Interview with Herb Boyd

by Claire E. White

Herb Boyd is an award-winning author, journalist and teacher who has written nine books and hundreds of articles for leading magazines and newspapers. He is the co-editor with Robert Allen of Brotherman--the Odyssey of Black Men in America, which won the American Book Award in 1995. In 1993 he was the recipient along with Michael Eric Dyson of a top journalistic award for his story in Emerge Magazine. Currently, he is under contract with Doubleday for his next book, Soul's Journey. Since 1996
Herb Boyd
he has been the national editor of The Black World Today, an online publication on the Internet, focusing on the global black experience. Boyd has taught Black Studies for almost thirty years at various universities and is currently teaching African and African American History at the College of New Rochelle. In addition to his editing and writing pursuits, he is a noted expert on jazz and jazz history and is a frequent contributor to numerous jazz publications, including Down Beat. He lives in New York City with his wife, Elza, who is also a highly acclaimed author. He spoke with us about his writing, his committment to teaching and The Black World Today and even gave us some tips on listening to jazz.

Brotherman, The Odyssey of Black Men in America was the first book of its kind. In the introduction to Brotherman, you state that, "Racism and Oppression are responsible for the absence of books like Brotherman". Can you elaborate on this statement? Is the lack of books like Brotherman due to a lack of interest in the subject matter or is it the fault of the publishers who were unwilling to publish a book on this subject? Or is it for some other reason altogether?

Further in the Introduction to Brotherman I do elaborate on the behavior of the publishing industry, which has not been very kind to writers of color--except for various fad periods or the explosion of books during the halcyon days of the sixties.
"Racism still permeates the society and so it is understandable that Black men will not be a topic of concern--unless it is yet another attempt to denigrate us--especially when the hundreds of sales divisions at the publishing houses have already decided that Black men don't buy books. Brotherman and other books have dispelled this myth."
Over the last several years Black women writers have been getting more than their usual exposure (nonexposure), particularly the novels of Terry McMillan, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, J. California Cooper, et al. Recently, there has been yet another crop of Black women in the industry--Michele Cliff, Edwidge Danicat, A.J. Verdelle, Valerie Wesley--all of whom are making names for themselves in the fiction genre. Only Walter Mosley and E. Lynn Harris have made similar breakthroughs for Black men in fiction. Like the media, the publishing industry is mainly disposed to creating an audience for its products, rather than following a particular trend, though once a trend has been established, they quickly energize the market forces to take advantage of it. Since the arrival of Brotherman, which was an idea created by several Black women in the publishing industry who recognized a need and sought to fulfill it, there have been several other books of this ilk, and more to come. Racism still permeates the society and so it is understandable that Black men will not be a topic of concern--unless it is yet another attempt to denigrate us--especially when the hundreds of sales divisions at the publishing houses have already decided that Black men don't buy books. Brotherman and other books have dispelled this myth.

Brotherman received great public acclaim -- rave reviews and winning the American Book Award, for example. What kind of effect did doing the book have on you personally?

Cover of Brotherman : The Odyssey of
Black Men in America by Herb Boyd
Click here
for ordering information
As they say in the industry, Brotherman still has "legs" -- it has somehow outlived the normal two-week shelf life for a book. Since its appearance in 1995, I have traveled all over the country promoting the book and hearing the praise it has engendered. In many ways it's dream-like, something all aspiring and "aspired" writers hope for. To a small degree, it is a bestseller, and it has given me opportunities to appear on talk shows, seminar, expos, and what have you. Still, my basic shyness remains, though I think the latent "ham" in me has been aroused. Thank goodness I had Robert Allen as co-editor on the project. And he might be someone you need to talk to at a later date to chart his impressions on what we both feel has been a most remarkable ride.

In an article written in 1995 entitled, "Writing A New Chapter in Book Publishing", Carolyn Brown concluded that African Americans authors were making money by tapping a neglected market: the booming demand among Blacks for hardcover books. She also concluded that although the number of Black bestsellers was increasing, Blacks remained underrepresented in the firms producing and marketing the books. Do you think her conclusions are true today?

I certainly agree with Carolyn Brown's conclusions about the publishing industry. Last year there were more than 50,000 books published in this country and fewer than 100 of them were by Black authors at major publishing houses. One factor that fails to be included in the equation about Black books is that the bulk of them are being published by small companies and independents. Because of who they are, these publishers do not show up on the radar screen, much in the same way that the sales of street vendors are not tabulated in the total count of books bought by Black Americans. We are still marginalized in the mainstream publishing industry, but the answer may be, as Walter Mosley has done, to turn to the Black publishers and help them once you've established a name with the big houses.

You are also known for your line of Young Adult documentary comic books covering serious subjects, such as the history of the Black Panthers movement and African History for Beginners. How did you accomplish the difficult task of taking a subject as complex as the Black Panthers movement and simplifying it into a comic book for young adults?

Cover of Black History for
Beginners by Herb Boyd
Click here
for ordering information.
Comic books was where I started my habit of reading, and I still read the comic strips in the dailies. The idea of doing such a book with history or serious topics in mind has always been a dream of mine, and when Glen Thompson, publisher of Writers and Readers, offered me a chance to do one on the topic of my choice, I leaped at the opportunity. Condensing the complex nature of the Black Panther Party was indeed a challenge, and though it's been well-received, I'm still not absolutely satisfied with my discussion. More than anything, I relied on a chronology of major events within and without the party to dictate my focus. Once I had a rough outline, it was merely a matter of connection the dots, so to speak. Of course, there were major personalities that had to be included, but many of them were inextricably connected to the events.

In your book Down the Glory Road, you trace the history of noted African Americans from 1619 to the present. How did you approach the massive research needed for this project?

A similar process was used for writing Down the Glory Road, though it should be noted that the initial impulse for the book was to create a Black version of Kenneth Davis's bestseller Don't Know Much About History. In fact, both books are under the Avon imprint. The content of the book is largely a rehashing of my lectures and discussions with peers and students over the last thirty years. It has a corrective tone, and this was done to counter many misconceptions and distortions about the role of African Americans in the development of this nation. I set out to highlight some of the major contributions we've made as a people and to profile significant leaders and thinkers.

Do you use the Internet for research?

Only recently has the Internet figured prominently in my work. I find it indispensable once you learn to navigate and feed the search engines exactly what you're seeking. As an editor of a website, I've logged a lot miles in cyberspace and my journey is by no means finished. I'm encouraging my students to use it for their research projects, mostly to supplement what printed material they can access from libraries and bookstores. The Internet complements, not replaces the traditional research venues.

How did you make your first sale as an author?

Very interesting question. Perhaps an easier way for me to answer is to rephrase the question and tell you when I first decided I was a professional writer. I think I've been a writer virtually all my life, recalling those poems I never showed to anyone when I was a teenager, but it was not until I was well into my twenties (and I'm well into my fifties now) that I began to sell articles, essays, and reviews on a regular basis to wide variety of magazines, journals and newspapers that I considered myself a pro.

What are your writing habits - do you write on the computer, a typewriter, longhand? Do you write everyday?

I'm a highly addicted writer; I'm strung out on words--a veritable noun/verb junkie. One of the main reasons that I write everyday is that I'm a journalist. Even so, I'm usually always working on a book--at least that's been the fortunate case for the last fifteen years or so. Now that E-mail is here, I writer far more letters and notes to people than I used to do. Given the new technology, the only time I use a pen is when I'm on assignment, interviewing someone or covering an event. There was a time when I found it difficult to create on the typewriter but the computer makes it a lot easier and faster. Whatever happened to those piles of long, yellow legal pads I used to consume? Gone into cyberspsce.

Let's talk about your magazine. What is the mission of The Black World Today?

The Black World Today Image The mission of The Black World Today is to become a national publication providing news coverage of particular pertinence to people of color. Often we--mostly me and the founder/publisher Don Rojas--tell folks that USA Today and NPR are the models we use in our quest as a news site on the Internet. Currently, if we can believe the amount of press we've received lately, we are among the most prominent Black sites on the Internet. We've gathered quite a reputation but unless we can find investors or substantial revenue streams it may soon be curtains for us. The reason we decided to pursue online publishing was because we found it too expensive to launch a printed version. Now, we are faced with that increasingly wide economic gulf which seems to be more and more a challenge each day. We are only a click away from great success or the abyss, depending how things go the next few months.

What is the greatest challenge about publishing The Black World Today?

As you see from the previous answer that we are caught in the grips of a fiscal crunch that threatens to bring our little quest to an end. We've managed to stay afloat for more than a year now but it is difficult to see how we can last much longer without ads, sponsors or investors coming to our rescue. We have a fairly extensive community of readers and they have assured us of their help if things got more perilous. It may be time to call on them for help.

How interactive is The Black World Today? How important is reader feedback to you?

Interactivity, as far as we are concerned at TBWT, is the lifeblood of a site. No interaction, no action. Thus far, through chat rooms, bulletin boards, letters to the editor, and the various forums we've posted the feedback has been very encouraging. We have pretty loyal bunch of viewers who assist us in monitoring breaking stories. Moreover, many of these folks--members of our community we like to call them--have become quasi-correspondents, sending in their regular comments and lengthy letters. This activity gives us a uniqueness among so-called Black websites we believe. The history course is another way we've expanded our interactivity.

As a journalist, how do you think the Internet has affected the way the news is reported?

Do you mean how TBWT has affected the ways is reported nowadays? If so, hardly any at all. It's going to take sometime and thousands of TBWTs to impact news coverage, especially to the degree that there's more coverage of positive developments from the Black community and communities of color. Now, as ever, the reportage is dreadful. There's nothing new(s) about this, however. At TBWT we've completely adopted that old saying that the free press belongs to the one who owns it. Our job is to view the world through a lens of truth, and you know how relative that can be. So, we hope our sense of the truth will improve matters and eliminate a lot of the distortions and misconceptions.

A recent study reported on in the Washington Post says that spending by Blacks is outpacing spending by Whites on computers and online services. Are the needs of the Black market being addressed or are they mostly being ignored on the Internet?

It is indeed true that Blacks are buying computers and electronic equipment at a clip that surpasses white Americans of equal income status. What's missing in all this is the extent to which Black Americans are using the equipment to obtain the best information. They may have the computers but are they online? This is the next big leap that has to be made. And when they come online are they supporting Black sites? Getting on the Internet is only half the battle. Where to go when you get there is the most important thing.

Has the global nature of the Internet had an effect on the fight for equality?

It is still too early to talk about the big picture or the great questions just yet. Down the road apiece the unlimited space and democratic means of the Web could make a difference, if the space isn't entirely monopolized by the larger corporations. Mergers and consolidations are happening at such rapid speed that it's to keep up with the players. Worldcom, Realvideo, and Microsoft are among the giants vying to control the potential wealth of the Internet. Should this be the wave of the future, then it's without a doubt only the strong will survive -- or make a profit. Paradoxically, the ongoing fight for control may improve the technology, make it cheaper, and thereby expand the base of readers/viewers. This is the best hope.

How can the Internet be a force for positive social change?

Through an expansive interactivity and the use of the Internet as an organizing tool are two ways social policy might be affected. Participatory democracy has been slow arriving in most parts of the land and for most of us living at the edge. But as the cost of information comes down with its wider distribution, it's got to make for a more knowledgeable citizenry. And there is nothing more dangerous than a citizen with good information who is willing to share it with others.

As a teacher of African History and African American History, what changes have you seen in the last 20 years concerning the teaching of these subjects? Are the facts being taught in the schools today more accurate than they were 10 years ago?

"Another byproduct of teaching is that I have become perhaps the biggest student. I never learned so much and so fast than when I had to teach."
The same problems we faced thirty years ago in Black studies, for example, are still plaguing us today. It may be worse now because of the growing backlash on the affirmative action front, in welfare reform, and on the matters of civil rights in general. Once we had Black studies program scattered all over the nation, now they can be found at only a few universities, that is, in a fully developed capacity where one can acquire a degree or declare a major. I have more students in the class we teach on our site than in four classes on campus. But it may not be fair to compare them since the online course is not for credit and it's free. Our goal is to create a virtual university with a broad range of courses to choose from with ties to a college or university who assist us with accreditation.

What do you love about teaching?

Teaching has always been an immensely satisfying endeavor for me because he places me in contact with people who really want to know. A teacher of Black history, particularly on the college level, has a course that is not required, thus, students come to this elective seeking to know more about Black culture. Another byproduct of teaching is that I have become perhaps the biggest student. I never learned so much and so fast than when I had to teach.

And a little about jazz...What trends do you see in the current jazz world?

For the last six years I have been a regular writer for Down Beat magazine. This is my second stint with the publication that began in the early seventies when I was a correspondent from Detroit. Jazz, like many of the other musical forms, is in stasis with infusions from rap providing what little impetus there is. Afrobeat and other world music forms also seem to be inching into the picture, which could dilute the mainstream as much as give it additional power. Whenever we get to this stages of being mired, there is a return to the past for vitality. Don't be surprised if the energy music of the sixties pop up again. This time, though, I think it will be a lot more coherent, more contrived.

For a novice who wants to learn more about jazz, what three artists would you tell the novice to listen to first :)?

A jazz novice should absorb the masters of the discipline as soon as they can. Listen to the music of Charlie "Bird" Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, et al and learn how they fit within the context of American culture. With this as your foundation it is hard to go wrong. There are thousands of great artists available to take you across the wonderful contours of jazz.

How do you relax when you're not working?

My work is great relaxation. It's like asking Ken Griffey, Jr. what he does when he's not working. I love to write and it brings me all sorts of emotional, intellectual and spiritual rewards. And when I'm not writing, I'm probably watching TV, reading or traveling and all of these activities feed right back into my writing.

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