Title: Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio and Freedom
Author: Sonja D. Williams
Formats: hardcover (265 pages), softcover, eBook
Publisher: University of Illinois Press; New Black Studies Series
Release date: August 11, 2015
Sonja D. Williams, a professor in Howard University’s Department of Radio, Television, and Film, offers the first full-length biography of Chicago writer Richard Durham, an extremely important figure in the history of radio whose most notable programs included Here Comes Tomorrow and Destination Freedom. Williams’ was first introduced to Durham’s work in the early 1990s while serving as associate producer on the Peabody Award-winning radio documentary, Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was, for Smithsonian Productions. After the conclusion of that project, she was determined to embark on a more thorough study of Durham, whose “dramatic flair and fiery rhetoric” infused his dramas about African American life. Now, after twenty years of research, we are finally gifted with Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio and Freedom—which explores Durham’s life as well as the totality of his contributions to radio.
Williams is a natural storyteller, weaving an engaging story of Durham’s early life. Born in 1917 in Mississippi where his grandparents were both former slaves, Durham spent his early years on the family farm. His father was one of a few Black landowners, while his mother earned extra income peddling Madame C.J. Walker hair products. Williams provides an interesting account of the history of the Durham family in the south, based on first-hand interviews and quotes from Durham family papers. His parents eventually decided to leave their agricultural life behind to seek better educational and employment opportunities for their family, and thus in 1923 joined the Great Migration to Chicago. At the same time, radio was expanding rapidly in the city. As a young boy, Durham was exposed to programs on WMAQ, WGN, and WLS, including “Amos ‘n’ Andy”—a “blackface” radio comedy that poked fun at southern-born Negroes using minstrel stereotypes. Williams conjectures that the show likely had a major impact on Durham, inspiring him in later years to create more realistic characters who fought for social and economic justice.