February 9, 2021

Below is an excerpt from The Cohort, Poynter’s newsletter for women in media. Subscribe here to get it in your inbox every two weeks.

There is provocative, important, deep writing about Black history during this year’s Black History Month, including the first article I reference below. I could also say that about almost any other year in my professional life.

As editor of The Cohort, Poynter’s newsletter by and for women in media, I highlighted a few columns that stuck with me over the years and reached out to the authors to see what, if anything, has changed since they wrote them.

What this 18th-century poet reveals about Amanda Gorman’s success — By Manisha Sinha

In this CNN column, Sinha draws parallels between Gorman and Phillis Wheatley, an enslaved Black woman who published poetry during the American Revolutionary War. Wheatley was one of the first women, not just Black women, to be published in this country. Like Gorman, she was brilliant, wrote about American democracy and attracted both presidential praise and racist critique. Sinha wrote:

Though separated by centuries, wildly disparate life experiences and so many other differences, this echo between Wheatley and Gorman serves as a reminder: Black women poets, from Wheatley to Gorman, seem to have an impossible task balancing their mastery of art with the authenticity of their experiences and history.

As I watched Gorman’s poetry performance at the Superbowl(!), I kept thinking about Sinha’s column and what she had to say about Gorman’s place in a history shaped by Wheatley.

Since you can’t yet get your hands on Gorman’s forthcoming books, I asked Sinha for her recommendations of Wheatley’s poetry. She suggests “On Recollection,” “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth” and “To His Excellency George Washington” (to which America’s first president responded that he wanted to meet “one so favord by the Muses”). She also shouted out her public letter to Rev. Samson Occom, a minister who was a member of the Mohegan nation.

Gorman would recommend Wheatley’s poetry, too. She tweeted that Thomas Jefferson’s racist remarks about Wheatley spur her forward, and she told Michelle Obama that Wheatley is one of her inspirations.

I learned three lessons about newsroom diversity 30 years ago. They still apply — By Susan Smith Richardson

When Richardson wrote this Cohort column in July 2019, she was the new CEO for the Center for Public Integrity. She was also the first Black person to hold that title in the center’s 30-year history. The lessons about diversity, equity and inclusion she outlined — focus on the work, the policies and the leadership — still resonate a year and a half later. Or more accurately, 31 and a half years later. I asked her if anything was different after Black Lives Matter became the biggest social justice movement in U.S. history.

“I think the conversation, at least with journalists of color and other folks who think deeply about racism, is at a higher level, pushing the need for radical (as in to the root) change,” Richardson told me via email. “We are challenging the journalistic canon — who gets to tell the story, who is a reliable narrator, etc. Representation is not enough, especially the performative changes some institutions have scurried to make. I view the demands as a progression, though we are still dealing with some of the same issues.”

Richardson, for her part, is honing in on these issues as the new deputy editor for the Guardian US. Starting next month, she will focus on advancing DEI initiatives for the organization.

‘The Mother of a Movement’: First black woman White House correspondent is finally getting recognition — By Lisa Goodnight

I enjoyed learning more about Alice Dunnigan, the first Black woman in the White House press corps, from this 2018 column by Goodnight. She wrote about three lessons for disruptors from Dunnigan’s career: Know you belong, even as others say you don’t. Honor your ancestors. And don’t stop.

Now, years later, I asked Goodnight about the enduring legacy of Dunnigan.

“We have a statue of Alice Dunnigan. We have her words. There is a historical marker in her home state. It shouldn’t stop there,” Goodnight said via email. “Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of Netflix and Lifetime, absorbing stories of Black women in entertainment and business. I’m ready to see Alice Dunnigan or another high-profile Black woman journalist added to the mix. I know I’m not alone. Alice Dunnigan, Ethel Payne, and others like them should be studied, appreciated and seen.”

It’s hard not to notice that the White House press briefing room is more female-dominated in 2021. Biden’s communications team is led by women. Women, including Black women such as Kristen Welker and Yamiche Alcindor, are leading White House coverage for TV networks.

“I am thrilled that even more White House Press corps members will be sharing their stories as Alice did so long ago,” said Goodnight. “For example, both PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor and CBS’s Weijia Jiang are working on their memoirs. They bring an important perspective and their voices are needed.”

Subscribe to The Cohort to access curated lists of mentors, get to know more about each columnist, and participate in an ongoing conversation amongst women in media, technology and news.

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Mel Grau is the senior product specialist at The Poynter Institute, focusing on Poynter's training experiences and newsletters. She previously edited The Cohort, Poynter’s biweekly…
Mel Grau

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