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Black History Month: Personal Histories

The most powerful stories are often those told by the people who lived them, so on the last day of Black History Month, we're highlighting personal histories written by African-Americans. These books do more than narrate the events of one life: they illuminate our shared histories and highlight how individuals are both affected by and alter the times in which they live. Read all of our Black History Month posts. 

Today is the last day to enter our Black History Month Giveaway. Find out more at! 


FskgFist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence by Geoffrey Canada 

Long before the avalanche of praise for his work—from Oprah Winfrey, from President Bill Clinton, from President Barack Obama—long before he became known for his talk show appearances, Members Project spots, and documentaries like Waiting for "Superman", Geoffrey Canada was a small boy growing up scared on the mean streets of the South Bronx. His childhood world was one where "sidewalk boys" learned the codes of the block and were ranked through the rituals of fist, stick, and knife. Then the streets changed, and the stakes got even higher. In his candid and riveting memoir, Canada relives a childhood in which violence stalked every street corner.

Geoffrey Canada grew up in the South Bronx. He received a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Bowdoin College and a Master's Degree in Education from the Harvard School of Education. Since 1990, he has been the President and Chief Executive Officer for Harlem Children's Zone, an organization that offers a comprehensive range of services in a nearly 100 block area in Central Harlem and serves over 10,000 children. TheNew York Times Magazine called the Zone Project "… one of the most ambitious social experiments of our time. It combines educational, social and medical services. It starts at birth and follows children to college. It meshes those services into an interlocking web, and then it drops that web over an entire neighborhood … The objective is to create a safety net woven so tightly that children in the neighborhood just can't slip through." 

The work of Mr. Canada and HCZ has become a national model and has been the subject of many profiles in the media. Their work has been featured on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "60 Minutes," "The Today Show," "Good Morning America," "Nightline," "CBS This Morning," "The Charlie Rose Show," National Public Radio's "On Point," as well in articles in The New York Times, The New York Daily News, USA Today, and Newsday. 

Mr. Canada was a recipient of the first Heinz Award in 1994. In 2004, he was given the Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education and Child Magazine's Children's Champion Award. In October 2005, Mr. Canada was named one of "America's Best Leaders" by U.S. News and World Report. A third-degree black belt, Mr. Canada continues to teach the principles of Tae Kwon Do to community youth along with anti-violence and conflict-resolution techniques. 

Mr. Canada is also the East Coast Regional Coordinator for the Black Community Crusade for Children. The Crusade is a nationwide effort to make saving black children the top priority in the black community. This initiative is coordinated by Marian Wright Edelman and the Children's Defense Fund. 

The National Book Award-winning author Jonathan Kozol called Mr. Canada, "One of the few authentic heroes of New York and one of the best friends children have, or ever will have, in our nation."

Fist Stick Knife Gun is also available as a graphic novel adaptation by Jamar Nicholas.

Watch a New York Times profile of Geoffrey Canada.

Read chapter 20 from Fist Stick Knife Gun on Scribd.

UncoveringraceUncovering Race: A Black Journalist's Story of Reporting and Reinvention by Amy Alexander 

From the Rodney King riots to the racial inequities of the new digital media, Amy Alexander has chronicled the biggest race and class stories of the modern era in American journalism. Beginning in the bare-knuckled newsrooms of 1980s San Francisco, her career spans a period of industry-wide economic collapse and tremendous national demographic changes.

Despite reporting in some of the country's most diverse cities, including San Francisco, Boston, and Miami, Alexander consistently encountered a stubbornly white, male press corps and a surprising lack of news concerning the ethnic communities in these multicultural metropolises. Driven to shed light on the race and class struggles taking place in the United States, Alexander embarked on a rollercoaster career marked by cultural conflicts within newsrooms. Along the way, her identity as a black woman journalist changed dramatically, an evolution that coincided with sweeping changes in the media industry and the advent of the Internet.

Armed with census data and news-industry demographic research, Alexander explains how the so-called New Media is reenacting Old Media's biases. She argues that the idea of newsroom diversity-at best an afterthought in good economic times-has all but fallen off the table as the industry fights for its economic life, a dynamic that will ultimately speed the demise of venerable news outlets. Moreover, for the shrinking number of journalists of color who currently work at big news organizations, the lingering ethos of having to be "twice as good" as their white counterparts continues; it is a reality that threatens to stifle another generation of practitioners from "non-traditional" backgrounds. 

In this hard-hitting account, Alexander evaluates her own career in the context of the continually evolving story of America's growing ethnic populations and the homogenous newsrooms producing our nation's too often monochromatic coverage. This veteran journalist examines the major news stories that were entrenched in the great race debate of the past three decades, stories like those of Elián González, Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair, Tavis Smiley, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, and the election of Barack Obama. 

Uncovering Race offers sharp analysis of how race, gender, and class come to bear on newsrooms, and takes aim at mainstream media's failure to successfully cover a browner, younger nation-a failure that Alexander argues is speeding news organizations' demise faster than the Internet. 

Follow Amy Alexander on Twitter.

Read a post featuring Amy Alexander's work on The Root.

Listen to Amy Alexander on WNYC's The Leonard Lopate Show.

Notes_of_a_native_sonNotes of a Native Son by James Baldwin

Originally published in 1955, James Baldwin's first nonfiction book has become a classic. These searing essays on life in Harlem, the protest novel, movies, and Americans abroad remain as powerful today as when they were written.

'He named for me the things you feel but couldn't utter. . . . Jimmy's essays articulated for the first time to white America what it meant to be American and a black American at the same time."
-Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

"A straight-from-the-shoulder writer, writing about the troubled problems of this troubled earth with an illuminating intensity."
-Langston Hughes, The New York Times Book Review 

Watch a video about James Baldwin on YouTube.

Read Kai Wright on James Baldwin at Beacon Broadside.

Robeson_here_i_standHere I Stand by Paul Robeson 

"This amazing man, this great intellect, this magnificent genius with his overwhelming love of humanity is a devastating challenge to a society built on hypocrisy, greed and profit-seeking at the expense of common humanity."
-The New York Times

"[Robeson's] nobility, his language, his encouragement and his praise put me forever in his debt because it inspired me fully . . . to be like him, and to use my life as he had used his, to put into it the commitment of the liberation of his people and all people."
-Harry Belafonte in Restoring Hope

Robeson's international achievements as a singer and actor in starring roles on stage and screen made him the most celebrated black American of his day, but his outspoken criticism of racism in the United States, his strong support of African independence, and his fascination with the Soviet Union placed him under the debilitating scrutiny of McCarthyism. Blacklisted, his famed voice silenced, Here I Stand offered a bold answer to his accusers. It remains today a defiant challenge to the prevailing fear and racism that continues to characterize American society.

"Robeson's book is a perennial, first published in 1958, and now a voice from a different time. It anticipates for black persons the 'moral support of the American majority' with an intensity that now seems evangelical. It's full of a probably tragic hope. It should be read."
-The Boston Globe

Watch Paul Robeson sing for Australian workers.

Read Paul Robeson's bio at American Masters.