University of Iowa journalism professor and award-winning author Dr. Venise Berry is successfully balancing careers in popular and scholarly writing
By Michele N-K Collison
Dr. Venise T. Berry’s reading materials these days are books on African mythology, healing water, spirituality and energy and conservation issues.
If this sounds like a strange summer reading list for a journalism professor, it’s because the University of Iowa professor is hard at work on her third popular novel, Colored Sugar Water.
A prolific writer, Berry has already written So Good, a book about the relationships of four women living in Washington, D.C., that became a bestseller. And this summer, she’s out on the road promoting her new book, All of Me, about a television reporter and her lifelong struggle with her weight. All this while trying to balance a deadline for an academic book, The 50 Best Black Films, to be published this fall.
Berry shrugs off the suggestion that many professors find it difficult to just write their academic books and papers.
“Many journalists go on to become novelists. And besides, I’m a workaholic,” says Berry, who is comfortable with her feet planted both in the academic world and the popular world.
“I feel schizophrenic. But I like the creative and the academic side.”
Her academic side includes research on hip-hop music and racialism. “I am studying images — looking at how the images impact the audience,” Berry says. “I make the connection between the product and the consumption of the product.”
But she is disappointed by what she now hears coming across radio’s airwaves.
“Rap music has changed dramatically,” she says. “It hasn’t lived up to its potential. Now the groups on the scene are mediocre. There is no NWA or KRS-1. The images and messages of the groups like Public Enemy that came before were so important.”
One of her next projects is looking at what rap fans, especially White rap consumers, are getting out of the music.
“Venise was one of the first scholars to write about hip-hop, and one of the few to look at hip-hop within the lives of consumers of the music,” says Portia Maultsby, a professor of ethnomusicology at Indiana University. “She has been unique in forging a new direction for the field.”
Berry also is writing about racialism, a term she and other scholars say goes beyond racism. “Racism is too much of a loaded term,” Berry says. “We need to expand our definition of racism. Racialism buys into stereotypes. It’s not necessarily malicious.”
She cites last year’s hue and cry over the lack of minorities on network television shows as an example of racialism. “It didn’t occur to the White executives when they were creating their schedule that there were no Black actors on their television shows,” Berry says. “There was a lack of sensitivity. They had grown comfortable.”
Before she became a professor, Berry was a television reporter in Houston, Texas. She says she enjoyed the fast pace, but found the news to be too depressing. And after she saw her first dead body, she figured she wasn’t cut out to be a hard-news reporter. While she was teaching part-time at Texas Southern University, a professor from the University of Texas at Austin recruited her into the Ph.D. program. After graduating, she taught at Texas Southern and Houston-Tillotson College. Nine years ago, she came to the University of Iowa.
“I do miss teaching at the [historically Black colleges],” Berry says. “But one of the reasons I came to Iowa was I would always hear this refrain about how universities wanted to hire minority professors but they couldn’t find any. I went to Iowa so that I could get more minorities in.”
And she says the university, where she earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees, has embraced her.
“They understand that I am doing both [academic and popular books],” she says. “In other departments this wouldn’t even be possible.”
Berry says she was inspired to write novels by Terry McMillan’s Disappearing Acts, because it was one of the first novels about contemporary Black people.
Berry finished a novel in 1989 about four Black women, sent it out to publishers, got back 30 rejection notices and forgot about it.
Later, after Terry McMillan’s hit novel Waiting to Exhale was published, a friend told her that publishers were looking for African American writers and encouraged her to send the forgotten manuscript to an agent. That manuscript was published as the novel So Good in1996.
Berry has been touring with her current book, All of Me, about television reporter Serpentine Williamson. While she’s been touring, she also has been doing workshops focusing on women, weight and wellness. “The book has touched a chord in many Black women. I’ve gotten standing ovations,” Berry says.
Weight is an issue Berry herself has faced. “I’ve had all kinds of success. But there is an underlying current of doubt. I’ve never been what people think of as a traditional image of American beauty.”
Soon, she’ll head off to another book signing at the Delta Sigma Theta convention in Chicago, and then it’s back home to work some more on the novel and put the finishing touches on the film book. “There is popular fiction with authors like Judith Krantz, and there is literary fiction with authors like Toni Morrison,” Berry says. “I aim to be right in the middle with books that are popular but still have substance.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com