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Raising Online Life

Esther Iverem and Seeingblack.Com Offer Something Different From The African-American Web Site Norm

By Felicia Pride | Posted 2/20/2008

Esther Iverem talks about We Gotta Have It

Enoch Pratt Central Library Feb. 20 at 6:30 p.m.

If you want to visit web sites that highlight other sides of black folks--you know, ones that don't include rap, sex, or sports--you're options are fairly slim. That's probably why black cyberspace experienced internet orgasms earlier this month when The Washington Post announced a new online magazine aimed at African-Americans called The Root. Harvard professor and all-around black culture gatekeeper Henry Louis Gates Jr. co-founded the publication, where he serves as editor-in-chief and promotes his genealogy company AfricanDNA. Besides being a tad self-serving, the site does feature some dope black writers--including William Jelani Cobb, Marc Lamont Hill, and Veronica Chambers. But as Mark Anthony Neal, critic and professor of black popular culture at Duke University, pointed out in his NewBlackMan blog, the site could sport a banner that reads: wanted! smart negroes. It's clearly on a highbrow tip.

But before Gates capitalized on this void in the black online world, Esther Iverem, a former Washington Post journalist, founded and launched SeeingBlack.com in 2001, an online space that covers the African-American experience in a holistic way beyond, in her words, "movies and hip-hop." Don't get it twisted. Although Iverem is intellectual, she admits that she's no "egghead"--a fact that shines through in conversation with her, which fluctuates between the cerebral and the down-to-earth. She could probably bust an old-school hip-hop move, and as a film critic she appreciates an entertaining movie, whether it's Tyler Perry or Spike Lee behind the camera.

I recently shared hot beverages with the fortysomething mother in an artsy café in Silver Spring, close to where she lives. She arrived looking more like a writer than anything else. Perhaps it's the writer in me that can spot a fellow wordsmith. Call me judgmental, but her long dreads and eclectic style definitely screamed artist louder than any of her other identities.

"I was interested in seeing a site that covered black dance, visual art, design, and fashion from a black perspective," Iverem says of SeeingBlack.com in her highly thoughtful tone. "I was committed to the idea that we had a right to write about our own culture."

She took this right seriously from the start of her career. But during her early newspaper days, although she was able to write occasional cultural criticism, "it was always a situation where someone else had to be full-time, but every now and then I would contribute a review of a black movie or concert," she says.

It was at Long Island, N.Y.'s Newsday where she was able to riff for seven years on all things cultural--outside of Manhattan that is. "I was the first writer for this culture page that covered the boroughs like the Bronx and Brooklyn, in places people thought there wasn't any culture," she says.

She eventually left her last full-time newspaper job at the Post, in 1998, using book leave as an excuse, but quickly realized she wasn't going back. Iverem eventually did publish two books of poetry and a collection of film reviews, We Gotta Have It: Twenty Years of Seeing Black at the Movies, 1986-2006.

"A lot of mainstream papers and corporate media have slowly opened the doors to allow journalists of color to write about culture and have a voice," she says. But if you want something done, well, you know the rest.

Since launching SeeingBlack.com on April 9, 2001--Paul Robeson's birthday--Iverem has seen the site grow from, in her words "nothing," to racking up 200,000 page views a month. This stat, while admirable, pales in comparison to the monthly visitors of popular black sites such as BET.com and AOLBlackvoices.com, but "it's black-owned," Iverem says proudly. "And free to be what it can be."

SeeingBlack is definitely "cultured," as older folks tend to say. "I never wanted the site to be a BlackPlanet.com," she says with a laugh. "There are a lot of sites where you can go and pick up somebody. I really wanted SeeingBlack to be a place where people who thought about some things could come, read about them and talk to other people."

On the site, talented writers offer a range of black perspectives on news, politics, media, music, literature, sports, health, visual arts, and more. A set of bloggers were recently introduced to talk about everything from science to activism. And Iverem herself contributes a ton of editorials and film reviews to the site.

Not shocking, but the black female film critic is a role not frequently represented in mainstream media. And if said female is interested in concentrating on African-American movies, there doesn't appear to be much material to discuss. But Iverem is actually rather optimistic about the progress of black cinema.

"I think a lot of the original promise of the new black wave of film maybe hasn't been fulfilled," she says. "It was initially supposed to celebrate our intellect and respect a new generation's journey, those born in the '60s and after. While a lot of the original pioneers, like Robert Townsend and the Hudlin brothers, aren't making movies anymore and many of them seem to have gotten frustrated, a lot of other filmmakers are able to build upon what those pioneers started."

She points to The Great Debaters as a perfect example of a movie where black folks such as Oprah Winfrey and Denzel Washington were at the forefront of its creation but that probably wouldn't have been released in the past. "Every year there's a film that's thoughtful and passionate," she adds. "But they don't do well because they're not gangster or have a rapper in them." Again she mentions Debaters, citing the movie's struggle to be a box-office blockbuster like American Gangster.

Perhaps that's the reason why SeeingBlack is important. The site ushers in balance from several directions. From film to the internet, black folks deserve a diversity of representations. "I know we have an intellectual life," Iverem says. "I like to party and have a good time, too, but I know that [African-Americans] think more than most sites seem to give us credit."

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