A Cord of Three Strands (Karima Haynes)

Given at the closing dinner of the Spring Conference for African American Journalists of Faith (Atlanta, Georgia, April 30, 2005)

The Samuel Eli Cornish

Memorial Lecture

Samuel E. Cornish

(1795-1841)

Samuel Cornish was born in Sussex County in southern Delaware in 1795 to a free family. In 1815 at age 20, he moved to Philadelphia, where he was picked to be tutored for the gospel ministry by members of the Philadelphia Presbyterian leadership. Cornish was recruited in 1820 by New York City evangelical Presbyterians to move to New York and minister to poor blacks. In 1824, Cornish built and settled into a brick home in lower Manhattan with his new wife, Jane. The house served as the church building for the New Demeter Street Presbyterian Church, the first black Presbyterian congregation in New York City. In March 1827 Cornish launched Freedom’s Journal, the first black newspaper in the United States. In September 1827, having completed his agreed-upon six months as managing editor, Cornish resigned from the Freedom’s Journal and in 1828, he withdrew as pastor of New Demeter Street Presbyterian Church. In 1828, Freedom’s Journal ceased publication after 103 issues. Noting this, Cornish started a new paper to replace Freedom’s Journal called the Rights of All, but it lasted only six months. In 1837, with ink still in his blood, Cornish started yet another newspaper, Colored American, which ceased publication in 1841. In poor health, Cornish died in 1858 at age 62 in Brooklyn.

A Cord of Three Strands: The Distinct Role of
the African-American Christian Journalist

By Karima Haynes

It is my honor and privilege to stand before you tonight as the inaugural speaker of the Samuel Eli Cornish Memorial Lecture Series of the World Journalism Institute.

Here we are this evening at the historic Atlanta University Center where generations of African-American scholars like W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King Jr., artists like Spike Lee and Alice Walker, and political leaders like former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson and former Atlanta City Council President Marvin Arrington were among countless students seeking a college education.

Just like those before us, we have gathered here to share, to learn and to challenge ourselves in our role as African-American Christian journalists.

African-American Christian journalists -- now that’s a mouthful.

They are three distinct identities that are seemingly incompatible, yet compatible at the same time. We know this to be true because we embody all three.

In God’s sovereign power, He has decided that this is who we should be in this world. He has created us as black men and women. He has called us through the Holy Spirit to be His children by our acceptance of His Son Jesus Christ by faith. He has bestowed upon us the gift to communicate through the written and spoken word.

So how do we, as African-American Christian journalists, fulfill our mission from God? How do we honor our gift, our race and our relationship with God in the newsrooms where we work? How do we walk the line between that which is sacred and that which is secular? How do we remain true to our profession without compromising our faith? How do we show God’s love in the workplace without preaching a sermon?

I want to talk to you tonight about those three distinct personalities: First, who are we as journalists? Second, who are we as African-Americans in the newsroom? And, thirdly, who are we as Christians in the mainstream media?

Who Are We As Journalists?

As journalists, we have to be dedicated to seeking truth, righting wrongs and writing our portion of history’s record. But before we can reach for those more lofty goals, we have to begin at the beginning:

We have to show up for class.

We have to complete our assignments.

We have to turn them in on time.

We have to work on the student newspaper, radio station or television station.

We have to become a student member of professional organizations.

We have to apply for internships.

We have to read The New York Times and our local newspaper daily.

We have to watch broadcast news everyday.

We have to log on to media-related websites.

We need to read the Columbia Journalism Review, American Journalism Review and other trade publications.

We have to find a journalist in industry or academia who will give us constructive criticism and wise counsel.

I remember once when I was an associate editor at Ebony magazine and we had a luncheon honoring the 50th anniversary of Johnson Publishing Co. Another editor came in a few minutes late, didn’t realize that a line had formed for the buffet, and walked straight to the serving table. Publisher John H. Johnson called the person’s name and said, “There are no shortcuts.”

That statement is so simple, yet so profound: There are no shortcuts.

Everyone has to start at the beginning, work their way to the middle and push themselves to get to the top of their profession.

Yes, you may get a break because you know someone who knows someone who knows someone. But you still have to perform once you get in. No inside track can make up for a lack of preparation or performance. People who cut corners eventually get found out, and the fall is devastating.

Take the time to learn your craft. Don’t leave college because a job offer looks good. Get your degree -- and even an advanced degree -- because it will pay dividends in the long run.

Once you get your degree, work for a small- to medium-sized newspaper or television market. This is where you can learn the nuts and bolts of your profession, make mistakes without major consequences and learn from reporters and editors around you.

I have an undergraduate degree from Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University) and a master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, but I didn’t learn real-world journalism until I joined the staff of the Providence Journal-Bulletin.

It was there, sitting next to solid reporters and coming under the scrutiny of exacting editors, that I learned how to report and write. My first editor, Phil Kukielski, used to say, “No amount of good writing can make up for a lack of reporting.” I had the talent to write, but I had yet to develop a reporter’s curiosity, assertiveness and skepticism. At a smaller paper, I was able to build a solid foundation. Once you have a strong foundation, you can move on to larger newspapers and television stations where you will soar.

Who Are We As African-Americans in the Newsroom?

The second question that is before us tonight is, “Who are we as African-Americans in the newsroom?” It’s the age-old question: “Are you a black reporter or a reporter who happens to be black?” For me, the answer is -- both.

I cannot deny my blackness. It is the essence of who I am. It is the perspective from which I view the world.

When I saw the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney G. King by white LAPD officers, I reacted as a black person. When I saw handcuffed black teenager Donovan Jackson punched in the face by a white Inglewood police officer, I reacted as a black person. When a mostly black jury found O.J. Simpson not guilty of murdering his wife and her companion, I could understand the desire for “payback.”

Although I did not cover any of these stories, I can imagine that I would have had to exercise a whole lot of self-restraint to keep my personal feelings from spilling over into my copy.

Even when I try to set my blackness aside for the sake of the story, there is always someone to remind me of my color.

I was working as a reporter in the Newport Bureau of the Providence Journal-Bulletin. We were gathering information for mini-profiles on the candidates running for delegate to the state’s constitutional convention. A white female candidate came into the office, and as she handed me her biographical sketch she said, “You sounded different on the phone.”

On a positive note, some of my best writing has come out of my experiences with race, class and religion. I dealt with these issues in a series of personal essays published in the Sunday Journal Magazine that allowed me to share universal truths from my perspective as a black woman.

And, yes, there are times when I am a reporter who happens to be black. When I’m writing routine stories about landfills, real estate development, transportation, teachers’ union negotiations, tourism, criminal trials or home invasion robberies, there’s no room for a black perspective, white perspective, Latino perspective or Asian perspective. I am just another reporter covering the nuts and bolts of municipal machinery.

As an African-American in the newsroom, I see myself as a resource person. I am there to give my colleagues insight into what it means to be an African-American. I want them to know that we are not a monolith. I want them to know that we are in all strata of society. I want them to know that regardless of how far some of us have come economically, we feel a responsibility to help those who are still struggling. And I also want people in the black community to feel that they can come to me with a story idea, but that the story is going to done based on its newsworthiness, not because there’s a sistah in the newsroom.

Historically, African-American journalists like Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois and Ida B. Wells, among others, were crusaders for equal rights for black Americans. Even today, many of us look to Essence, Ebony, Jet, Vibe, The Source and Black Enterprise magazines and tune into “The Tom Joyner Morning Show” and “Tavis Smiley” to find out what’s happening in black America.

Tonight, we honor one of those early pioneers who dedicated his life to the cause of freedom, justice, equality and faith. He was the very embodiment of an African-American Christian journalist -- Samuel Eli Cornish.

According to his biography, Cornish was an early Presbyterian minister and a prominent abolitionist. A conservative in religious and social views, he lost influence in the early 1840s as many black leaders became more militant, although he remained a respected figure. In addition, Cornish was an important newspaper editor, a co-founder of Freedom’s Journal, the first black newspaper, and later editor of the Colored American.

Now, more than a century and a half later, we, the descendants of Samuel Eli Cornish, are carving out our identities as African-American Christian journalists.

Who Are We As Christians in the Newsroom?

When we walk into the newsroom, it is clear that we are black journalists. But our Christian faith may not be as readily apparent. How do we show our faith in the newsroom?

I John 4:19 says, “We love because He first loved us.” First, we must acknowledge that God has blessed us with the talent to communicate through the written and spoken word. He has given us the opportunity to go to college and to work in our chosen field. We must show our appreciation to God through our actions toward our editors, colleagues and sources. How do we do this?

Simple.

 

You show God’s love by:

• Showing up everyday, on time, prepared, ready to work.

• Being willing to help colleagues.

• Doing what is necessary to get the job done.

• Offering to help before you are asked.

• Challenging yourself to be better each day.

• Setting goals and reaching them.

• Asking about your boss’ s spouse and kids.

• Remembering a colleague’s birthday.

• Cheering another’s promotion.

• Sending an encouraging e-mail.

• Refusing to listen to gossip.

• Making the extra phone call on a story.

• Putting in a full day’s work.

• Doing what you say you are going to do.

• Asking for help.

• Not being ashamed to say you’re overwhelmed.

• Not cheating on expense reports.

• Owning up to mistakes.

• Saying you’re sorry.

• Controlling your temper.

God loved us enough to give us the ability to write and edit; we should show our love and appreciation by doing things that would please Him.

If we think of evangelism as plowing, planting and harvesting, then the workplace should be considered a plowing ministry. You are just trying to break up the ground; you are not trying make people fall to their knees in the office and shout, “What must I do to be saved?” Although that WOULD be great! But you are establishing a level of trust, where you can eventually sow seeds and, hopefully, reap a harvest. Or, if not you, then someone else in this person’s life (God is in control!)

This does not mean go to happy hour with the work crew because you hope to win them to Christ by showing that you “fit in,” and you’re not passing judgment on them. No, it means living a life that attracts them to the Christ in you. They see that you are just as professional and dedicated to your career as they are, but there is something different about you. That’s the lure that will bring them to Christ.

In Act I, scene III of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the character of Polonius offers his son the following words of advice before the young man leaves home to travel abroad:

This above all:

To thine own self be true.

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou cans’t not be false to any man.

God has ordained us to be who we are. We must embrace that gift. We must stand tall in our unique role. We must believe that we have something to offer our society. We are, unashamedly, African-American Christian journalists.

God bless you all.