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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

August 15, 1993|CHRIS GOODRICH

VOLUNTEER SLAVERY: My Authentic Negro Experience by Jill Nelson. (Noble Press, 213 W. Institute Pl., Ste . 508 Chicago, Ill. 60610: $21.95; 219 pp.). "If I don't bear witness, weird as it is, who will?" So writes Jill Nelson toward the end of "Volunteer Slavery," a very critical account of the four years she spent as a reporter for the Washington Post, and the question captures the schizophrenic nature of the book--apologia and expose, self-critical confession and self-justifying morality play. Nelson became a staff writer at the Post in 1986, when the newspaper was starting a Sunday magazine with great fanfare, and soon saw the magazine was aimed not at the city's general population, which is 70% black, but at its generally white elite. The inaugural issue carried two negative articles about African-Americans, one entitled "Murder, Drugs and the Rap Star," the other a column defending a businessman's refusal to buzz blacks into his store. Nelson's experience at the Post might have been better had she arrived at a less-charged, less-revealing moment, but her relationship with the newspaper, in any event, went from bad to worse. She didn't get along with numerous editors; she wasn't allowed to do many of the stories she wanted; quotes from her sources were altered; her judgment was questioned. Nelson attributes many of these difficulties to racism, but the majority of her complaints in fact seem to have more to do with the "star" system of high-profile journalism than with skin color. A career free-lancer until her stint at the Post, she was apparently unaware that favoritism and office politics are as common in journalism as in any other endeavor. "Volunteer Slavery" is troubling for what it reveals about the journalistic insensitivity and corporate orientation of the Post, but it's troubling on Nelson's account as well, for she shows herself to be arrogant about her own abilities and occasionally as racist as the very newspaper she criticizes (notably in her frequent, irresponsibly sweeping references to "white folks"). Nelson is a good and relatively honest writer, yet in the end one reads "Volunteer Slavery" less as an insider's view of journalism than as an account of an upper-middle-class black woman's ongoing identity crisis, one created by the gap between her personal experience and her race's history, between individual beliefs and professional mandates. Working for the Post was nowhere near "volunteer slavery," as Nelson would like to believe in order to ally herself with truly disadvantaged blacks, but her experience demonstrates nonetheless that many newspapers would do well to rethink their attitudes toward and expectations of minorities in the newsroom.

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