Ben Burns and the Boundaries of Black Print in Chicago, 1942–1954

James West

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


This article focusses on the career of Ben Burns, a white Jewish radical who came to play a central role in Chicago's black press during the mid-twentieth century. As an editor for periodicals such as the Chicago Defender, Negro Digest and Ebony, Burns helped to edit and develop some of the nation's most influential black publications. However, many of his readers remained oblivious to his racial identity – something which was both implicitly and explicitly obscured by his employers, and which was influenced by and manifested itself through the spatial politics of the workplace and the Chicago South Side. Drawing on a range of archival and biographical material, personal correspondence, and newspaper and magazine articles, this paper reconsiders Burns's literal movement through the terrain of Chicago's black press to assess his broader influence as a white editor in black journalism. Complicating depictions of Burns as a racial interloper, this article situates his contributions within a broader history of white participation in black print production. Furthermore, it demonstrates how the parameters of his role were heavily framed by the complex racial and spatial politics of the editorial room and Chicago's urban politics at mid-century.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)703-724
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of American Studies
Issue number3
Early online date5 Jul 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2019


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