The Journal of African American History is the oldest scholarly journal published by anyone black in the world. A century old, it was established by Carter G. Woodson, the Father of Black History. Despite this tradition, the leadership of the association he founded has lost its way and are poised to sell out this tradition by taking on a publisher. How could this be happening?
During the centennial of the Association for the Study for African American Life and History (ASALH), elements of the newly elected leadership began planning to find a university press to publish the Journal of African American History (JAAH). They did so before examining financial records or even how we currently produce our journal. They did not run on a platform of ending the tradition, and they began their work without first even discussing the matter with the existing members of the Executive Council. They certain did not contact me, the then president and the person who had run the business end of the journal for thirteen years. The long-time editor of JAAH, V. P. Franklin, at odds with the long-standing vendor who performed publishing services, wanted to find new arrangements for ASALH. Depsite being an advocate of black self-determination, Franklin got the names of three white university presses: Penn State University Press, North Carolina University Press, and the University of Chicago Press. He clearly did not understanding what self-determination in publishing means or how such presses operate in relationship to journals. Any journal that goes to these folks ceases to be self-published and becomes one of the journals that they publish. Given that none involved had any business experience publishing any of ASALH’s publications, it is understandable, if tragic. They might not have understood what a publisher is or does. Indeed, they often said that we already had a publisher–pointing to a firm that we hire to provide publishing services.
Since the new leadership took office officially in January, they have continued down this path despite strenuous efforts against it. If they did not initially understand what constitutes a publisher, they have been so informed. It is literally the centennial of the Journal of African American History, and it has self-published from day one. To be sure, Woodson got the first issue out of the door in three months by partnering temporarily with an established publisher to getting around the postal service mailing regulations. Yet from the beginning, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History put up the money and called the shots as publishers do. We have always had not simply ownership but unfettered or unencumbered control over what we publish. When someone else publishes your content–even if you own it–they call the shots. If they are afraid of libel lawsuits or if you ask them to publish something they disagree with, they will shut you down even if it means they breach the contract. And when you are partnering with a wealthy university, their lawyers will bury you, your ownership, and your contract as they please. To be clear, self publishing grants you full independence and autonomy over the content you wish to put out into the world.
A hundred years later, a group of new officers of the Association and a publication committee chaired by a person who had never served on the council offered a proposal to take the Journal of African American History to the University of Chicago. A number of board members had been assured in advance that no vote would take place, but despite this a vote was taken. After much wrangling, including a threat by Franklin to quit his editorship, the board voted to pursue a relationship with the University of North Carolina Press. By June, this effort had fallen apart as there was little or no financial advantage in selling out to Carolina. Since June, despite Franklin’s initial objection, all eyes and hopes of selling out have centered on the University of Chicago.
Despite the fact that ASALH is an organization ultimately governed by its members, the Executive Council has not deigned to mention the most important decision in the history of this Association to the membership. No effort has been made to inform the membership, not to mention to solicit is opinion. There has been no mailing about the issue–neither email or snail mail. On the periodic branch leader phone calls, the presidents of the branches or their representatives have not been informed. No effort has been made establish a fund to make self-publishing viable for years to come–but then again no claim can be made that the journal is not viable. Certainly no appeal to the membership has been made to raise dues, if necessary. In short, the membership of ASALH has been kept in the dark. The best that can be said is that the folks in leadership positions are too inexperienced to understand the organization they ran–uncontested–to lead.