My Grandmaw was a news junkie. I mean she watched all kinds of shows and she kept up with everything. Celestine Marie Burnside, my 82-year-old black Southern grandmother, knew who Jay-Z is and about his clean water work in Africa and about Puff Daddy’s empire from Bad Boy Records to his Sean Jean clothing line.
Grandmaw was hip to all things, from pop culture to social justice. She watched 60 Minutes, Dateline, 20/20, Nightline, Headline News, CNN and FOX. One of her favorite news programs was Melissa Harris-Perry‘s show on MSNBC.
When I first heard that the MHP show was over I thought about Grandmaw. My Grandmaw loved the MHP show so much because she knew the importance of media representation. She grew up in the Jim Crow South either not seeing our images at all or seeing us portrayed in ugly extremes. On the MHP show, she saw not only an intelligent black woman host who is unapologetically black but also black people’s stories told with dignity and fairness.
It wasn’t until I went home during her last summer that I realized how much she watched and loved the MHP show. During one Saturday morning visit I sheepishly asked her if I could turn to the show and she enthusiastically replied saying yes and that she didn’t realize it was time for “my girl” to come on television. Grandmaw felt like Harris-Perry was one of us. Grandmaw was invested in the host and the show much like the rest of the viewers known as #Nerdland.
During her last weeks of her life Grandmaw watched a lot of television. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in July 2013. With each day her body grew weak and fragile. But her mind stayed sharp and her hunger for information never waned. Grandmaw, who was a member of the usher board at Second Baptist for decades, didn’t have the energy to make it to church so she spent Sunday mornings watching Melissa Harris-Perry.
My Grandmaw was particularly interested in the coverage and outcome of the George Zimmerman trial and the portrayal of Trayvon Martin, the teenager that Zimmerman fatally shot. Grandmaw looked to Melissa Harris-Perry’s show for truth and context. As we watched the Zimmerman trial unfold we watched the host introduce us to experts, issues and angles to stories that are seldom seen.
The last Sunday I spent with Grandmaw before she died we watched the MHP show. I remember Grandmaw saying how proud she was of the host, “Aww, that’s my girl right there!”
My Grandmaw was also proud of me and the journalism I produced during my 10-year career as a newspaper reporter. But she didn’t know what telling those stories cost me. I told her about things that happened at work but not about all of the insulting, humiliating, degrading ways in which superiors and colleagues devalued and dehumanized me. Journalism is a tough business especially for those who are black and a woman. Jill Nelson describes what it’s like to be a black woman journalist in her memoir Volunteer Slavery.
I stayed in some newsrooms way longer than I should have only because I had no choice. Several months and years-long job searches resulted in hiring freezes and job cuts at media outlets. As much as I desperately wished and prayed for an exodus, I had to earn a paycheck and take the disrespect and discrimination that manifested in my body physically and mentally.
About 10 years ago at a National Association of Black Journalists convention professional development workshop for black women journalists the room flooded with tears and tales of crushing bigotry and unfairness that black women experienced at the nation’s top newspapers, networks and magazines down to weekly newspaper and local television newsrooms. Women talked about the work and stress-related illnesses for which they were prescribed medication from depression to high blood pressure. That day black women journalists at every level from across the country realized we were not alone in our suffering. A few years later several reports of young black journalists suffering from heart attacks and strokes made me think about the heartache and horror stories I heard at that workshop. In full disclosure I am now a post-doctoral fellow at the Anna Julia Cooper research center founded by Harris-Perry. But I write this as a black woman with newsroom experience.
For me the stress of staying in a toxic newsroom resulted in depression, insomnia, weight gain and sometimes excessive drinking and smoking. Some of those journalism jobs put my body and soul through hell. At the time it was the only way I could financially support myself.
Harris-Perry had a choice. She has another job as a political science professor and director of a research center. She holds a PhD in political science and is the author of two books.
In an email to her show staff Harris-Perry wrote: “It is profoundly hurtful to realize that I work for people who find my considerable expertise and editorial judgment valueless to the coverage they are creating.” Many of us black women journalists experienced the same treatment. But we couldn’t leave. There was nowhere to go. Harris-Perry left. There will not be months and years of newsroom toxicity and trauma for her to experience just put food on the table. Good.
I don’t know exactly how Grandmaw would react to the end of the MHP show. I know she’d miss it like I do. But I also think that she’d understand why Harris-Perry left and applaud her for doing it.
Sherri Williams has been a print journalist for 15 years. Williams, an award-winning reporter and former columnist, covered several beats including education, federal and state courts, social services, youth culture, theater, neighborhoods, the U.S. Census and minority/immigrant communities. Williams created Backbonewomenonline.com.