Book is both moving memoir and fascinating journey into U.S. history
Written by Belva Davis, with Vicki Haddock
Review by Carolyn Schurr Levin
To describe Belva Davis’ book simply as a memoir by the first black female news anchor in the United States is to ignore the inspiration and history lesson that this incredible book provides. Davis takes us on a journey, from her birth in 1932 in deeply segregated Monroe, La., during the Great Depression, through a lifetime filled with an uncanny ability to overcome obstacles and surpass even her own expectations, to the 21st century, when she has been honored with accolades and awards, including eight local Emmys and Lifetime Achievement Awards from the National Association of Black Journalists and the Northern California Television Academy. Her odyssey can only be described as extraordinary. Although it may not have been her intent when she set out to tell her story, Davis’ memoir surely can inspire young journalists to take on bigger, even seemingly insurmountable challenges, both professional and social.
Davis’ memories of her childhood are filled with sadness. Because her mother, a 14- year-old laundress earning $4 a week, and her father, also a teenager without formal education, working at a local sawmill, were unable to care for her, she became, in her words, “portable – rather like an old suitcase that they would pass from place to place.” Her family fled the racism of the Deep South and headed for Oakland, Calif., as part of the Second Great Migration west during World War II. In California, unfortunately, life was not all that much easier for Davis. She describes how, as both a black and a Southerner, she confronted prejudice in school. She lived in projects. She suffered from neglect and abuse. She describes a home “overstuffed with people but lacking in affection.”
Despite Davis’ painful family life, her story is filled with people who came to her rescue and provided her with both love and support: lifelong friends, colleagues and mentors. Davis writes about one poignant memory when she was denied the right to practice for her high school bowling club at a local bowling alley because the proprietor told her, “We don’t let Negroes bowl here.” Upon learning of the affront, Davis’ bowling club sponsor, Miss Entz, talked to the school principal and they agreed that all high school activities would be pulled from the bowling alley unless the management agreed to welcome all students at all times. Davis recounts how “[n]obody had ever stuck up for me before. I was struck by the power of one woman to confront bigotry head on and defeat it. She had just given me one of the most critical lessons of my life.”
Although Davis was the first person in her immediate family to graduate from high school, neither she nor her family could afford college and so, at 18 years old, she passed the civil service exam and took a job as a typist at the Naval Supply Center. She also married and had two children. With no college education and no formal journalism training, she began volunteering and freelancing for magazines, learning how to “meticulously record the details that bring a story to life.” She left her bad first marriage. As the world around her was changing, Davis writes that she “allowed [herself] to dream along with them.”
Davis’ first full-time job as a journalist was at the Bay Area Independent, one of two black weeklies operating out of San Francisco’s Fillmore District, where her salary was $40 a week, and she worked “as much as necessary to get the paper out.” From there, she moved on to the more influential Sun-Reporter, and, in her words “never looked back.”
Davis went from newspapers to radio when white-owned, black-programmed San Francisco radio station KSAN asked if she would like to read her social column on the air. She became the only female voice on KSAN, mastering the job as she did with her previous newspaper jobs. Davis’ radio career took her from KSAN to KDIA to KJAZ to KNEW. She pioneered “The Belva Davis Show” in the 1960s, incorporating every stereotypical concept of women’s programming available: recipes, childcare tips, decorating advice. As “The Belva Davis Show” became a hit, Davis admits that she “was beginning to lead a life I could not have imagined merely a couple of years before.” She remarried. Her husband, Bill Moore, was one of the country’s first African-American television news cameramen.
As her story is no doubt inspiring to young people today, Davis writes of her own inspiration. She was one of millions who, after hearing Martin Luther King articulate his dream, began investing in dreams of her own. Davis moved from radio to television at a time when there was not a solitary black woman in TV news. She believed that the future of journalism was in television despite the fact that television did not, in those days, represent the population of America. Her first job was at KPIX-TV, San Francisco’s CBS station, where they held a press conference to announce that they had hired “the first black woman TV reporter west of the Mississippi.” Davis’ description of her career as an eyewitness television reporter takes us through years of covering violent campus revolts, reporting on the Black Panthers, sharing a helicopter ride with Sen. Robert Kennedy, visiting Ronald Reagan’s Sacramento home when he was governor, interviewing President Gerald Ford, covering the mass suicide of Rev. Jim Jones’ followers, and traveling to Cuba to interview Fidel Castro. Davis left KPIX for KQED, one of the most watched and respected PBS stations in the country, and became the sole anchor of a primetime newscast.
One of the most compelling parts of Davis’ story is how she looked for ways to advance causes of importance to her, including equality and women’s issues throughout her career. For example, at a time when television was still “very much a boy’s club” in the 1970s, Davis produced a series on breast cancer that won a local Emmy award. She joined and became a leader of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), trying to mentor and support young journalists and performers. She produced the Miss Bronze Northern California Pageant. She produced the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame for almost two decades. She helped launch the Museum of the African Diaspora.
A lesson largely glossed over in Davis’ memoir, but present nonetheless, is that while it may look easy to balance work and family, in reality, it is far from easy. Davis honestly and poignantly addresses her concerns that her children “paid a price for [her] career.” She admits that as one of the first hired people in her business, she had to repeatedly prove herself by working harder than everyone else. While she laments that she “erred on the side of compulsive overachievement at work, probably shortchanging [her] family in the process,” Davis concludes that the benefits of her career outweighed the costs.
In her fascinating and full career, Davis says that she “really never said no.” She states that “I agreed to whatever the editors tossed my way. . . I felt the need to prove, over and over again, that I could handle anything.” Davis in fact did prove that. Although 5-foot-1, Davis can only be described as a giant.