by Oyin Akande
On November 14th, Gwen Ifill passed away, aged 61. Her name may or may not be familiar to you but her path-making has certainly made a hell of a mark on the news and media representation of African-American women. She was one of the leading political journalists and analysts in the U.S., an author and the host of PBS NewsHour, alongside Judy Woodruff and Washington Week.
Born, in New York, the daughter of Caribbean immigrants, she grew up in America in the 60s. It was then, aged 9, she decided she wanted to be a journalist. “I was very conscious of the world being this very crazed place that demanded explanation…I didn’t see a whole lot of people who looked like me doing it on television,” she recalled of her growing up in an interview for Archive of American Television.
Ms Ifill was widely recognised as a stellar journalist- characteristically fair and a straight-talker. When, in 2008, she moderated the vice-president debates between Governor Sarah Palin and Senator Joe Biden, some were concerned that she might be biased in favour of the Democrat, as she was writing a book on his running mate, Barack Obama. She proved herself true and “reached a high standard for reason, fairness and class,” in the words of James Rainey of The Los Angeles Times. She valued journalistic objectivity highly, saying once “my job as a reporter is not to know what I think.” She later won the George Foster Peabody Award for her 2008 campaign coverage.
Obama, himself, said of Ms Ifill at a news conference on the day of her death “Gwen was a friend of ours. She was an extraordinary journalist; she always kept faith with the fundamental responsibilities of her profession: asking tough questions, holding people in power accountable, and defending a strong and free press that makes our democracy work.” Her book ‘The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama’ was published in 2009, on the day of Obama’s inauguration.
As a symbol, Gwen Ifill was a critically important pioneer. In 1999, she became the first African-American woman to host a major political TV talk show, the Washington Week in Review. Coming up in a period of audacious racism and entering an industry dominated by white men, she achieved great success as a journalism vanguard despite the obstacles she did face. She once said that her proudest moment was when she found herself surrounded by civil rights luminaries as M.C. at the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on Independence Avenue in Washington.
We have yet to balance media representations of African-American women and this is particularly felt in the U.S. Alongside her amazing example of black female excellence, Ifill felt a responsibility of being a good role model both as an African-American and a woman:
“When I was a little girl watching programs like this – because that’s the kind of nerdy family we were- I would look up and not see anyone who looked like me in any way. No women. No people of colour,” she said. “I’m very keen about the fact that a little girl now, watching the news, when they see me and Judy sitting side by side, it will occur to them that that’s perfectly normal -that it won’t seem like any big breakthrough at all.”