Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press – James McGrath Morris (2017)

Having picked this up as part of February’s Black History Month (and an ongoing focus on reading AOC* and related topics), I found this to be a really fascinating read about a notable woman who I have not heard of before: journalist Ethel Payne, one of the first African-American female reporters in the U.S. and the first in the White House for several presidents.

Born in 1911 on the south side of Chicago, Payne grew up in a family whose roots were in slavery until the end of the Civil War. Her father worked as a Pullman porter (which meant days away from home) and her mother looked after Payne and her siblings. She was a voracious reader with a Latin teacher mother so education was important in her family. (I can only wonder how many African-American female Latin teachers there were in the U.S. at this time. Not many, I would wager.)

At the start of Payne’s career and wanting to travel further afield, she was adventurous enough to apply (and get accepted) to work in Japan for the Army Special Services Club where she would act as a host at the social club on the base for their servicemen. In 1950, when the Korean War began, she took notes in her journal about the segregated treatment of African-American soldiers. The U.S. Army had been ordered by the President (Truman) to be desegregated but General McCarthy refused. (Grr.) This led, of course, to ongoing social problems, including the issue of AfAm (and others, of course) soldiers having relationships with the local women, whose babies ended up being abandoned by their Japanese mothers. (Culturally, the Japanese were not welcoming of other races or mixed-race children.)

As part of Payne’s social duties, she met another African-American reporter who was in Japan representing the newspaper, The Chicago Defender, a newspaper focused on the large African-American population in Chicago. He handed copies of her notes to his editor stateside, and they ended up being published as a series of articles in the Defender. This was the start of her journalism career.

African-American newspapers were described as “the most predominant media influence on black people… they were our Internet.” (Vernon Jarrett.)

Ethel Payne, pioneering journalist.

Payne was quite a fearless reporter and refused to back down from difficult issues. She covered African-American adoptions and single mothers; she covered the McCarthy trials, and she was assigned to stay on in Washington as the newspaper’s on-the-ground reporter to cover politics. Payne also was accepted to the elite White House Press Corps, the first woman and the first African-American woman to reach their level of access, and she became known for asking tough questions to the presidents of the day, especially those addressing civil rights and other tricky issues (even if it annoyed the politicians).

She was on the front lines for so many huge civil-rights events for the U.S., one, for example, was the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education case about desegregating schools and in fact, Nixon was so irritated with a question that Payne asked him about this that he refused to answer any of her questions for the remainder of his political term.

Additionally, she was sent abroad for several sentinel events, including the Vietnam War and on several Presidential trips to the African continent (again, as the only African-American female journalist). She must have had some lonely moments.

However, as much as her coverage excelled, her editors were not always supportive of her efforts and there were a couple of missteps on her part. However, her legacy as one of the leading lights in journalism during the Civil Rights era remains untarnished and although she is not a household name in the news-reporting world, she should be (and probably would be if she wasn’t an African-American).

This was an amazing story about a woman who refused to back down, both professionally and personally, and in doing so, made her mark in the journalism field. She died in 1991.

(Asterick refers to Authors-of-color, not U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York City. :-))

(Above) Payne confers with then-Vice-President Richard Nixon. (NYT.)

Loving and Giving – Molly Keane (1988)

This was my second foray into the literature of Molly Keane (also published under the name of M.J. Farrell during the 1930s) and this was another read from her that was a good experience whilst also being slightly prickly. (See review of Devoted Ladies [1934] here.)

This novel, as implied by the title, is about the push-and-pull of tricky family relationships and how the central protagonist, at the start a young girl, tries her best to understand and adapt to the people who surround her. However, despite her efforts to be “loving and giving” (cue: title), the recipients of her intentions aren’t always responsive in predictable ways, and this was a little heartbreaking for me, as a reader, as I could see how this was slowly breaking this young girl’s heart (although the adults involved had no idea about this).

Nicandra, the lead character, is only eight years old and living in the isolated and rural world of a rather grand Irish estate called Deer Forest in 1914. Her life is organized and satisfactory. Her mother is beautiful and loved; her father distant and involved in running the estate; her Aunt Tossie walks about grandly in her widow’s weeds. But one day, her mother runs away and things change overnight for Nicandra.

Thrown into confusion and sadness (as of course no one has a conversation with her about her mother’s absence – them’s the times and place), Nicandra vows to make up for her missing mother by providing everyone left with lots of love and kindness. But things go rather awry.

The author was in her 80s when this was finished. decades after Keane’s other novels were published, but it’s clear that life has not softened the edges of her mind and how she handles her characters. This novel follows the sharpening of young Nicandra as her efforts to be kind are rebuffed and misinterpreted over the years and how these reactions shape her life in terms of loving and being loved.

It’s a sad novel in many ways and reflects how life doesn’t always turn out as glamorous as you would like to be. As the house falls into disrepair, so does the family break down, and then the ending of this novel was just fantastic. (Shan’t say anything about it, but believe me. It’s good.)

So, a prickly but enjoyable read. You don’t need to love the characters in a book to care about them, and this is ably demonstrated in this novel by Molly Keane. Another off the TBR pile (been there for years!) and read as part of Cathy 746’s Reading Ireland Month project. Thank you for the nudge to read this title!