Saturday, June 10

AFRO spotlight: a look at 130 years of entertainment and culture

By Kara Thompson,
Special to the AFRO

The entertainment and media industry in the United States is the biggest in the world at $660 billion, according to the International Trade Administration’s Global Media & Entertainment Team. With a market that large, it’s no wonder that news publications– the AFRO included– cover the people, productions and content of the entertainment industry. 

The AFRO is unique in that there has been continuous coverage of the industry and how it influenced Black culture and Black freedoms since 1892, when the publication began. 

Many of the first “entertainment” articles published by the AFRO were actually pieces that detailed African American culture and life. The columns included sermon notes from local churches, honoring the AFRO’s origins as a church newsletter. The pieces also covered various happenings in the community, such as a benefit concert in 1896 at Provident Hospital, a Black medical facility.  

On Jan. 14, 1961, the AFRO reported on a concert called the Civil Rights Movement at Carnegie Hall. The event featured Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Mahalia Jackson, and Count Basie. The vent was hosted by singer Sammy Davis Jr. and author Maya Angelou. (Photo by AFRO Archives)

Eventually, the coverage came to be about mainstream music, theater and movies—what we think of today when we call to mind images of the entertainment industry. The AFRO covered acts both large and small in efforts to capture a true depiction of African American life at all points in time since 1892.  

An  example of this is a May 1925 article about Eubie Blake and his style of music, titled “Eubie Blake returns to home town with ‘hot’ gang.” The story mentions Blake’s popular tunes by name in addition to a bio of the act he was traveling with at the time, Sissle and the Dandies. The article also details other entertainment acts that were soon to appear at the Ford Theater in Washington, D.C.

In March 1938 the AFRO printed a picture of Frank O. Roberts, star of the The Hampton Institute Creative Dance Group, in full costume at Douglass High School. The dance group made the entertainment section of the paper after giving viewers a taste of Africa with performances that included stilts.

Today, the AFRO lends coverage to museum exhibits, book reviews, and up and coming names in the fashion industry, in addition to music, theater productions and movies. 

Spotlight on Jim Crow

Entertainment centered around social justice has been a constant source of content for the AFRO, as artists have a long tradition of using their platform to raise money and awareness for civil and human rights issues affecting the race.

The AFRO has highlighted and recorded into history Black artists, performers, actors, authors and singers like Sammie Davis, Alex Haley, Marion Anderson, and Harry Belafonte– all who used their talents to push the race forward. 

Shown here, an AFRO entertainment page from March 26, 1938. The coverage from that week included the treatment of an all-Black cast of “Porgy and Bess,” and the narrow escape of pera singer Caterina Jarboro, who fled Vienna, Austria just before Adolf Hitler marched his troops into the country. (Photo by AFRO Archives)

Jazz singer Billie Holiday sang a poem in 1939 by teacher and poet Abel Meeropol, entitled “Strange Fruit.” Her record called attention to the horrific realities of lynchings used to terrorize Black Americans seeking equal citizenship in the wake of slavery, reconstruction and Jim Crow.

In 1960 the AFRO covered how choreographer Larry Steele purchased NAACP memberships for the entire cast of his show, “Smart Affairs.” This was a common practice for Steele, who annually bought memberships into the organization in bulk so others could have access to accurate information about the NAACP and its resources. 

From Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn” to Malaika Aminata’s 2016 documentary after the death of Freddie Gray, titled “Not About a Riot,” the AFRO has covered artists using their craft to make a statement on Black life in the United States. 

As founder John H. Murphy intended, the AFRO has continued to capture not only the everyday lives of Black Americans, their culture, but also how they view themselves through their art.

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