I was pretty comfortable at my last gig. I was so comfortable, I stayed 34 years. There was mutual trust and respect between me and my editors at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I knew my role and how to do my job.
So why did I make what many consider a “shocking move” to NEXTpittsburgh? Honestly, even ink-stained wretches need a break from what and how they’ve always done things.
For someone who has never written regularly for another publication, other than national and local freelance gigs, the move to NEXT is an opportunity to reimagine ways of telling stories about Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania that haven’t been heard or told before.
In my old role, I think it’s fair to say that I was something of a “finger pointer.” I was an opinion columnist full of opinions, if not necessarily solutions, about the things I complained about twice a week for decades. That’s not what I’ll be doing for NEXT.
Because of the nature of our national and local politics, many of the voices and stories of ordinary people are often lost in the roar of the headline news cycle. There’s a bias toward big, obnoxious headlines at the expense of people who haven’t “mattered” historically. It’s time to let people speak for themselves while I fade into the background.
My mission at NEXT is to chronicle the region’s various Black communities, writing about them in ways that are roughly analogous to what the legendary Pittsburgh Courier photographer Teenie Harris did. Teenie would show up at an event, mentally compose his shot and take a single image once all conditions were optimal.
Teenie Harris didn’t have a thesis about Black life in Pittsburgh he was trying to advance other than the obvious — that there will always be dignified and valuable people present in every frame and they deserve to be seen and heard.
Every day, Teenie took pictures in the Hill District and surrounding communities, mostly for commercial purposes and rarely because he was trying to be an “artiste.”
But when we look back at his vast body of work, we see a mosaic of 100,000 photos that capture the nature of Pittsburgh’s Black communities better than the city’s white majority media and university-affiliated ethnologists ever could.
All of us who would presume to tell stories about Pittsburgh’s Black communities know we are toiling in Teenie’s shadow, which makes the need to do so even more compelling. I’ve been around long enough to realize that Pittsburgh’s “Black community” has never been singular. That’s not the assumption most Pittsburghers operate with.
Black communities in Western Pennsylvania intersect and run parallel to each other. Some exist in plain view while others are happy to remain ensconced in the obscurity of river towns. No one is familiar with them all.
What I will do once a week is find these voices and showcase them in this column. For decades, Pittsburgh was one of the nation’s most dependable foundries of Black genius. It isn’t like those people simply stopped being born here. It’s more likely they’re not being listened to.
In this column, we’re going to give voice to these voiceless and seldom heard. We’re going to amplify what needs to be amplified and we’re going to ask questions even when answers are hard, if not impossible, to come by.
This is not going to be a “good news” or “uplift” column that only dwells on Black success stories. That would be like binging on reruns of “The Cosby Show” and skipping James Baldwin’s excoriating narratives.
This is a weekly invitation to meet friends and neighbors we never knew we had. We’ll be expanding the definition of the human condition while deepening our understanding of the complexity of the entire region. There may be tut-tutting, but there will be little finger pointing.
Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.