Journalist Deborah D. Douglas Wants to Reframe the National Conversation Around Race
As coeditor-in-chief of The Emancipator, she's building an antiracist multimedia platform
Journalist Deborah D. Douglas Wants to Reframe the National Conversation Around Race
As coeditor in chief of The Emancipator, she’s building an antiracist multimedia platform
As Deborah D. Douglas was working her way up the ranks of American journalism, from the Shore Line Times, in Guilford, Conn., to the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., to the Chicago Sun-Times, she was troubled by a sense that some people—people who looked like her—were, to use a word she’s coined, “depresenced” by the mainstream press, as if they’d never existed at all.
Now, Douglas is in a position to help change that. She’s the coeditor in chief of a new online multimedia platform, The Emancipator, a collaboration between the Boston Globe opinion team and BU’s Center for Antiracist Research. With another veteran Black journalist, her coeditor Amber Payne, she’s building something new in journalism. Expected to launch in mid-2022, The Emancipator aims to “resurrect and reimagine” the 19th-century American abolitionist newspapers that helped end slavery. The Emancipator’s goal is broad and bold: with the Black experience as a starting point, it hopes to reframe the national conversation around race and hasten racial justice through evidence-based opinion and ideas essays, videos, annotations, and events produced by and with experts from academia and the community.
It’s a unique editorial structure. While Payne, who is a former managing editor at BET.com and executive producer of Teen Vogue, was hired by the Globe, Douglas is a BU employee who works out of the Center for Antiracist Research, which was launched by scholar Ibram X. Kendi, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and center director, in July 2020. And the College of Communication is currently recruiting for a new faculty role, an impact journalist, to create instruction and writing opportunities around social-justice issues such as racism and to work closely with Douglas and Payne in creating content for The Emancipator.
Douglas was born in Chicago’s West Side Austin community and began her schooling in post-uprising Detroit after her parents divorced. Her entrepreneur father ran an auto body shop; her mother worked for the federal government, most recently as a Social Security claims representative. They were part of the Great Migration: her father’s roots were in Mississippi; her mother’s family worked as sharecroppers in Tennessee, where Douglas spent part of her childhood with her grandmother in the small town of Covington. A family across the street from her grandmother, the Taylors, had their own personal library, and welcomed Douglas to read any books she wanted: by Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and other Black writers. She remembers thinking, when I grow up, I’m going to make sure that people know about people like this.
That sense of mission, to tell the everyday stories of her community, has driven her career since she graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School with a degree in journalism in 1989. In addition to working at a series of digital and print publications, she has served as the Eugene S. Pulliam Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism at DePauw University and as a senior leader at The OpEd Project, which amplifies underrepresented expert voices, and founding managing editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, which covers poverty, power and policy. She is the author of the 2021 book U.S. Civil Rights Trail: A Traveler’s Guide to the People, Places, and Events That Made the Movement.
BU Today talked with Douglas about her path through traditional journalism, her critique of it, and her vision for The Emancipator.
with Deborah D. Douglas
BU Today: When did you decide on journalism?
Deborah D. Douglas: When I was eight. I liked to
read and I wanted to be pretty and I liked to write,
and I started looking around to see, well, who
reads and writes and looks pretty? And TV anchors
look pretty. That was the kind of glamour I thought
I could aspire to. I knew I would never be Diana
Ross glamorous. I told my mom I wanted to be a
TV anchor. My mom said, “Good, I think they call
that journalism—you would be a journalist.” My mom
always hyped me up.
BU Today: How did newspapers figure in your life growing up?
Deborah D. Douglas: In Detroit, we read the News and the Free Press. When I went to Tennessee, I read the Commercial Appeal and the Memphis Press-Scimitar. We always read them late, because my grandmother didn’t have subscriptions—so people would give them to us.
In my family, the men would travel around from Chicago, Detroit, to the South, and they would pick up papers all along the way. We would sit down and read and talk about the issues. My uncles always invited me into their conversations about political issues and things like that.
BU Today: You and others have talked about the problem of mainstream journalism framing the news through a white lens. Did you come across that when you were studying journalism?
Deborah D. Douglas: We had a professor in a newswriting class who said, “Today there’s something going on in the city that’s really important. It’s a great story. Do you know what I’m talking about? It’s really big.” And for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about. What was that story he said everyone knew about? “It’s opening day for the baseball season!” I’m thinking: that’s important to you, white man.
BU Today: But you didn’t say that?
Deborah D. Douglas: No. I actually felt shame that I didn’t know it was opening day. I thought it was something wrong about the way that I had been acculturated. I spent years wondering, am I exposed enough? Good enough? Do I have the right kinds of experience to bring to this? But I’m raised by a series of Black women, for all intents and purposes. I mean, my dad provided for me, but my day-to-day is Black women. They’re not focusing on opening day. Once, in freshman year, a professor said, “Write an expository story.” So I wrote a story about how to roll your hair. That was my way of introducing culture into the mix—because I know he’s never read a story about how a Black girl rolls her hair at night. I got a good grade.
What if people have a sensation that nobody ever sees them? They’re just like this invisible person who’s saying, ‘I’m here! I’m here!’ and society, institutions, policies never really see you….I created a word for that: ‘depresencing.’
BU Today: Can you talk about the relationship between your experience in mainstream journalism and your vision for The Emancipator?
I’ve been doing this 30-plus years. I feel that the industry—legacy media—skews toward established power. There are people who you don’t really ever think about or really ever see. If the point of journalism is to be a pillar of democracy, where everyone has a responsibility and a right to pursue a higher level of society and engagement, then why don’t we include everybody in the stories? Everybody’s stories matter.
It’s really important to exercise good news judgment, and you gain your credibility for being that person in the newsroom who exercises good news judgment. Over time, if you are a person who feels like your community’s stories haven’t been fully rendered, or other communities’ stories haven’t been fully rendered, then you sort of begin to swallow those ideas and swallow your advocacy of those stories and why they’re important—because you want to be credible in that newsroom space.
So, a part of the work that I’ve been doing for the past few years is my own personal sense of repair for being implicated in that system. Because we didn’t always get it right—all of us, me included.
BU Today: You wrote an essay in Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America 1619–2019 about how Black women get “depresenced” in the mainstream media. Can you talk more about that?
What if people have a sensation that nobody ever sees them? They’re just like this invisible person who’s saying, “I’m here! I’m here!” And society, institutions, policies never really see you. But you’re here, living, breathing, trying to thrive. I created a word for that: “depresencing.”
I centered that around Black women’s experience intentionally, because I feel like there’s a very special way that society fails to render Black women in spaces and narratives. I’ve been in rooms where people look right through me.
BU Today: You and your coeditor, Amber Payne, have said you want The Emancipator to move beyond just talking about race and engage in “solutions journalism.” Would you expand on that?
We don’t want to just point out problems. We want to engage solutions practice—which looks around the country, around the world, at people who are addressing the same issues. We want to point out how those people are pursuing answers, and whether or not the answers are working. Rigorous solutions journalism is transparent about the fact that sometimes solutions have limitations. But at the very least, we can show that people are purposing themselves to find solutions to some of the world’s most pressing social issues.
That’s been missing in journalism. People will turn on the TV or pick up a periodical, and feel demoralized because it’s just about the problems. Watchdog journalism is so important. It’s so big and it’s so muscular—and it’s so male, to be honest! And sometimes watchdog journalism can be demoralizing, because it’s like the big “gotcha.”
BU Today: Can you give examples of how solutions journalism will look in The Emancipator?
We’re going to be writing about how systems work. For example, I just read Dorothy Brown’s book The Whiteness of Wealth. And she deconstructs how the tax code cheats Black people. She identified a problem. We’re interested in illuminating that, because I think a lot of us operate under the assumption that the tax code is not racist, right?
But I’m also interested in the policy space, or the political space: who is working on solutions to that? That’s a big, hard thing to do. But somebody somewhere must have some good ideas about how to make that work. How can people know what to ask for if they don’t know what the issue is?
And we want insights from community members, too—because they’re experts on many, many things. We want to elevate expertise.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
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