Page, Clarence 1947–
Clarence Page 1947–
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Clarence Page has been active in every conceivable news medium; he writes a regular syndicated column, is a member of the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune, appears regularly on such television news shows as CNN’s The McLaughlin Group, PBS’s MacNeil/Lehrer Report, and ABC’s Nightline, and offers biweekly commentary on National Public Radio’s Sunday Morning Edition. Though in his distinguished career he has covered political topics as varied as struggles for power in South Africa, the AIDS crisis, and black leaders and vote fraud, Page told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB), “I’m a social commentator more than a Washington political pundit.”
Page entered the profession of journalism when it was not particularly hospitable territory for blacks. As he noted in his interview with CBB, “I didn’t have a lot of role models as a black journalist because there weren’t that many of us working in the high-profile media.” Born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1947, the son of a factory worker and a caterer, Page became interested in journalism while in high school in Middletown, Ohio. “I’d say it was probably around 1963,” he recalled. “I remember it was after the Kennedy assassination; it was about the time the Beatles were hitting the U.S.— after the initial sit-ins of the civil rights movement down south. There were a lot of things going on in the world and I wanted to be a part of it. I saw journalism as a way to be there and be a part of the scene.”
Nonetheless, Page’s considerations were also practical. “I suppose I was thinking about a career [first and foremost] and my initial plans to be an engineer were dashed by my mediocre grades in math and science. I was also working for the student newspaper at the time and enjoying that. That plus some encouragement from my journalism teacher, Mrs. Kendall, and a number of different things encouraged me to pursue this as a career—partly by design, partly by default.” He knew he faced serious obstacles as an aspiring black journalist and kept his options open. “I was looking at black media; if I didn’t get a job in the mainstream media I figured I’d get a job at some black newspaper, anyway.”
At 17 Page worked as a writer and photographer for the Middletown Journal and the Cincinnati Enquirer. He graduated from Middletown High in 1965 and went on to Ohio University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in
Born June 2, 1947, in Dayton, OH; son of Clarence Hannibal (a factory worker) and Maggie (owner of a catering service; maiden name, Williams) Page; married Leanita McClain, c. 1970s (divorced, c. 1981); married Lisa Johnson, 1987; children (second marriage): Grady Johnson. Education: Ohio University, B.S. in journalism, 1969.
Reporter and free-lance writer, 1969—. Writer and photographer for Middletown Journal, Middletown, OH, and Cincinnati Enquirer, Cincinnati, OH, c. 1964; internat Dayton Herald, Dayton, OH, late 1960s; Chicago Tribune, Chicago, IL, reporter and assistant city editor, 1969-80; WBBM-TV, Chicago, director of community affairs, 1980-82, news department reporter and planning editor, 1982-84; Chicago Tribune, member of editorial board and columnist, 1984—, column became syndicated, 1987; moved to Washington, DC bureau of Chicago Tribune, 1991. Military service: 1969-70.
Awards: Contributor to Pulitzer Prize-winning 1972 series for Chicago Tribune; Edward Scott Beck Award for foreign reporting, 1976; Illinois United Press International award, 1980; Pulitzer Prize for commentary, 1989.
Addresses: Office— Chicago Tribune, 435 North Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; Chicago Tribune, 1615 L Street NW, Washington, DC 20036.
journalism in 1969. He worked on the student newspaper while at college: “We were really a proactive—if I may use that hackneyed word—newspaper, editorially,” he revealed to CBB, “trying to advance the antiwar cause and the civil rights cause.” He interned before his senior year at the Dayton Journal-Herald. Asked about his journalist models, Page cited the handful of visible black journalists but also noted that “it wasn’t until I got to college that I found out about people like Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe, journalists who were practicing what was then called the ’New Journalism,’ which was beyond the inverted-pyramid style [conventional news-story structure].... Those were my initial role models.”
During his youth Page found himself attracted to both militant and pacifist elements in the black struggle. He explained to CBB that “[civil rights activist the Reverend] Martin Luther King and [militant social and political leader] Malcolm X is the classic dichotomy of African-American history and culture” and declared, “I was a great adherent of both.” His experience mirrors the internal balancing act of many black Americans who were stimulated by these two crucial figures.
“I think Malcolm X’s autobiography probably had a more profound effect on me than any book I read as a young person,” Page recalled, noting that he could only afford to buy the book when it came out in paperback. “I was very impressed with him. I’ve always been an adherent of Martin Luther King, and I felt that both of them had something to offer. So I wasn’t married to one side or the other. I think at some points in my college career I probably espoused the black power philosophy louder than I want to admit to now, but that was the era. The reason I say ’louder than I want to admit to now’ is because in retrospect, I see that the black power movement was largely a motto without a movement [or] a slogan without a movement. It was sort of a Rorschach test.... That’s what made black power so attractive: whatever you thought it was in your head, that’s what it was.” Page told CBB, “I stand firmly now with those who are trying to keep Martin Luther King’s true spirit alive, especially for young people who don’t remember either [him or Malcolm X].”
Page started at the Chicago Tribune immediately after graduating from college. In 1970 he was drafted, and he returned from service in 1971. He worked at the Tribune as a reporter and assistant city editor until 1980; during that time he received recognition for a number of stories. In 1972 he was part of a Tribune task force series on vote fraud that won a Pulitzer Prize. Then, in 1976, Page received the Edward Scott Beck Award for his coverage of South African politics and, in 1980, an Illinois United Press International award for a series of investigative reports called “The Black Tax.” From 1980 to 1982 Page served as director of community affairs at Chicago’s WBBM-TV; he was a reporter and planning editor at the station’s news department from 1982 to 1984.
During these years Page did considerable free-lance work, contributing to Washington Monthly and Chicago magazine, among others. His writings include examinations of numerous black public figures, including an investigative piece on activist Jesse Jackson and Operation PUSH, for Washington Monthly, articles on Chicago mayor Harold Washington, for the New Republic, and a 1984 interview with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, for Chicago. In his interview with CBB, Page called Farrakhan a “very interesting man,” adding that the minister’s organization had kept him “running for about five months—kept me on the hook—and then one day just said, ’Sure, come on over.’ Once I sat him down I couldn’t shut him up.”
True to form, Page pressed Farrakhan to discuss the minister’s allegedly disparaging remarks about Jews and Judaism. As the journalist explained, “When I got onto the question of anti-Semitism, he went on at great length about his personal friendships with various Jews he’d known,” not acknowledging the apparent contradiction between these recollections and some of his public statements. “He spoke with such loving, glowing praise of these folks; and I thought, here’s the classic story of prejudice,” Page observed, “people who will have a prejudice about an entire group that doesn’t apply to individuals.... In a way that sounded so naive to me... how could such a brilliant man have such naive attitudes about race relations?” Still, Page concluded, Farrakhan “is not the first man who’s very brilliant on one level to have some real draconian prejudices on another level.”
In the late 1970s Page married his colleague Leanita McClain, a distinguished editorialist. But they later divorced, leaving the journalist depressed. McClain committed suicide in 1984. Page, who had remained friendly with McClain after their split, edited a collection of her writings, A Foot in Each World: Essays and Articles by Leanita McClain, for Northwestern University Press in 1987 and provided an introduction. He returned to the Chicago Tribune in 1984 as a member of the paper’s editorial board—ironically, to fill the vacancy left by McClain’s death—and began contributing a biweekly column. He continued his free-lance work, writing for such periodicals as the Wall Street Journal, New York Newsday, the Chicago Reader, and Emerge, among others, and his column became syndicated by Tribune Media Services in 1987.
In May of 1987 Page married Lisa Johnson; their son, Grady Johnson Page, was born June 3, 1989. That year Page’s column received the field of journalism’s highest honor: the Pulitzer Prize. He was, as Jet magazine duly noted, the first black columnist to be so recognized. With the prestige of the victory came a $3,000 award. “I didn’t think I was going to win and I was shocked to hear that I was a finalist,” Page told CBB. “The day before the Pulitzers were announced I tried to put it out of my head.” An illustrious Tribune colleague, however, made this impossible. Noted columnist Mike Royko, whose office was near Page’s, came into the latter’s office “about four o’clock in the afternoon, and he’s got his big fat wallet out. And he’s saying, ’How much do you want to bet you won a Pulitzer?’” After that, Page got nervous, since he knew Royko didn’t place large bets unless he thought he had a sure thing. “It came in over the wires,” Page went on, “and people all over the newsroom were yelling ’Hey Clarence! You won!’ And then they wheeled out the champagne and I got bathed in it.”
Page has insisted throughout his career on addressing unspoken conflicts. The death of black journalist Max Robinson from AIDS prompted a thoughtful piece for Chicago; Page proceeded to write an investigative article for the New Republic on what he called the “deathly silence” of black leaders regarding AIDS. In 1991 he moved to the Tribune’s Washington, D.C. bureau. Page’s columns have reflected his preoccupation with emerging social trends and cultural conflicts. One column rightly predicted that the 1992 Republican presidential campaign would invoke a “feminist threat,” also noting that “an administration that has failed, after three drops in interest rates, to restart the economy, might just find it handy to turn groups against each other, an easy thing to do in a shrinking economy. Just ask [Louisiana Ku Klux Klansman-turned-politician] David Duke.”
Discussing an academic’s claim to have discovered a real-life black source for the voice of American writer Mark Twain’s nineteenth-century literary hero Huckleberry Finn, Page asserted that attempts to “protect” black students from the book’s frequent use of the word “nigger” missed the point. “I, too, flinched when I heard my white teacher reading the word ’nigger’ aloud when she introduced our class to the book,” he wrote in the Tribune. “But I soon found myself reading it on my own, at first out of curiosity, then out of sheer pleasure.” Twain’s book, Page insisted, stands as an indictment, not an example, of nineteenth-century racism; keeping it out of the hands of young black readers “might also protect them from ever being inspired as I was to know the power of words.” Page, like Twain, insists on bringing the uncomfortable issue of racism into the open.
When asked to assess the black struggle for equality in the 1990s, Page reflected on the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots and placed a decided emphasis on economics. Martin Luther King, he told CBB, “would’ve been appalled to see the dichotomy we have in the black community today in terms of this so-called ’black underclass’—the blacks who were left behind by the civil rights revolution. That’s what King was starting to deal with when he was taken away from us.”
“Since the sixties a great deal of progress has been made by most black Americans,” Page continued. “We’re economically a lot better off than we were in the early sixties. But at the same time, maybe a fifth or a third—depending on whose estimates you want to listen to—have been left behind economically. This is the group that gets labeled the ’underclass,’ a label that I don’t care much for, but I use it for convenience’ sake. That is the great tragedy that we have to deal with. The racial problem that we used to know has become much more of a class problem now than it used to be.” Page also remarked on “a generation of young people coming along now who are in their teens and twenties, who don’t remember the sixties at all and couldn’t care less about the history that people of my generation think was so important. They’re looking at where their situation is right now; they don’t see progress the way we do because they haven’t lived through it. And so they’re a lot less patient and a lot more angry than we were.”
Understanding that anger, the contradictions inherent in racial struggle, and their social ramifications is part of the everyday work of Clarence Page, who uses his column and his prolific free-lance work to explore a variety of difficult social issues. In particular, he has insisted on exploring the subtleties and paradoxes of racism. As Page noted in the CBB interview, “Racism is kind of like sex; everybody knows it’s there, but we don’t want to talk about it in front of the children or in mixed company.”
(Editor and author of introduction) A Foot in Each World: Essays and Articles by Leanita McClain, Northwestern University Press, 1987.
A Foot in Each World: Essays and Articles by Leanita McClain, edited with an introduction by Clarence Page, Northwestern University Press, 1987.
Ann Arbor News, July 9, 1992.
Chicago, February 1987; June 1990.
Detroit News, November 3, 1991.
Jet, July 30, 1984; April 17, 1989.
New Republic, March 2, 1987; December 2, 1991.
Washington Monthly, February 1980.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a July 1992 interview with Clarence Page and a Chicago Tribune publicity biography.
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