Enoch Waters’ “American Diary”

posted in: Good Reads: Nonfiction | 0

Enoch Waters called his memoir American Diary. I admit to being confused by the title. I had chosen it mainly as a source of war reporting from the Pacific, especially from an African American correspondent for The Chicago Defender. I expected the “diary” part to meet my needs, but “American”? It seemed so general, so generic. I started in, vaguely dubious.

Waters explained on the first page of his foreword that the book is not so much a diary of his life as a diary of the Black Press in the United States. (The subtitle, A Personal History of the Black Press, should have made this clear but was obscured on the cover.) Apparently, the working title of his book had been Diary of a Race. Why not Diary of the Black Press? In the end, a “diary” of a whole race was still too limiting. Waters expanded it to include the entire country. “The diary of blacks is really a neglected part of the diary of America. Hence, American Diary.” [xx]

It crossed my mind that Waters might be trying too hard. He might be forcing a concept on his work that it could not bear. Perhaps so, yet the title was not, in fact, false advertising. Waters’ intention to write an American story is manifest throughout. He makes his case for equal rights and full citizenship rest firmly on a foundation of black contribution to American society. His “diary” is equal parts personal memoir and history of black journalism in America. Where those two parts intersect, Waters’ reporting on events from the 1930s to the 1970s, the American story comes most alive.

Waters, both the author and the subject of the book, emerges as a determined reformer yet who refuses to be made radical. It’s not so much that he acquiesces to gradualism. It’s that he wants black equality within the American nation as it otherwise is. He seeks the equality of blacks, free from discrimination, in civil society, not a wholesale overturning of society itself. Some of today’s multi-cultural warriors might disdain his outlook as essentially conservative, yet, they would be a mistake to overlook his commitment to change. There is, first, the simmering-yet-controlled anger that pervades almost every page his narrative. And, too, there is the positive change he helped bring about. As reporter for The Defender, Waters gave his people pride and hope on a daily basis.


The title of his first chapter, “Childhood: Days of Play/Years of Learning,” promises straight memoir. Yet we learn early on that it will be in the best, confessional tradition of Augustine and Rousseau. Though the young Enoch grows up surrounded by sisters, he knows nothing of their different anatomy until the day his friend asks Susie to show them her “pussy.” After giving them a chase into the woods, she obliges. (Flat on her back, skirt hiked up, panties pulled down.) She even demonstrates how she pees, upon request. The scene brings back a tangible feel of childhood, even for those of us who never had the benefit of such a vivid demonstration (and few of us did!).

Waters’ family was solidly middle class. At least, as solidly as was possible for a black family in Philadelphia in the 1920s. Waters’ father was a train porter, bringing home a steady wage. His family never knew poverty. Yet Waters makes clear that Enoch, Sr.’s career as a redcap was “not because he chose to be one, but because he was denied the opportunity to be what he wanted to be.” [3] Waters understands that his own success as a journalist was built on the back of his father’s less glamorous labor (whose work was infinitely preferable to large swaths of his peers). Waters understands that he is one of few Negroes born in the early twentieth century who enjoyed the opportunity to “be what they wanted to be.”

Waters says he benefited from growing up in an integrated neighborhood. Yet he documents how, at every new stage of his life, he confronted limits imposed by racial prejudice and discrimination. His best childhood friendship with a neighborhood Jewish boy, does not survive the transition to adolescence. His father finagles Waters’ admission to the best (all male) public high school in the city, only to be denied participation in every school activity, including, most frustratingly, the school newspaper.

As luck would have it, he gets a kind of internship with the Philadelphia Tribune, the city’s only Negro newspaper. Actually, luck had nothing to do with it. Waters learned years later–and we learn a hundred pages later–that his own father had secretly arranged with the publisher to hire his son for a job that didn’t exist. Enoch, Sr. paid the publisher who turned around and paid it back to the son as (minimum) wages. Enoch, Jr. earned his father’s money and a boon for his paper by creating a popular column on high school news and views.

Waters does not glorify his introduction to the black press. The Tribune‘s offices and plant were dishearteningly seedy as he arrived for work that first day. His assigned desk–such as it was–“was one of the most abused pieces of furniture I had ever seen. It was so battered that it might have been in continuous existence since the days when Frederick Douglass was publishing The North Star in 1858, and it might have been second hand then.” [42] The editorial staff were hardly more inspiring: The Tribune‘s “was not a fast paced operation. In fact, the atmosphere was very casual and informal. The men worked in spurts to the accompaniment of banter and conversation consisting mostly of comments on the copy that flowed across their desks. The mail and telephone produced most of the news.” [44] He acknowledges the paper’s practice of printing as many names of community members as possible, a blatant attempt to flatter potential customers into purchases.  He reveals reporters accepting money from community members to put their names, or pictures, in the paper.

This is the confessional style pervading the other half of his memoir. Waters’ “diary” of the black press is unblinkingly honest. No rose-tinted glasses. Waters is a realist, neither (especially) a booster nor a critic of the institution he served for four decades. “Paid news” was a fact of life for a business living so close to the edge of financial solvency, whose advertising revenue among both black and white businesses was limited, whose market was not fully literate and tended to pass the product around to friends and neighbors. And yet, Waters allows that it was at the Tribune he came to see Negro newspapers as “the heartbeat of the community.” [52] The reporters did more than gather information and write stories. They shared their knowledge with community members who came to them in crisis, as if they were providers of social service agency.

After a chapter on his Hampton days, in which he reported on school clubs and sports teams, and two on the history of the black press from its inception to the twentieth century, Waters focuses his gaze on Chicago, “A  Tainted Heaven, But Still a Haven.” [68] He exposes equal amounts of taint and haven. Waters goes inside the so-called policy (gambling) racket in an attempt to understand the Negros at its heart. He is discouraged to find these racketeers spending money ostentatiously, as fast as they can take it in. Was this what their forebears dreamed of in emancipation? Waters passes no judgments. He decides their profligate behaviors “were involuntary efforts to compensate for the low esteem in which Negroes were regarded. With money to do so, the policy barons wanted the Negroes, if not the whites, to know they existed, that they had achieved some measure of success and that they were somebody.” [79]

Later, assigned to the crime beat, Waters was shocked to discover “Negroes had so little regard for the lives and property of other Negroes” [320]–until a friend of his, a beat cop, set him straight. The sergeant asked Waters to think like a small-change punk criminal. “Would you go to a white neighborhood, unfamiliar to you and where your presence would arouse suspicion and where all the cops are white, even if you had the money to get there?” [321] It wasn’t meant as a rhetorical question. Waters got the picture. White criminals didn’t go into black neighborhoods for much the same reasons. A journalist conducts his education in public, and Waters is not afraid to revisit the progress of his own in his memoir.

Nor does he balk at examining the seamier side of black American life. His thoroughness, both in coverage and in his efforts at understanding, serves a rhetorical purpose. It makes his case for full civil rights for all that much stronger, that much more urgent.

This, after all, was his and the black press’s overriding mission during these middle decades of the twentieth century. “The pursuit of that goal was total and took precedence over all else,” writes Waters. “More accurately, [black newspapers] were organs of personal, and usually, militant expression rather than newspapers as we know them today. They were heavy on opinion and short on news that was not related to the mission.” [135] Today, we might laugh–or scream back at the page–after reading that black newspapers “didn’t conform, at the time, to the stark, unbiased reporting that was the guiding principle of white journalism.” Waters tells us that “black newspapers were criticized as propaganda sheets…and they were in a sense.” [267] Yet we would do well to take Waters at his word. His concern is not how well white journalism did or didn’t live up to the ideal of “objectivity.” His interest is in the black press, whose mission was avowedly one of advocacy as well as of journalism. As the managing editor at The Defender told his staff after they had reported a particularly good day on the civil rights front, “Keep this up and you’ll put the Defender out of business.” Then he added, “Don’t worry, that’s a long way off….” [295]

Waters pushed himself throughout his career to widen his view and to expand his understanding. (“A black journalist reporting news of a black community for a black newspaper is likely to develop a narrowed perspective of life in America without being conscious of it.” [320]) In 1942, and again after the war, he made a tour of the South: thirty-eight states, fifty-seven communities, thirty military installations in a total of twenty-eight months on the road. The people he met in his travels were as interested in his view from the Promised Land of Chicago as he was of theirs. They plied him with questions, which made them all the more open to his own questions of them. His stories in the two chapters covering these months make some of the most compelling of the entire book.

The Southside Chicagoan in the Jim Crow South reads like a kind of “innocence abroad.” Waters describes having to carry toilet tissue in his briefcase to use in basement bathrooms that were never cleaned. He recounts his dependence on the kindness of Negro contacts to put him up for the night, and all the benefits (home-cooked meals) and drawbacks (curtailed nighttime typing sessions) that entailed. He details the difficulty of carrying out his work when transportation and telephones were difficult to come by, and access white domains nearly impossible.

Yet the Negro population is more than willing to assist a reporter from the hallowed Defender. The people he meets provide rich material for his series of articles and for his two chapters on this period. The profile of Henry Taylor stands out. Henry works in the local, white-owned barbershop, opening to close, sweeping up hair, racking magazines, and generally performing every odd job that needs to be done. At the end of each day, after boarding a bus and alighting in the colored section of town, Henry became Mr. Taylor. “A miraculous transformation from boy to man occurred in the twenty minutes it took to reach his destination.” [347] For those of us who weren’t there, especially those of who aren’t black, this story–whose plot thickens: read the book!–tells us more about what it meant to black in the South than any scholarly monograph could.

Henry Taylor may have been exceptional, but he wasn’t an exception. “At this time, no Negro could be taken at face value,” Waters explains. “Often the stereotypical southern darkey, smiling, respectful, and unlearned was a dedicated and active foe of white dominance” when among his own kind in the black part of town. [329] Enoch Waters’ reporting, related in his memoir for a new generation of readers, gives substance to racism of that time.

As promised (American Diary), Waters considers the effect of these racial attitudes and practices on whites, too. He concludes, “Whites didn’t understand the little worlds they dominated. They knew they were in charge, but they did not realize they were not as superior as they assumed. While they successfully depressed blacks, they were not progressing. As measured against whites from other regions of the nation, they, too, were inferior in all respects.” [337] It was a theme he sounded in his 1943 reporting, that I found by scanning through ProQuest historical newspapers. In an article from the very end of his tours, Waters portrayed the South as a giant Gulliver, strapped down by Lilliputian strands, never considering that “he has the strength to free himself.” [Waters, The Chicago Defender, May 8, 1943, 13.]

As he was reporting from the South, Waters was waiting for permission to go overseas as a war correspondent. His application to the government, though held up for political reasons, was finally approved in May, 1943. Waters caught a transport ship to Australia and spent the next thirty months reporting on the Pacific war and its aftermath.

How would he and The Defender report the war? More to the point, how could Negroes more generally support a country that daily denied them full citizenship? Forty years after the fact, Waters attempts to provide an answer:

If America were not our home, what was? We hadn’t come here willingly, but once here we had made contributions to the nations development as great as any other group of Americans. What we gave was far in excess of what we had received. We knew we had gained a proprietary interest in this land and because we knew of no other, we regarded as our home, a home we had to defend with our lives if it came to that. What alternative did we have? [365]

The passage reminded me of an anecdote shared by James Alexander Thom, who asked a Native American Vietnam veteran how he felt about fighting for a country that had displaced, even exterminated, his people. The man replied, “You White people don’t get it. This is my country.” Waters, too, makes a strong case not for black inclusion into a white country, but for the country itself to be conceived properly as black, white, and red, or Native American (his wife was part Cherokee). (Asian Americans, he would argue, have made equally defining contributions to American society and require equal respect and citizenship.)

The most affecting part of his two war chapters comes when Negro GIs challenge The Defender‘s editorial stance on segregation in the armed forces. More specifically, they disputed Waters’ contention in an article they read that blacks be assigned combat roles equal to whites. For these men in the so-called service units, war work was not all that different from what they had done at home: unloading supplies, driving trucks, operating a laundry, painting signs, repairing auto engines, cooking, building roads, burying garbage, hauling water. Yet they were perfectly fine with it. “Why should we volunteer to sacrifice our lives for a Jim Crow country?” one asked Waters. “Have you ever seen how the infantry lives? Then you know they are like nomads, always on the go. Never settling down. Living on the worst rations, dirty and always fearful of being killed or at least shot at. That ain’t for me.” And another: “Let them have the medals. You can’t eat ’em and you can’t buy anything with ’em.” [389-390]

This was uncharted territory for Waters. For the first time, he was having to defend The Defender‘s editorial stance to its own readers. He seems to concede the men’s point at the end of the chapter when he admits that he, too, benefited from the Army’s racial policies. By reporting on Negro service units he received more perks unavailable to other war correspondents: better food, cold beer, clean clothing, more comfortable quarters, and a closer relationship with the GIs. [394]

Occasionally, one has the  impression of  listening in on dialogue between Waters and unseen speakers offstage, the septuagenarian engaging with the next generation of civil rights advocates. Like any respectable old fogey, he aims to show respect while distancing himself from elements of their rhetoric he cannot endorse. “Black is beautiful,” he says, was a misguided slogan that, unintentionally, conveyed arrogance. To make his point, he asks the reader to consider it converted to a proclamation of white beauty. “Black is also beautiful” would have been better achieved its aim of instilling black pride, he says. [227]

Waters also finds arrogance in the vogue among left-leaning members of his community to adopt African names.  Waters sounds touchier than he needs to be at one point in his argument. However, his reasoning overall is perfectly sound: “My surname has a greater significance to me than one that I might select from an alphabetized list of African names I can purchase at a bookstore. My surname not only links me to my forebears, some of whom may have been white, but with my living kinsmen.” Again, the argument is of a piece with his comments, cited above, on the Negro’s loyalties in the Second World War. He doesn’t want to apologize for seeing himself as American. To the contrary, he wants racist whites, racist society, to apologize for denying his claim to equal American citizenship.

In Waters’ heyday as a journalist, both white and black newspapers used “Negro” and “colored” to talk about members of Waters’ community. (Though white papers took longer to capitalize Negro, and The Defender‘s publisher, Robert Abbott, preferred “the Race” whenever he published commentary.) Even the Oklahoma Black Dispatch used Negro rather than Black. Waters, from the perspective of the mid-1980s, avers that he is equally amenable to all the various appellations for his people, though he adds that he is most comfortable with Negro because he is of the period “when it was generally acceptable and in common use.” [228]

The discussion is of special interest to me because I was in college as Waters wrote these words. I was of the period, the late 1970s, when “black” was “generally accepted and in common use.” African American was starting to displace it as the preferred nomenclature in the 1980s. Writing in that decade, Waters works to include the former in his text (I sense him making a conscious effort), and occasionally approximates the latter with “Afro-American,” which is perhaps an earlier form of the expression my generation became comfortable with. I have learned, along with everyone in my generation, to use the more modern term. We have (or haven’t) learned to adopt terms that post-date our coming-of-age: Latinx, cis-gender, etc. But spending time with Enoch Waters underscores the relative puniness of language policing. Waters speaks with more authority on the issues than most of those today who uses the more politically correct terms. Language matters, of course, but a richness and openness of expression matters, too.

The wokest might object to more than his terminology. Black Lives Matter would take him as a reactionary for quibbling with its organization’s name. (Black Lives Matter, Too? Please!) #MeToo would object to his focus on aviatrix Willa Brown as a “shapely young brownskin woman.”[196] (And let’s please ditch the sexist term for aviator while we’re at it.)  Fair enough. Yet crimes of racism, sexism, classism, etc. are negative features and add up to little on their own. Besides, we can add presentism to the list of sins, while we’re at it. Waters had no control over the color of his skin, nor over the year of his birth, nor does anyone else. If I can respect those who from other places, with different cultures and ideas about how the world works–and let’s admit it can be difficult to do so, or else we wouldn’t need to talk about it so much–then surely I can respect people from different times whose formative experiences were so different from mine.


Enoch Waters had a radically reformist side, to be expected in a one on the receiving end of so much discrimination and prejudice. He had a temperamentally conservative side, befitting a child of a relatively educated, middle class family and one who pursued a professional career his entire adult life. Why should anyone begrudge him the latter? Aren’t those the opportunities that too many African Americans were denied? Besides, the strength of Waters’ memoir of his life within the black press resides in the synthesis of the two sides. The full humanity of the writer, and of the everyday and exceptional Negroes he wrote about, is palpable for that very reason.


Waters, Enoch P. American Diary: A Personal History of the Black Press. Chicago: Path Press, Inc., 1987.

———-, “Color Lines Bind Dixie To Economy Of Poverty,” The Chicago Defender, May 8, 1943, 13.

National Air and Space Museum: https://airandspace.si.edu/multimedia-gallery/dale-l-white-and-chauncey-e-spencer-nasm-9a12445 




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.