By Vernon A. Williams
Media in the U.S. credited actress Bo Derek with making “cornrows” fashionable in her hit movie, “10.” Those journalists were oblivious to, or ignored the fact that Cicely Tyson sported the fresh hairstyle years earlier.
Frequently, even well-meaning scribes of different races are bound by their limited exposure and perspectives as they attempt to attach definition and meanings to a people and a culture with which they are unfamiliar.
Compounding the so-called majority media inadequacy, they are often stricken with what I refer to as, the ”Christopher Columbus Syndrome.” That is, the white press often assumes that nothing exists until it enters their realm of familiarity or until they discover it.
While women’s liberation was a movement of the 70s and beyond for white journalists, unknown to them, Black women like Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, Barbara Jordan, and Shirley Chisholm were warriors in the fight for human dignity, freedom, justice, equality and inclusion, decades earlier.
African American women have been standing their ground since the shackles were dropped and oppression of Blacks shifted to more psychological and social enslavement.
That fight is waged even today by the National Newspaper Publishers Association, led by NNPA President Dorothy Leavell, battling in the trenches to expose uncomfortable truths.
Growing up in Gary, Indiana, my first exposure to daily news was the Gary Post-Tribune which – except for sports, crime and a few annual banquets – pretty much limited its coverage of people who looked like me to an inside page dubbed “News of Our Colored Folks.” There is not enough space to write about all that was wrong with that policy.
Instead, let’s talk about someone who rejected the notion that white writers, editors, photographers and columnists would responsibly speak for the Black community. Imogene Harris and her husband, James T. Harris, launched the Gary Info newspaper. It remained in circulation for about half of a century before J.T.’s death and her retirement.
Imogene Harris was the voice and face of Info while her brilliant, witty and skilled spouse relished the role of being that quiet storm that brought such a forceful voice to the publication. People couldn’t wait to get their weekly Info in the mail or see it at barber shops or offices of Black professionals or grocery store and pharmacy newsstands.
Even during the 10 years that I was a reporter and columnist for the Gary Post-Tribune, there were too many stories dismissed or ignored because of too few Black journalists and editors to capture them all. Most such worthy events and activities that fell through the daily newspaper cracks were salvaged by Imogene Harris and the Gary Info News.
For me the essence of her contribution is personal. When I was a sophomore at Gary Roosevelt High School, I asked Temple-Jean Harris – her daughter and a friend – if her parents would let me write for Info. She suggested that I ask. I went into their office which at the time was located on the lower level of a drugstore building on 16th and Broadway. I did ask and a busy Mrs. Harris responded, “We’ll think about it.”
I visited her a few days later – both to see if she had made up her mind and to share a concept for the column about teenagers throughout Gary. The column would reveal their dreams, accomplishments, events, and views as well as provide information beneficial to teenagers. She again responded, “We’ll think about it.”
When I showed up a third time with my first sample column written and the title of the column, “On the Teen Scene,” she glared at me with an expression that either expressed her disbelief or annoyance with my persistence. Then she read the typed column, looked at me with a stoic but warm countenance told me not to miss weekly deadlines.
Mrs. Harris launched my career in journalism and media. Everything that I went on to achieve or accomplish beyond that point was the direct result of her receptiveness and willingness to be a mentor, long after my graduating Indiana University with a degree in Journalism. Throughout the years, what she did for me, she did for countless others.
Info was a sounding board for the Black community, a challenging force to the white community, a portal for our unique culture and interests. The newspaper was unafraid of controversy and embraced the role as advocate. Leading the charge through out the Info experience was the incomparable Imogene Harris. She is a person you’d much rather have on your team than as adversary – a woman of courage, passion and principle.
Mrs. Harris has always been a “second mother” to me. Like all “sons,” there were times when I made her proud and times that I let her down. You can trust her to let you know. But the unchanging variable then and now is the love, respect and admiration that I have for Mrs. Imogene Harris – a one-of-a-kind Gary icon. Her journalism was uncompromising, compassionate, and unapologetically Black.
What a difference she made in my life and the lives of too many to mention. This is a truth important for me to speak while she is still in Gary today to receive it. Thank you, Mrs. Harris!
CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference-makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society.Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: email@example.com.