problems facing blacks.
‘‘I don’t underestimate either the persistence of racism or its effects, but it does seem to me that you spend too much time thinking about racism,’’ he wrote. ‘‘It is as though your whole aim is to get white people to acknowledge their racism and accept their guilt. Well, suppose they did: What would that change?’’
The attacks from black leaders reminded me of my own. Time after time I’ve been told that I’ve been used by white people to expose what happens behind closed doors. Black journalists aren’t supposed to discuss what happens in the black community. Organizations like the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People have a policy that forbids journalist to be in the room if their intent is to write about what happens.
Raspberry, and all black columnists, endure the tragedy of having to prove allegiance to the race. All while shifting through the news. All while witnessing the contradiction between what is being said by those who lead, and what is being done to repair the massive problems in the streets.
I admired Raspberry for more than that Pulitzer Prize he won in 1994. I respect being awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Association of Black Journalist. Those are on the top of things I would like to achieve. As impressive as all of that looks in the award chest, I needed Raspberry for direction. I read him to help me endure the constant attacks that come when those words offend those you respect.
It’s lonely standing in the middle. Raspberry stood with those who write. He did it with integrity. He never wavered.
You can’t bow to fear when God gives you a pen and a place to share.
I’m gonna miss you Mr. Raspberry. I’m here because of you.
All of us are.