Bernard White: The Measure Of A Man’s Life

Under White’s leadership, the mission of WBAI, “giving voice to the voiceless,” expanded in the type of programs and commentators he brought on board during his watch.

[Black Star Profile]

As most readers must know WBAI Radio, New York’s major listener-supported station, has recently been in the news itself due to competing factions at the station.

Some months ago, the internal power struggle and politics cost  Bernard White his job as the former Program Director. White has said his termination was unlawful and the station hasn’t heard the last word on the matter yet; that story is for another day.
In the meantime, White recently shared his time to reflect back on some of his fonder memories with WBAI and his path, from boyhood, into the world of journalism.

White started at WBAI on November 22, 1980, almost 20 years ago. He volunteered for 12 years, working in the news room with the International Affairs Department. He hosted Emanations, mixing sounds of voices and music with news from a Black perspective. White covered Apartheid in South Africa, Namibia’s independence, Angola’s national liberation war to throw out the Portuguese, Michael Manley in Jamaica, Maurice Bishop in Grenada, as well developments in Latin America.

White also covered Brixton, in London, U.K., with its own racial problems which mirrored those here at home. He discovered WBAI while surfing radio stations one day, accidentally coming upon the icon of listener-supported stations. Samori Marksman was the station manager at that time and White was captivated by the content of the programs; especially, the coverage of stories about Bernadette Devlin, and Fannie Lou Hamer.

In 1992, White became co-host of “Wake-Up Call” with Amy Goodman. This successful morning program empowered listeners to take action as a result of the news that came to their attention. For example, listeners became engaged in pressuring the governor of Louisiana at that time to release Maurice Bickum, a political prisoner, who had been imprisoned in Angola Prison for 38 years.

It is through such stories that White came to know many of the newsmakers he reported on, some of whom became his mentors, such as Gil Noble, Elombe Brath, Samori Marksman himself. He also met Jamaica’s Manley, Grenada’s Bishop, Bernadette Devlin, and Odette.

Under White’s leadership, the mission of WBAI, “giving voice to the voiceless,” expanded in the type of programs and commentators he brought on board during his watch. These included: Law and Disorder; On the Count; Dr. Majid Ali; Karim Farani; Gary Byrd; Dr. Kokayi; Elombe on Cuba; Samori on Grenada; Ron Daniels; Howard Jordan; Haiti: The Struggle Continues; and, Latino programs.

“Don’t be afraid to tell the truth,” White told me, when I caught up with him; “for truth crushed to earth will rise again.” He was recalling the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.

White said he grew up hearing stories about “courage” and “honesty” from his father, William Henry White, who served in WWll.

The father, who was stationed in New Guinea, in the Pacific, was eventually awarded the Purple Heart. His father told stories about lynching and the treatment of Black soldiers who were sacrificed to the enemy by fellow White soldiers, but not without protest. He regards his father as having had the greatest influence on his life.

Both parents are from South Carolina. His father, who he described as a great story teller with a remarkable memory, is deceased; his mother, Elmira White, age 83, lives in South Carolina. White heard stories from his father about “old man Randolph”, a relative, who stood up to White people’s threats in those early days when there was no recourse to justice. He also was instilled with a sense of can-do. His father avoided red lining by the banks who denied mortgage loans to Black veterans, by dealing with the owner in purchasing a home in Rochedale Village, Queens.

Bernard White was born in Harlem Hospital in 1946, the oldest of three children, and the only male. The family lived in the Lincoln Projects, between 132nd and 135th Streets, between fifth and Park Avenues. This Black community was a safe haven until drugs were introduced there.

At age 12, White was granted his Christmas wish for a toy printing press which he used to start a newsletter which announced births, graduations and other social activities of families living in the building. He attended Frederick Douglas Junior High School where James Baldwin was also schooled. The school had good teachers; Black teachers from the South, who were caring, had high standards and expectations, he recalled. He graduated from Andrew Jackson High School.

The elder White relocated the family from Harlem to Rochedale Village in Queens, a predominantly White community where they lived during the 1960s and beyond. Growing up, White recalled, whenever they left their enclave, they were escorted back to their home by the police.

White played basketball in High School and didn’t have any trouble with his peers. But there were protest demonstrations in the community due to lack of employment for Blacks. White recalled that these demonstrations were peaceful until the police came and then violence erupted. Television news reported the story from the police department’s point of view.

White said those were the type of incidents that taught him about the discrepancy between what he actually experienced and the accounts that ended up as “news.” This experience encouraged him to learn more; he started reading books that analyzed the structure of social and political problems, including the writings of V.I. Lenin, Karl Marx, Kwame Nkrumah, and Muammar Khadafi. He joined the National Black Political Assembly which was started in 1972 in Gary, Indiana. Its focus was on an agenda related to economic and political power for Black people.

White attended Queens College and graduated with a BA degree in Urban Studies and Administration. He enjoyed reading Solomon Resnik and Ray Franklin’s, “Political Economy of Racism.”

At home, his father loved Jazz, which he always played.  An ardent jazz enthusiast, White at one time aspired to become a DJ. The musicality of Miles Davis, Modern Jazz Quartet, Ramsey Lewis, Jimmy Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone and Sarah Vaughn also influenced his consciousness. He brought exquisite selections to his listeners on air, sometimes entering competitions –I remember one with Utrice Leid, a colleague of his on WBAI– as to who could top the other in their choice and selection of Black music.

The father of three children, Damon, 44, Shaunda King, 41, and Ayanna, 24, Bernard also has five grandchildren ranging from ages eight to 22. The family patriarch, he takes his responsibilities seriously, checking up on everybody, attending family gatherings, and sharing family history. He said he has learned from experience that a nurturing parent is better than a strictly authoritative and overbearing one.

White also spoke about his physical and mental health. He said the rigors of his career and its toll have taught him the importance of taking care of himself. For five years, working as Program Director, and doing the morning show from 6AM to 9AM, he was putting in 12 to13 hour-days every day.

The internal bickering at the station, and more recently being constantly under personal attack is difficult to bear. Internalized stress contributed to physical problems for which he had to have surgery last year, White said. He is now an advocate for health education and health care; specifically for Black men. White is sensitive to their fears surrounding problems with the prostate, and the tendency of Black men to delay care which could lead to complications. He believes his surgeon saved his life.

Suddenly removed from his position as Program Director at WBAI, he had to cope with the demands of follow up health care. Yet White continues to put his life back together and to restore some equilibrium to the challenges he has to face. Like his forbears, we get knocked down but we get up again and write the next chapter of our life, White maintains.

Writer Hyacinth M. Graham attends Guerrilla Journalism classes in Brooklyn. To register please call (212) 481-7745 or send an e-mail to [email protected]

“Speaking Truth To Empower.”

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