The paper struggles to feature voices of color

Image courtesy of Archives and Special Collections

Image courtesy of Archives and Special Collections

BY EMILY BERNSTEIN ’18

In 1883, 46 years after the College was founded, Hortense Parker made history as the first known black graduate of Mount Holyoke. It would not be until 89 years later — and more than half a century after the creation of the school newspaper — that Mount Holyoke News would provide a dedicated space to the voices of black students.

“How does one share blackness with non-blacks?” asked columnist Naomi Iris Bryant ’74 in the inaugural edition of “The Ebony Quill.” This column debuted in September 1972 and specifically featured the voices and perspectives of black women, when Mount Holyoke News (then known as Choragos) first began to make a noticeable effort to cover race and racism on campus.

Bryant held back little in her column. “Sharing blackness is understanding how to take a pinch of happiness and live joyfully with it for a lifetime,” she wrote. “Sharing blackness is looking 20 and having the cynical thought patterns of a 200-year-old escaped convict. Sharing blackness is going to a Seven Sisters school and having ‘[N-----]’ shouted at you from a car of teenage boys in Holyoke, Mass. Sharing blackness is walking to Friendly’s and having a tomato and ‘[N-----], that’s for you’ thrown at you. Sharing blackness is, anyway, something not learned, but earned.”

Despite Bryant’s frank approach, “The Ebony Quill” received no response until Spring 1973. 

Denise McLeod ’74 took over the mantle of “Ebony Quil” columnist on Feb. 8, 1973. Over the next several weeks, she contributed thought-provoking and poetic content about race, representation and being black at Mount Holyoke. In the April 12, 1973 issue, she pointed out that “‘The Ebony Quill’ is not a spokesman for general black attitudes and experience.”

The same issue of the paper published a letter to the editor from Sally Holmes ’74, who expressed her distaste for McLeod’s writing: “Choragos is a good paper. It transcends high school journalism — until one reads the ‘The Ebony Quill,’ which must be intellectually embarrassing to many blacks on campus.”

McLeod responded to Holmes’ criticism in the following issue, writing that “Blacks on this campus know [racism] exists… It is too bad that a column like ‘The Ebony Quill’ had to be invented to let the rest of the campus know that it is alive and well at Mount Holyoke College. It is too bad that the ignorance about this is alive and well at Mount Holyoke, too. Therefore, ‘The Ebony Quill’ must be intellectually embarrassing to whites on campus.”

This was not the only race-centered controversy that arose in the pages of Choragos. On April 10, 1975, not long after the clash regarding the content of “The Ebony Quill,” unnamed members of the paper’s staff wrote an editorial titled “Racism Thrives at MHC.”

The article addressed the quasi-segregation on campus and ultimately placed the responsibility of opening interracial dialogues on the shoulders of black students. Though they acknowledged that “White women must work harder,” the writers stated that they “would like to appeal to members of Afro-Am to re-examine their present spirit of isolationism from the community at large. [They] would like to remind members of Afro-Am that many white students on campus experience their first and perhaps only chance to live with black women during these four years.”

Debra Martin Chase ’77 responded to this editorial with her own commentary in the issue published two weeks later, writing, “White students easily condemn blacks for being hostile, but fail to reflect upon themselves. If they would examine their attitudes in dealing with black students, then possibly whites would realize that much of what they perceive to be blatant rejection is a reaction to auras which they project.”

Though today she is known as the president of Martin Chase Productions, and more locally as a member of the Mount Holyoke College Board of Trustees, Martin Chase was once a writer for Choragos. She took over “The Ebony Quill” on Feb. 12, 1976, opening with the claim that “To be black and female in 1976 is a situation which deserves much careful thought.” She has since gone on to create media that represents women and girls of all races, media that many current Mount Holyoke students remember fondly from childhood. 

“I got into the business because I wanted to put things on screen that were smarter than what had been put up there for women and for people of color,” said Martin Chase. “Princess Diaries, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, I love those girls and the journeys they took in their lives.”

Three years after Martin Chase’s tenure as the “The Ebony Quill” columnist, the newspaper established a weekly section called “Third World Voice” to highlight the experiences and perspectives of non-white students. While the term “third world” might make current students cringe, in 1979 the section was a hard-won and groundbreaking development.

Part of what made this choice so difficult for the Choragos executive board was the question of whether or not a dedicated “Third World Voice” section, which had its own staff and editorial board, comprised of black, Asian and Latinx students, was in and of itself an act of segregation and othering. 

“Aren’t we reinforcing the difference which separates the third world students from the rest of the College community?” asked the board in an editorial explaining their position. “Through discussions with third world students, several Choragos editors were soon convinced that the uniqueness of each third world voice could not be heard unless each one shared a common space.”

One of those editors was Beth Sweeny ’80, who wrote her own editorial about the deliberations of 1979. Sweeny, a white woman, described a conversation she had with a black woman advocating for the “Third World” page. “I want the same thing you want,” Sweeney said. “I think we should have and need to have black and Asian and Hispanic editors. But I don’t want them to be editors either because of their race or despite it. I want their race to be irrelevant.” 

As a white person, Sweeny didn’t realize that it is a privilege to not think about one’s own race. But she came to understand her colleague’s point of view, especially when the woman urged Sweeney to consider their own college’s mission. “After all, Mount Holyoke discriminates in terms of sex, but only to compensate for discrimination which has already taken place.” 

MHN 100 is a bi-weekly column celebrating the newspaper’s 100 years of student journalism. Archival copies of the Mount Holyoke News can be found at compass.fivecolleges.edu.

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