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NewsMay 10, 2021

Writing marginalized people into history

Associate Professor Donna Halper honored for excellence for teaching in journalism and mass communications

Donna Halper with the band Rush
Associate Professor Donna Halper, who as a Cleveland radio DJ helped launch the Canadian rock band Rush in the United States, is shown at the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2010 with two members of the trio, Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee, as well as Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan.

Though she is internationally renowned for her contributions to rock ‘n’ roll radio, Associate Professor Donna Halper has spent much of her career in the realm of “restorative narratives,” even before the phrase appeared in the academic lexicon.

Halper’s writings about groundbreaking women in broadcasting, sportswriters of color, the Negro Leagues and Native American radio stations — serving reservations and other indigenous communities that lack reliable, high-speed internet — are all aimed at writing unfairly overlooked individuals and populations into American history.

Her work as an educator was recently recognized by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s History Division with the Jinx Coleman Broussard Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Media History

“We’re living in a time when many people are a lot more comfortable with the stereotype than the real person,” Halper says, adding that generations of students’ views of marginalized communities have been shaped by misrepresentations by white historians or by negative and harmful depictions in popular culture.

Donna Halper with Steven Shapiro
Associate Professor Donna Halper and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Steven Shapiro.

As a result, the contributions of Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), as well as women of all races, have traditionally been left out of American History. Halper has done extensive research about media representations of women and people of color, noting that there are a few “famous” men and women who are often mentioned in history books, but so many others with equally important accomplishments are ignored. 

“We pick certain people,” Halper says, “but who else was there? Are there other people who got us started, other people who put us on the path” of progress toward a more just and equitable nation?

Halper, a noted broadcast historian and former commercial radio disc jockey who helped launch the Canadian rock band Rush in the United States, teaches communication, as well as media history and analysis in our College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

She'll be recognized for her recent award at a virtual conference in August, alongside fellow honorees Ira Chinoy, University of Maryland; Teri Finneman, University of Kansas; Kristin Gustafson, University of Washington-Bothell; and Robert Kerr, University of Oklahoma.

“Despite tremendous challenges, these media historians have demonstrated how to teach under trying circumstances in creative and empathetic ways,” the association’s History Division Chair Will Mari said in a press release. “The division is proud of their work and I, for one, am excited to learn from them.” 

Among her examples of restorative narratives is research she did about Native American broadcasting. She wrote an article about KSUT-FM in Colorado, a Native American radio station founded in 1976. Its signal carries a variety of news, indigenous music and other broadcast staples, but Halper explains in an article in Radio World, that the station provides critical services in areas without easy access to broadband internet.  

Donna Halper at Baseball Hall of Fame
Associate Professor Donna Halper stands amid commemorative plaques at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., where she spoke at a symposium on baseball history.

The station and others like it afford indigenous people one important opportunity to tell their story in their own words, helping to preserve their culture and history. This contrasts with the way Native Americans were portrayed in 19th-century newspapers or in history books studied in schools, even when latter-day authors tried to strike a sympathetic tone.

“We don’t want to be revisionist,” Halper says. “We want to tell the truth about what really happened, not to beat ourselves up but to learn from it.”

That desire, and her passion to tell the story of people who are often overlooked, drove her to write her 2014 book “Invisible Stars: A Social History of American Women in Broadcasting,” as well numerous essays, including one published in a book by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), about five forgotten women sportswriters, including three who covered the Negro Leagues. She also wrote several biographical sketches for SABR’s online Bio Project and has contributed to the African-American National Biography, published by Oxford University Press.    

Halper says her goal was to “write back into history the black reporters, who were mostly ignored by the mainstream press,” and especially, to restore the women who were in non-traditional occupations. Many were role models in their generation, yet they are forgotten today.

“Shouldn’t we tell those stories?”