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Editors’ Letter: The Return of The Emancipator

This commentary-forward platform seeks context and depth to achieve racial justice and our nation’s True North — a functioning democracy

Deborah Douglas, left, and Amber Payne, co-editors in chief of The Emancipator.

I’m just not sure that I would say that if it weren’t for Blacks, there wouldn’t be a democracy at all,” Chris Wallace asserted during a recent discussion with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones on the now-defunct CNN+.

The exchange said it all, crystallizing the reason why The Emancipator needs to exist. Wallace, an affable White man who has thrived, unchallenged by his version of America — a mythology — underscores why audiences need an alternative to fossilized ideas amplified by traditional news media. Oblivious, Wallace glossed right past the abolitionist era and the mid-century civil rights movement, which pushed America toward a truer version of itself, just as our founders intended. Today, we launch a commentary-forward digital publication informed by the Black experience as we reimagine the nation’s first abolitionist newspapers and reframe the conversation on ending racism.

Just as abolitionist publications in the 19th century called for the end of the enslavement of Black people, The Emancipator will amplify big ideas and solutions for achieving a racially just society. As we center the roots of anti-Blackness, we will explore the intersections that entangle us all, regardless of ability, race, class, religion, or other ways of being. Shared insights will reveal how systems are created for some to win and others to lose, and what we can do about it.

We believe historical context is frequently missing from daily news coverage. As veteran journalists, we have fed the media machine that often doesn’t give enough slack for deeper excavation. We’re left with surface coverage following the same tropes, bending to the attention and needs of established power to the detriment of underserved communities that need information and analyses — to live. Considering how news organizations struggled to accurately label the Jan. 6 insurrection, why does the media have such a hard time with the label “racist”? The division that now grips the country proves we have more thinking to do about what our next steps will be: The Emancipator’s way in is by leveraging smart, incisive commentary from a range of voices that prioritize humanity and justice over everything.

That disturbing tête-à-tête between Wallace and Hannah-Jones, a Black woman and member of our advisory board, is actually revelatory for our mission. Matching his energy wit for wit, Hannah-Jones said: “You can’t call yourself the greatest democracy and the greatest democratizing force in the country while violently and brutally suppressing democracy at home. And that’s what happened for millions of Americans.”

Watching this revealed a peculiarly American tendency to dissemble, taking the bite out of the harm racism causes to prioritize the comfort of the very people implicated by racist systems and social norms that keep this toxic and foundational force alive. Wallace suggested it was more important to keep intact a heroic myth of returning WWII soldiers than to point out the perils of racism that persisted in the country after the war. But that way of providing comfort leaves so much of the truth of the American experience out and is the reason the media conversation needs a course correction.

What we know for sure: The 2020 police murder of George Floyd, sparking the largest U.S. social justice protest ever, and revelations (for some) of racial disparities of the coronavirus pandemic, have urged more people to reconsider. While there are those who aim to destroy our country by actions like storming the U.S. Capitol to overturn an honest, fair presidential election; diminishing voting rights; and oppressing the LBGTQ community, many more people across a range of differences want to learn more, do more, and be better about the freedom project that is America.

The abolitionist movement was a multiracial movement whose biggest voices include: William Lloyd Garrison, a White man who published the antislavery newspaper, The Liberator, in our hometown of Boston; Frederick Douglass, a freed Black man who founded The North Star; and Maria Stewart, the Black woman abolitionist and women’s rights advocate who informs our debut series “We Can Solve the Racial Wealth Gap.” Let’s not forget Elihu Embree, a White abolitionist in Tennessee who founded the original Emancipator in 1820. As we explore historic throughlines, we all have the opportunity to be informed by their ideas, energy, and values.

Now, we are using Black liberation as a point of entry into foundational ideas about freedom and democracy. Our part in contributing to the solution is to center deeply evidenced, scholarly driven, and community-informed insights to explore ways to keep racism from continuing its harm. And we mean everyone, whether you are Asian, Brown, White, Indigenous, or Black. Our country is polarized by a perilous lack of context and depth that threatens the gains we have made toward creating an inclusive society. If we look at the continuum of progress, and fallbacks, too, we are encouraged that the challenges we face represent a moment in time. We have a chance to power up a paradigm shift by building a newsroom that pairs racial justice with democracy as our priorities.

When the nation is pressed to live up to its ideals by addressing people underserved and abused by social policy, laws, and norms, history shows everyone benefits. As The Emancipator’s co-editors in chief, we place ourselves in the service of emancipation — from disinformation, ideological ignorance, oppression, bondage, extremism, and hate.

It’s emancipation time. Let’s go.

Deb & Amber

Co-editors in chief, The Emancipator