The only traces of Etta Moten Barnett’s 1950s–’60s radio program, I Remember When, exist on well-worn cassette tapes (recently digitized) at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. On these tapes are the only traces of not only Moten Barnett’s own career but also the immense network of activists, educators, and Pan-Africanists with whom she interacted. Many of them are now long forgotten or exist in the footnotes of better-known figures (often their husbands). What could be considered a project of recovery is also a project of tracing the use Black women made of radio broadcasting. I Remember When also provides an intriguing counternarrative to existing scholarship on Cold War radio history, which instead of looking West to East and from the perspective of government propaganda, now traces the networks across the diaspora in the struggle for independence and self-determination. Bringing the focus to Etta Moten Barnett and other Black women in radio raises questions about their stake in citizenship and political solidarity in this period. Through transcribing original broadcast recordings, and reading correspondence and newspaper articles, this paper documents the process of recovery, the cultural connections between women across the African diaspora, and their formation of a global Black community.

The bundle of cassette tapes the archivist brought from the collections room, each side holding about two or three of the 15-minute episodes of I Remember When, was both a treasure trove and a fragment of history. Static crackled in my ears when I sat at the audiovisual station to transcribe the first handful of episodes of this extraordinary radio program, but suddenly the warm contralto of Etta Moten Barnett’s voice filled the airwaves much in the manner it did in the 1950s when the actress, concert singer, and journalist purred into the microphone: “Hello there, this is Etta Moten with I Remember When.”1 There is no documentation in Moten Barnett’s2 archival collections in the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection (Chicago Public Library) or in her husband’s collection at the Chicago History Museum about the commissioning of the program nor its recording. In contrast, the 40-year career of her peer Jack L. Cooper, the first African American radio broadcaster, is well documented in his own collection housed at the Chicago History Museum—including a description of the studio built behind his home in the far southside neighborhood of Morgan Park.3

Though one can easily speculate about the reasons why men’s lives remain better documented in archival collections than those of women, the preservation of Moten Barnett’s radio broadcasts—when African American radio is so deeply underrepresented in archives—naturally piqued my interest. Furthermore, the scope of Moten Barnett’s broadcast output was impressive. With episodes on subjects that ranged from her own autobiographical story to musical performances to interviews with civil rights leaders, politicians, philanthropists, and more, the composition of Moten Barnett’s show reveals her unique ethos in producing a radio show that was far from a vanity project.

Moten Barnett saw in all aspects of her career the opportunity to express the “unity of a common struggle and a common heritage”4 between people of African descent, and her burgeoning feminist consciousness compelled her to focus a significant number of I Remember When episodes on women. Born in 1901 in Weimar, Texas, to an African Methodist Episcopal preacher and a homemaker, Moten Barnett’s family legacy of strong, independent women—combined with the friendships forged at Western University (an HBCU in Quindaro, Kansas) and the University of Kansas—imbued her with a sense of sisterhood that carried her through a short-lived marriage at 17 and the quick births of three daughters by the time she was 21. As a young divorcée and mother, she moved back into her family home in Kansas City, which ought to have marked a closing chapter on Moten Barnett’s life. However, with the encouragement of her parents and a neighbor—a Mrs. Jackson, who declared she “looked like an old lady” at a time when twenty-something women were bobbing their hair and rouging their knees—she left her three daughters with their grandparents and finished her degree in classical music at the University of Kansas.5

From there she moved to New York, where she starred in a few Broadway shows and was the inspiration for Bess in Porgy and Bess (a role she wouldn’t play until the 1942 revival, on account of George Gershwin’s refusal to lower the range from soprano to Moten Barnett’s alto). A move to Hollywood in the early 1930s precipitated a pioneering career in film, where she dubbed the singing voices of white actresses Ginger Rogers and Barbara Stanwyck and played a feature role—albeit uncredited—in the musicals Flying Down to Rio (1933) and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). Her marriage in 1934 to newspaper magnate Claude A. Barnett, the founder of Associated Negro Press (ANP), did not slow her career but instead enhanced his networks with the US government and African and Caribbean nations.6

As a performer, Etta Moten Barnett’s relationship with the radio was long-standing, but it was not until she retired from the stage in the 1950s that she turned to this media form to continue her storied career. Further research is necessary to explore the other radio broadcasts Moten Barnett lent her voice to, such as her earliest recordings in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where she sang and provided characters for programs such as Aunt Jemima’s Cabin at the Crossroads for Quaker Oats, as well as the broadcasts she recorded in Brazil and Argentina. However, the existence of I Remember When provides a robust narrative of the uses Moten made of radio to forge a diasporic community over the airwaves and literally provide a voice for Black women across the globe.

The existence of these recordings circumvents common narratives of radio history, which tend to subsume Black women under the categories of either “women” or “African American” and neglect to consider the distinct category of “African American women.”7 The difficulties with rendering this distinct category are also present in the literature on Pan-African movements; however, the emergence of the field of Black Internationalism—which traces the specific internationalist, often leftist circuits of Black activists against colonialism, racism, and Jim Crow between the 1930s and 1970s—has made greater strides in addressing Black women,8 though it too has overlooked radio as an interesting site of inquiry.

When studying both radio and Pan-African scholarship outside of the United States, the category of Black women is even less visible. The only figure for whom there is a small body of literature is Una Marson, a Jamaican poet and activist, whose 1940s BBC program Calling West Indies has sparked the interest of scholars of BBC history, postcolonial literature, and empire.9 Marson’s distinction as the only Black woman on the British airwaves is read as less of an anomaly when placed against the number of Black women radio broadcasters whose careers overlapped with one another and were separated by geography or generation. This notion became apparent when I began to transcribe the extant episodes of I Remember When over several visits to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem in the spring and summer of 2019, and as I combed through several other holdings at the Schomburg and the Library of Congress. Far from being rare or lone anomalies, Black women were not only broadcasters but were also producers, scriptwriters, technicians, and directors. They involved themselves in local networks, where their brief programs were squeezed between community broadcasts, and in national networks, where their voices were broadcast to millions. Their voices also circulated from print to radio, where they responded to racist policies and domestic issues and championed the citizenship of all Black people. In contrast to their contentious presence in cinema and television, the radio also provided many Black women a greater space for prominence.10

This specific prominence is the critical importance of Etta Moten Barnett’s program. In the episodes, what became visible were the networks connecting her to Black women across the United States, the Caribbean, and West Africa, and the larger networks of Black women emanating from them. Moten Barnett also provided a counternarrative of contemporary events, such as Ghanaian independence and the rise of the Duvalier regime in Haiti, from the perspectives of the Ghanaian and Haitian women she interviewed. For example, contemporary accounts of the tumultuous period in Haiti of the 1940s–’50s, specifically in the leading Black newspapers of the time, were either political accounts of the unrest or society columns tracking Haitian leaders’ visits to the events hosted by African American socialites.11 Moten Barnett’s interviews with Lavinia Williams, an African American dancer stationed in Haiti, and Lucienne Estimé, the first lady of Haiti and the wife of Haitian President Dumarsais Estimé (1946–50), placed these women as political figures and disrupted the binary between the women’s pages and the front pages in African American newspapers. The more episodes I transcribed, the greater my interest grew in why these narratives were only visible through sound, and why radio became a method of articulating a counterpublics12 specific to—and by and for—Black women.

Etta Moten Barnett, like many other Black women involved in radio, had a vibrant concurrent career on the stage, in front of the camera, and in print. She and others were able to have such wide-ranging careers because sound can encompass not merely a voice on the radio or screen but also a voice in print. Due to technological limitations of the mid-20th century, the printed sound could travel wider than the aural sound. Whether it was a radio broadcast transmitted from Chicago or Accra or Port-au-Prince or Harlem, or a speech reprinted in a newspaper column, or a self-authored column itself, there emerged a seriality of sound, an overlapping of the circles inhabited by Black women involved in international activism. Furthermore, their careers often found them circulating through major cities embedded in the space Paul Gilroy theorized as the Black Atlantic.13 These Black Atlanticist peregrinations demand increased attention to sonic activism in the mid-20th century and require a careful examination of the extant archival scraps Black women left behind, be they transcripts, articles, or—rarely, unfortunately—the actual broadcasts themselves.

My attempts to gather the archival fragments of Black women have led me to describe the narrative that emerges as a formulation of a particular sonic culture. Far more so than print, radio helped shape a new perception of Black women, especially during and immediately after the Second World War. During this period, radio broadcasts reflected the perceptions of femininity and Blackness now complicated by their military service and migration in service to the war effort. In the broader wartime and postwar periods, Black women across the African diaspora used radio to imagine and build transnational networks through broadcasts that mingled anticolonial activism with women’s issues.14 The voices—aural and literary—of Black women were transmitted across national borders ostensibly to entertain and uplift, but they ultimately shifted the ways in which Black women wrote and listened and responded to the currents of an increasingly global society. This is visible in the influence of Una Marson’s 1940s BBC program on a generation of West Indian writers, though her role in breaking new Caribbean literature to the mainstream was marginalized even in her own lifetime.15 In how Fay Jackson returned from Europe more committed to the uplift of the race. In the tension within Lavinia Williams’s program Glimpses of Haiti, where she contended with her role as vital to both American and Haitian governments during the Cold War. In the use Etta Moten Barnett made of radio to share her international connections with the general public after retiring from her entertainment career—and her introduction of listeners to Ghanaian women broadcasters.

But the construction of Black women’s sonic culture was hard won. The first African American women on air were jazz and blues artists, who were either broadcast live from orchestra programs or played over the air from a record. But the most common, popular voice of “African American women” was largely stereotyped—maids, mammies, and Sapphires—and voiced by white male radio actors in popular programming like Amos ’n’ Andy.16 Sometimes, when Black female actors were hired to play these roles, they were coached by white producers on the “correct” Negro accent.17 Furthermore, the rise of Black radio, which is defined as radio broadcasts made for African American audiences by African Americans, did not initially allow space for Black women’s participation. Black women were frequently subordinate to both Black men’s broadcast domination and the male-dominated advertising agencies that financially supported the emerging stations.

By the Second World War, African Americans used the wartime moment, when the radio provided a “new aural public sphere”18 that attempted to perform a perception of “America” for the benefit of patriotic fervor. Major radio stations like NBC and CBS, and metropolitan radio stations such as WNYC, were the home of government-sponsored programs created by non-African Americans (e.g., Americans All, Immigrants All [1938–39]) and those created by African Americans (e.g., Freedom’s People; New World A-Coming; Heroines in Bronze;, etc.). Black radio was part of the “Double V” campaign (coined by the Pittsburgh Courier “Democracy – Double Victory, At Home – Abroad”19) where, unlike during the First World War, Black leaders refused to close ranks20 and declared that “national unity is impossible without securing for the Negro what justly is his right.”21 The absurdities of this state-sponsored “equality” is present in Americans All, Immigrants All, a 26-part program broadcast on CBS radio under the auspices of the US Department of the Interior, Office of Education, and the Works Progress Administration. Not only did the series present a benign portrayal of US immigration policy, but it also included African Americans as “immigrants” while claiming their development did not occur until the war.22 Further afield were the broadcasts created by the US military under the Armed Forces Network. The show Jubilee aired in 1942 to boost the morale of Black troops, though wartime desires to show an aural harmony between the races meant it was broadcast to white and Black troops, despite continued physical segregation.23

The inclusion of African Americans in these national broadcasts was a hard-won victory by the NAACP and the National Urban League (NUL); however, broadcasts centered around African American women by an African American female writer was a struggle only grudgingly granted to Ann Tanneyhill—then director of vocational services at the NUL. This sole episode, “Heroines in Bronze,” aired on CBS March 20, 1943, and starred Fredi Washington as Phillis Wheatley, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman, alongside a performance by Marian Anderson and the Eva Jessye Choir. Based on the difficulties with getting on air, it was no coincidence that Tanneyhill’s script proposed to “pay tribute to the millions of Negro women—Americans all—”24 [emphasis mine]. Coinciding with this broadcast was the publication of an issue of Opportunity, the NUL’s official journal, devoted to the wartime work of African American women,25 which frankly described the many hurdles they faced because of race and sex. But this lone intervention of sound laid the groundwork for the demands Black women would make of the radio in the postwar era.

Across the Atlantic, the radio served a different purpose. The creation of the BBC in the early 1920s established a state voice for Britishness in the isles while simultaneously projecting this image abroad to its colonies. That said, the BBC distinguished between “overseas”—its white Dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa—and its colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean.26 Furthermore, even as BBC officials railed in the 1930s against the encroaching American culture as a “transatlantic octopus”27 that threatened the essential identity of British radio through the popularity of jazz and other “Black” sounds, it continued to cast the quintessential British identity as white. Meaning, Black Britons and Black imperial subjects were aurally cast as Other. We see this with The Kentucky Minstrels, a program that aired on the BBC from 1933 to 1950.28 As with Amos ’n’ Andy, blackface radio on the BBC employed African American voice actors to portray stereotypical characters, further casting Blackness as inherently foreign, and coding the sound of Black people along—as Jennifer Stoever argues—a sonic color line that “enabled listeners to construct and discern racial identities based on voices, sounds, and particular soundscapes.”29 In other words, if the BBC employed African American voice actors to portray minstrel characters, an art form developed in the United States out of slavery, the sonic color line in Britain created the sound of race as non-British.

When Una Marson joined the BBC as producer of their new radio program Calling West Indies, this tension between empire and belonging, and a Black identity within the imperial gaze, became most apparent. Marson’s migrations during the 1930s and ’40s and the circulation of her voice and texts shed a light on the space that wartime radio made for Black women—and the tensions created by their transgression of feminine norms. Furthermore, the transmission of—if not her actual broadcasts, but her textual impressions of life in wartime England to Black newspapers in the United States30—marks the explicit connection Marson made between the global Black (and brown) community in spite of the particulars of the nation-state. After her work for international organizations, she was hired by the BBC in 1940,31 first as a scriptwriter and then as director of the wireless program aimed at preserving West Indians’ sense of citizenship and patriotism.

Access to Marson’s recordings is limited, though scripts remain extant in the collections of the BBC Written Archive in Reading, UK, and reveal a shared attempt among the Anglophone Atlantic to gather its Black citizens under a temporary banner of belonging. However, on YouTube there is a 22- minute short film version of Marson’s broadcast from 1943, titled Hello! West Indies.32 A jazz band plays in a swanky nightclub filled with servicemen and -women in uniform, though until Marson appears on screen, all of the West Indian women in the frame are white. There was not a Hayes Code prohibiting socializing between the races, but the absence of Black women is noticeable when the host of the film is a Black woman. In fact, it isn’t until the final segment of this three-part story that a Black West Indian woman is shown. This woman, Lance Corporal Williams of British Guyana, a cut-glass accent announces, is one of the very few West Indians employed by the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. Two more montages feature a Private Walford, who works with the military radio, and a Private Ivy Bellboga of Antigua. Neither of the women speak; a jaunty calypso song whose lyrics express a vibrant patriotism appears to be speaking for the latter two.

Marson’s own cut-glass accent, a far cry from the patois dialect she used in her earliest poetry, presents a striking moment—and one shared by the Black West Indian men who step up to the microphone to narrate their stories. Radio is a medium that uses sound to create race, and Marson’s voice, nearly indistinguishable from voices of white West Indians and white Britons, transgresses the sonic color line. And yet, even as she undoubtedly used her accent to express an aural form of shared citizenship with those of the metropole, it also functioned as a rupture with the BBC’s earlier attempts to cast the Black voice as Other.

This simultaneous narrow concept of Black sound and silence as the only mainstream representation of Black women across the Atlantic moves me to argue that technology advanced along gendered and racial lines. Thus, when Black women controlled their voices on radio, they used the forum in disruptive ways because the historical use of radio had attempted to usurp their very existence and produce limitations on their personhood. There is also a startling, forceful intimacy to hearing Black women’s voices on the radio. Their emergence among the current-events reports, war fundraising, patriotic songs, variety shows, and news bulletins reveals a moment when Black women developed a sonic culture. This sonic culture is rooted in the seriality of Black women’s calls and responses across the Atlantic World for mobilization, understanding, and the primacy of their role in the contemporary world. Primary examples of this include the dulcet tones of Una Marson calling out to the West Indian diaspora stationed in Africa, Britain, and Asia from a London studio. And, during this same period, when actress Hilda Simms performed the experiences of African American nurses stationed in Europe, Africa, and the Pacific from a New York studio during the Second World War.33 Later, as the demands for civil rights and decolonization drew the diaspora together, Etta Moten Barnett saw in radio a powerful tool for drawing these incidents into the lives and homes of the Black community and beyond.

In this sonic circulation is a demand to pay attention to the argument made by Katherine McKittrick about the relationship between Black people and geography, which “make[s] visible social lives which are often displaced, rendered ungeographic.”34 For Black women specifically, the use of sound to circumvent even the limitations of print—where their presence could still be hidebound by gendered expectations—provides a new production of space that is as attentive to the domestic as to the international, to the nation-state as to the transnational diaspora.

Moten Barnett was 54 years old when she leaned into the microphone and said warmly, “Hello there, this is Etta Moten with I Remember When. The Art Van Damme Quintet and I are going to take you on…well…take a musical tour with a life. Gonna tell you in song, a story. It happens to be the story of my life.”35 Despite the aforementioned scant documentation of the commissioning and production of this radio program, its success was noted in the Baltimore Afro-American in 1957 as the number two most popular Sunday program in Chicago.36 The column provided no demographic information, but Moten Barnett’s stature as a celebrity and her guest appearance on NBC’s television show Melody Magazine in 1954—which the Philadelphia Tribune noted was “beamed toward all viewers and has no racial angle”37—leads me to speculate that Moten Barnett’s program was a first of its kind; it was a Black woman’s radio broadcast created for Black listeners that also had a broader audience.

Moten Barnett’s prominence within the African American community and the wider mainstream/white community points to the need to pay closer attention to Black women on the radio. Her radio program disrupts radio history and women’s radio history of the postwar era, which all too often focuses on domesticity and femininity of the 1950s—which excludes how Black women listened to and participated in radio culture to counteract narratives about African Americans and African American women. I Remember When was both light entertainment and political, with episodes moving between Moten Barnett’s singing and interviews with local and national activists. Of even more significance is its international scope and emphasis on Pan-African political movements and culture at the critical moment of decolonization and civil rights. Because of her career as a concert singer and her husband’s ad-hoc involvement in US–Africa affairs, Moten Barnett traveled throughout West Africa both as a performer and as an unofficial diplomat (she was quickly elevated to goodwill ambassador by the Eisenhower administration). Often, her reputation as a performer preceded her husband’s own career, as was the case when she was asked to sing at fundraisers for the various charities in Sierra Leone and Liberia during one of their visits in 1947.

With the development of these deep, diasporic ties to West Africa, it was natural that Moten Barnett and her husband were on hand during the transition of the Gold Coast Colony to independent Ghana under President and Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah. As the first independent African nation, Ghana and Nkrumah were envisioned as fulfilling the legacies of Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and the Haitian Revolution. Trinidadian historian and Marxist C. L. R. James—also present at the independence festivities—called it a “revolution” that “struck imperialism in Africa the blow from which it would never recover.”38 Though Moten Barnett’s opinions about the transition were much more measured, the questions she asked of her subjects during recording sessions revealed that she also considered this moment to be significant, as both an American citizen and a Pan-Africanist who saw in Nkrumah’s leadership a vision of Black unity and progress—and feminist uplift.

In the immediate postwar era, Moten Barnett and other Black entertainers found themselves engulfed in Cold War politics. Penny von Eschen chronicles the relationship between the US government and Black culture in Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War, where the State Department hired Black entertainers like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Etta Moten Barnett herself as goodwill ambassadors to “promote a vision of color-blind American democracy”39 to African and Asian nations swayed by the color-blind philosophy of communism. Moten Barnett, with the support of her husband, Claude A. Barnett, and his news service, the Associated Negro Press, was deeply enmeshed in the intentionally internationalist tenets of Black American activism of the 1950s and ’60s.

Moten Barnett’s interest in recording Africans and the sights and sounds of the continent—with an emphasis on making African women audible—met with defeat during earlier trips due to technological mishaps; however, when she arrived in the newly independent Ghana in March 1957, she now had a few years’ experience of recording her radio program in other countries. I Remember When provided a perfect opportunity for Moten Barnett to combine her new role as goodwill ambassador with her professional career, and she was provided ample technological and social support for recording her broadcasts in Ghana. Her best-known episode is an interview with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who was also on hand at the festivities, but Moten Barnett’s most vibrant interviews were with Ghanaian women, about whom she declared, “if it hadn’t been for the women of Gold Coast, I don’t think the party [CPP] would have won in the election.”40 Ghanaian women were at the heart of the independence movement, with market women especially standing at the “heart of the CPP’s mass support, transmitting the party’s message through song, dance, dress, and other popular and socially democratic means of communication.”41

At this time, few African Americans (or Americans in general) had heard the voices of Africans on the radio, much less African women’s voices. Moten Barnett thought it was “such good luck” to record episodes of I Remember When with the Ghanaian women, whom she characterized as “represent[ing] the masses of the women of the party. The CPP [Convention People’s Party], the party that is in control.”42 Suddenly, the event that seemed distant to even the imaginings of African Americans—the transition of the Gold Coast Colony to Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah—drew near.

For listeners, Moten Barnett simultaneously archived the sounds of a triumphant Ghana and amplified the voices of African women who, she expresses in a second broadcast, African American women have assumed to be “the backward ones…subservient to men in all cases.”43 Having previously recorded programs with female activists and artists in Haiti, Argentina, and Brazil, Moten Barnett used radio journalism to emphasize the importance of the international scope of Black feminist activism during the height of the decolonization era. Furthermore, her program challenged the popular press coverage of Ghana’s independence, which focused on Nkrumah and the tens of thousands of statesmen, activists, politicians, artists, royals, and spectators who poured into Accra to celebrate the birth of a new nation.

Much was made of the Duchess of Kent’s speech—a proclamation from the throne and Queen Elizabeth II’s personal message—as well as the subsequent proclamations of Ghanaian statesmen. Silenced beneath the hum of excitement, buzz of jets, and sonorous speeches were the women responsible for the nation’s independence, whom Moten Barnett forcefully defended: “If you haven’t heard the voice of the so-called illiterate market women…you will hear her.”44,45 This was in direct contrast to the reports issued by African American newspapers, as well as the coverage published through her husband’s own Associated Negro Press. In these reports, the transition from British colony to independent African nation was characterized as a political struggle between Nkrumah and other Ghanaian statesmen and Queen Elizabeth. This characterization of the independence ceremonies was full of pomp and circumstance surrounding the might of the new prime minister and his government, as well as assurances of his alliance to both African Americans and to pro-United States’ anticommunism.46

I Remember When broadcast those unheard voices, as well as those of middle-class Ghanaian women and her colleagues in Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, to insert their presence in the emergence of what Kevin Gaines describes as “not just…a new African but of a new world, fashioned in the image of Black modernity and freedom.”47 As Paul Gilroy and others have argued, radio, journalism, and other media forming part of this notion of Black modernity and freedom was not a new concept.48 What was new was the emergence of Black women’s voices in this sphere. The most critical moment in transcribing Moten Barnett’s radio archive, in order to unearth the transnational connections among Black women and their use of radio, is the episode that featured Rose Odamtten of the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC). My initial searches for Rose Odamtten turned up little, nor did a colleague from Ghana find the name familiar; furthermore, I was apprised of the possibility that the audio holdings of the GBC may have been destroyed in a fire. Therefore, it was fortunate that my determined Internet searches finally unearthed the dissertation by Dr. Sarah Akrofi-Quarcoo (University of Ghana).

Akrofi-Quarcoo’s incredibly rich scholarship provided greater context for this episode and the life of Odamtten in postcolonial Ghana, where, as Akrofi-Quarcoo argues, Ghanaian women entered radio broadcasting to circumvent both the colonial state and Victorian notions of gender. Research into African women’s involvement in radio is growing, though it remains, as Akrofi-Quarcoo argues, “overwhelmingly political, institutional, technical, and male-centric.”49 Through archival holdings and oral history, the life and career of Rose Odamtten is thus: In 1955 she was one of several Ghanaian women involved in African radio broadcasting brought in for training to host women’s-based programs. She was a teacher who had been educated partially in Britain, and her fluency in French provided her the opportunity to serve as translator. She initially served as fashion and beauty correspondent but later moved into more political news in the 1960s.50 As a middle-class, educated Ghanaian woman whose life was basically no different from middle-class, educated African American women, it is no surprise that Moten Barnett was keen to expose listeners to Odamtten and the presence of Ghanaian women in radio broadcasting.

EMB:

Tell me about your broadcasting, what is it like to broadcast Ghana?

Odamtten:

It’s getting on very fine, we had our 21st anniversary [Broadcasting Gold Coast], and I have my own program…we had a very big party.

EMB:

Do many people have radios in their homes?

Odamtten:

Now…practically everybody has a radio box…people say that radio programs have improved.

EMB:

In the villages we would see people standing out on the corners…listening to radios. Do they do that now?

Odamtten:

They have them in their homes…many relay stations in the towns…[you] don’t see people having boxes in the trees.

EMB:

Your programs originate here or come down from England?

Odamtten:

We have the BBC news, very little BBC broadcasts now, we have Calling West Africa about five times a week in the evening. Most of our programs come from here…some are recorded. Women’s Half Hour…a women’s magazine, things like home hints, music, talks by great women, by Dr. Susan [Nana Foreta’s daughter], the first woman doctor, two times a month, an eye specialist, we have readings…two poem readings on the program, one is called “She” (Theodora Rothkay) and the other is called “Native Love” (EM McDonald)…we have a program called The Singing Net…for things written by African writers.

EMB:

You are the commentator?

Odamtten:

I introduce my program.…I start “hello women, this our half hour, come round, we’re going to have [example]…followed by [example].”51

Though Moten Barnett traveled under the auspices of the US State Department, her experience with radio differed from Odamtten’s and other Ghanaian women broadcasters’ in that her program was not built on state apparatus. However, as Akrofi-Quarcoo notes, women’s magazine programs were not only retained from the colonial era but also expanded under Nkrumah’s Ghana as part of CPP’s policies for women. Ghanaian women’s radio was intended to promote “women’s political and civic rights; organising women to speak with one voice; promoting economic, educational and social measures for women to participate in society as well as promoting marriage, family and inheritance reforms and also African Unity.”52 The project of women’s participation in the political sphere through radio was explicit, and as the newly independent Ghana was driven by Nkrumah’s Pan-Africanist goals, it provides a model for further exploring the intersection of gender and technology in transnational Black movements.53

The Caribbean retained a hold on Moten Barnett, and its proximity to the United States, as well as its own independence movements, influenced the emerging African American middle class to forge connections with the diaspora in their backyard, so to speak. During the 1950s and ’60s leisure travel became, as Frank Andre Guridy describes, more widely available to the expanding middle class. What Guridy calls Black tourist networks reveal the contradictions of movement under Jim Crow and imperialism, when travel to Black countries was a source of reclaiming a transnational identity even as the color line was enforced by white visitors who were also traveling these same circuits.54 Nevertheless, during this period Cold War intrigue mingled with Black Atlantic politics in the links formed between African Americans and Afro-Latinx peoples. Moten Barnett sought this out as well for her radio program, taking time to interview Lavinia Williams, a Haitian-based American dancer, and Madame Lucienne Estimé, the former first lady of Haiti.55

Moten Barnett’s interview with Madame Estimé was recorded during a particularly fraught time in Haitian politics. Haiti in post-US occupation and pre-“Papa Doc” Duvalier underwent a transformation whereby Haitians saw a renewed sense of purpose and place in the Pan-American community, but remained hobbled by US–Latin American Cold War relations. Because of the constant unrest between 1934 and 1957, many scholars of Haiti neglect studying this period in its own right.56 Moten Barnett’s interviews in Haiti thus contribute to the reassessment of the country in this moment—and from the perspective of Black women. By the time she recorded the episode with Madame Estimé, the Haitian woman was now the former first lady, her husband having been ousted by a military junta in 1950, which itself was ousted by Paul Magloire later that year.

Under the presidency of Estimé (1946–50) and the feminist impulses of the first lady, Haiti was the site of an emerging Black consciousness that mixed with democratic ideals to turn the island into a site of renewed inspiration across the African diaspora—much in the manner it did during the Haitian Revolution in the early 19th century.57 In 1949 Madame Estimé boasted that Haitian women would soon earn the vote under the new constitution, in 1955 (under Magloire) six had been voted into local offices, and in 1957 a woman even ran for a senate seat.58 Conflicting factions by 1957 combined with US interference rocked the gains Haitian women made in the political sphere, and as the dynasty of François Duvalier plunged the island into a brutal dictatorship, the role of women in the Haitian state became defined by one’s being labeled either patriotic or unpatriotic—and those deemed the latter were often victims of gendered violence.59 This was months away when Etta Moten Barnett interviewed Madame Estimé, who was living in slight seclusion after her husband’s death in 1953. Undoubtedly, despite the upheaval, the former first lady was hopeful about the progress of Haitian women, and Moten Barnett documented her feminist beliefs for an audience of listeners who might have been inclined to think the country was defined by chaos if they only read newspaper reports:

EMB:

Do you believe in women in politics?

Estimé:

I believe that women can do something very important for the country; we can help.

EMB:

By voting?

Estimé:

Not only by that. They can have a contribution to the social life.

EMB:

As the president’s wife you had an interest in the poor and the orphaned.

Estimé:

I used to do that because it was my duty, but during the past six years I had no social life and lived quietly with my family…was trying to do my best.…

EMB:

There is a great mass of poor, but especially in the tropical countries do you find a mass of poor that we generally call peasant, these women who have headloads trudging over the mountains and sitting side-saddle on the burros […] sometimes loads on their heads, walking. There is a great need to help them as there is for those who live in the “slums of Chicago” or the slums of New York…we have social welfare. Do you think the women of society, of the intellectual group, of the old family…get the opportunity to vote, do you think they are giving thought to this type of help to reach that woman and her family?

Estimé:

Yes, I believe with the right to vote, every woman, from society and peasant women, will have the opportunity to express their needs and desires. It is the duty, the necessity, to be interested in the right of suffrage and to work together for the right of home.60

Not long after this broadcast, François Duvalier had begun his reign. Madame Estimé was appointed ambassador to Belgium in 1959—less a feminist decision and more Duvalier’s desire to be rid of a reminder of his democratic roots—and it raises questions about her politics in such a position. Based on the dates of the tapes at the Schomburg, Moten Barnett’s popular radio program ended sometime after her recordings in Africa and the Caribbean, which begs for further research into the influence of I Remember When on listeners and subjects alike. Moten Barnett remained committed to Black radio, through affiliations with Chicago’s Black radio station WVON later in the 1960s and ’70s, but the lack of evidence in her archives leads me to continue the quest to recover the linkages between herself and the broader network of activists whom she encountered over the course of her long life.

The most lasting impression of I Remember When is most remarkable when examining not only Moten Barnett’s use of the program to restore her own life story to the historical record but also those of Black women who otherwise remained footnotes in their husbands’ or other better-known men’s stories—if they were mentioned at all. The rarity of Black radio program recordings also makes the existence of many of the episodes even more remarkable. But the recovery of Black radio archives requires a painstaking reconstruction of a narrative through various primary and secondary sources and transcription. And sometimes—as in the case of Alma John’s radio recordings, which as of 2020 were still unprocessed—the story cannot be reconstructed because the materials exist, but are unavailable.

However, what does exist of I Remember When provides a compelling reassessment of where Black women are visible and audible in major historical narratives, and what this visibility and audibility contributed to social and political movements that otherwise marginalized them. Furthermore, Moten Barnett’s capture of the voices of women who were not interviewed in newspapers or magazines solidifies my argument that studying Black women’s radio broadcasting and sound culture reveals the most influential way in which they communicated with each other during the 20th century, and that its importance has been grossly under-researched. This may be because radio itself is under-researched or because the lack of archival holdings makes the research a daunting task; nevertheless, to consider the task of recovery too arduous or time consuming leaves many rich archives of sound untapped. And far more so than the written word, the ability to hear the voices of Black women provides a powerful antidote to records that silence them under the dual oppressions of race and sex in life and in the archive.

1.

“[Etta Moten goes to New York City],” Etta Moten Barnett collection [sound recordings], Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.

2.

Over the course of her lifespan, she was known as Etta Moten, Etta Moten Barnett, and Mrs. Claude A. Barnett. She was adamant about retaining her maiden name as part of her identity, which is why I refer to her as Moten Barnett throughout this article.

3.

Jack L. Cooper Papers, box 1, folder 1, Chicago Historical Society.

4.

“Singer Lived through Black History,” Etta Moten Barnett Papers, box 21, folder 7, Chicago Public Library, Carter G. Woodson Regional Library, Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature.

5.

Etta Moten Barnett, interviewed by Ruth Edmonds Hill, February 11 and 12, 1985. Black Women Oral History Project. Interviews, 1976–1981, transcript (Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA), seq. 25, http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:RAD.SCHL:10039849.

6.

Gerald Horne explores Barnett’s ANP and foreign relations in The Rise and Fall of the Associated Negro Press: Claude Barnett's Pan-African News and the Jim Crow Paradox (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2017).

7.

Kristin Skoog and Alexander Badenoch, “Women and Radio: Sounding Out New Paths in Women's History,” Women's History Review 29, no. 2 (2020): 177–82.

8.

See Gregg Andrews, Thyra J. Edwards: Black Activist in the Global Freedom Struggle; Keisha N. Blain, Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom; Ashley Farmer, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era; Gerald Horne, Race Woman: the Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois; Barbara Ransby, Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Robeson; Imaobong Umoren, Race Women Internationalists: Activist-Intellectuals and Global Freedom Struggles.

9.

Leonie Thomas, “Making Waves: Una Marson’s Poetic Voice at the BBC,” Media History 24, no. 2: 212–25.; James Procter, “Una Marson at the BBC,” Small Axe 48 November 2015): 1–28.

10.

Relevant archives: Ann Tanneyhill (LOC); Alma Vessells John (SCRBC); Radio Transcripts (SCRBC); Muriel Smith (BBC Written Archives); Una Marson (BBC Written Archives); Alberta Hunter (SCRBC and BBC Written Archives); Gerri Major (SCRBC); Lavinia Williams (SCRBC); Nora Holt (Beinecke Library); Fay M. Jackson (Chicago History Museum).

11.

“President, Mme. Magloire Honored in Windy City: Dailey Reception is Dazzling Social Highlight of Magloire Visit to Chicago,” The Chicago Defender (National Edition), February 19, 1955; “The ‘Inside’ Haitian Story,” The Baltimore Afro-American (1893–1988), January 26, 1946; “Exclusive AFRO Photos of Revolt in Haiti Where President Lescot Was Deposed and 25 Killed in Rioting: Lescot Borrows Cash to Make Good Escape Military Junta Confiscates All Money, Property of Fallen Chief,” The Baltimore Afro-American (1893–1988), January 26, 1946; “Pres. Magloire Fetes CARE for Haiti Ladies: Swank Party Given by Pres. Magloire at Waldorf Honors CARE for Haiti Members on Sat. Evening,” New York Amsterdam News, February 12, 1955; “Haiti Booming Under Estimé,” The Chicago Defender (National Edition), October 11, 1947; “Madame Estimé Thrilled by Visit to the United States,” The Chicago Defender (National Edition), October 29, 1949. Articles can be accessed through the database ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

12.

Nancy Fraser’s 1990 article “Rethinking the Public Sphere” (Social Text 25/26: 56–80) proposes the term subaltern counterpublics to describe the ways in which marginalized groups invent and circulate their own discourses. Fraser uses an example of vocabulary that emerged from feminist circles. My primary argument is building an example that is specific to Black women in order to intervene in histories of sound, radio, and Pan-African thought that does not contend with this category.

13.

Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).

14.

Horne, The Rise and Fall of the Associated Negro Press, 11.

15.

Darrell Newton, “Calling the West Indies: The BBC World Service and Caribbean Voices,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 28, no. 4 (2008), 489–97.

16.

The interchangeable use of Black and African American is a site of tension in my inquiries; it is very US-centric and raises questions about identity when attempting to cross geographic borders in my research. For the sake of this paper, “Black” is a political moniker attached to a radical global project. Specific nationalities will be noted when necessary to stress a point about different nodes of identity.

17.

William Barlow, Voice Over: The Making of Black Radio (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999), 31.

18.

Barbara Savage, Broadcasting Freedom: Radio, War, and the Politics of Race, 19381948 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 1.

19.

Patrick S. Washburn, “The Pittsburgh Courier's Double V Campaign in 1942,” Annual Meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism, Michigan State University, August 1981.

20.

See W. E. B. Du Bois’s editorial in the July 1918 issue of The Crisis.

21.

Savage, Broadcasting Freedom, 80.

22.

“The Negro in the United States,” NYPR Archive Collections, https://www.wnyc.org/story/episode-6-the-negro-in-the-united-states/.

23.

Savage, Broadcasting Freedom, 102.

24.

“Heroines in Bronze” script, box 10, Ann Tanneyhill Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

25.

Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life, Brown American Womanpower Issue, April 1943.

26.

Simon J. Potter, Broadcasting Empire: The BBC and the British World, 19221970 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 7.

27.

Valeria Camporesi, “The BBC and American Broadcasting, 1922–55,” Media, Culture & Society 16, no. 4 (October 1994): 625–39.

28.

Michael Pickering, “The BBC's Kentucky Minstrels, 1933–1950: Blackface Entertainment on British Radio,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 16, no. 2 (1996):161–95.

29.

Jennifer Lynn Stoever, The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening (New York: NYU Press, 2016), 29.

30.

Una Marson, “War Time Experiences of a Girl in London,” Philadelphia Tribune, August 26, 1944; “A West Indian Girl Tells of a Day in War Blasted London,” New York Amsterdam News, September 30, 1944.

31.

Delia Jarrett-Macauley, The Life of Una Marson, 1905–1965 (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1998), 149.

32.

Hello! West Indies (1943), A Ministry of Information film, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cjKsRGgUa-c.

33.

New World A-Coming [a series of weekly broadcasts], Sc MG 60, box 1, Radio Transcripts collection, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.

34.

Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), x.

35.

“[Etta Moten goes to New York City],” Etta Moten Barnett collection [sound recordings], Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.

36.

“Etta Moten Barnett Clicks on Chicago radio,” The Baltimore Afro-American 31, August 1957; article can be accessed through the database ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

37.

“NBC Signs Etta Moten Barnett,” Philadelphia Tribune, August 17, 1954, 2; article can be accessed through the database ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

38.

C. L. R. James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution (London: Allison & Busby, 1977), 7.

39.

Penny Von Eschen, Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 4.

40.

“[Interview with Two CPP Women] [Number two],” Etta Moten Barnett collection [sound recordings], Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.

41.

Jeffrey S. Ahlman, Living with Nkrumahism: Nation, State, and Pan-Africanism in Ghana (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2017), 20. Digital edition.

42.

“[Interview with Two CPP Women] [number 1],” Etta Moten Barnett collection [sound recordings], Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.

43.

“[Interview with Two CPP Women] [number 1].”

44.

“The Duchess Said ‘Pray be Seated,’” New York Amsterdam News, March 16, 1957; article can be accessed through the database ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

45.

“[Interview with Genevieve Eastman],” Etta Moten Barnett collection [sound recordings], Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.

46.

“Gold Coast Issues Surprise Demand for Independence,” Philadelphia Tribune, January 17, 1953; “Ghana Readies Big Independence Fete,” The Baltimore Afro-American, February 16, 1957; “History in the Making: The Gold Coast Becomes Ghana,” The Baltimore Afro-American, March 2, 1957; “Portrait of A Prime Minister: Destiny of New Nation of Ghana in Hands of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah Top Man in Former Gold Coast Is Graduate of Lincoln University; First Negro Prime Minister in British Commonwealth of Nations Is Staunch Friend of America and Opponent of Communism,” New Journal and Guide, March 9, 1957; “From Dependence to Independence: George Schuyler Traces Chain of Events Which Led to Freedom for Gold Coast,” Pittsburgh Courier, March 9, 1957. Articles can be accessed through the database ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

47.

Kevin Gaines, American Africans in Ghana: Black Expatriates and the Civil Rights Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 2.

48.

See The Black Atlantic by Paul Gilroy; Black Soundscapes White Stages: The Meaning of Francophone Sound in the Francophone Black Atlantic by Edwin C. Hill; Africa in Stereo: Modernism, Music, and Pan-African Solidarity by Tsitsi Ella Jaji.

49.

Sarah Akrofi-Quarcoo, “Women’s Engagement with Radio Broadcasting in Post-Colonial Ghana, 1960–1975” (PhD diss., University of Ghana, 2015), 11.

50.

Akrofi-Quarcoo, 122.

51.

“[Rose Jabanoa interview],” Etta Moten Barnett collection [sound recordings], Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.

52.

Akrofi-Quarcoo, “Women’s Engagement,” 166.

53.

See Jeffrey S. Alhman’s Living with Nkrumahism: Nation, State, and Pan-Africanism in Ghana for a more detailed look at Nkrumah’s Ghana. Also, after her husband’s death, Shirley Graham Du Bois was deeply involved in the formation of Ghanaian television.

54.

Frank Andre Guridy. Forging Diaspora: Afro-Cubans and African Americans in a World of Empire and Jim Crow (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 158.

55.

Her husband, Léon Dumarsais Estimé, was President of Haiti from 1946 to 1950.

56.

Matthew J. Smith, Red and Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934–1957 (Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 2–3.

57.

Smith, Red and Black in Haiti, 104.

58.

“Haitian Ladies Soon May Be Granted Vote: Mme. Estimé Gives Exclusive Interview on Haitian Women,” New York Amsterdam News, October 1, 1949; “Haitian Women Vote, Win 6 Local Offices,” The Chicago Defender, February 19, 1955; “First Haitian Woman Seeking Senate Seat,” Philadelphia Tribune, February 2, 1957.

59.

Carolle Charles, “Gender and Politics in Contemporary Haiti: The Duvalierist State, Transnationalism, and the Emergence of a New Feminism (1980–1990),” Feminist Studies (Spring 1995): 170.

60.

“[Interview with Madame Estimé],” Etta Moten Barnett collection [sound recordings], Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.