(I'm at Blogging While Brown in Atlanta this weekend. I'm sure we'll discuss this multimedia effort by CNN...)
I was looking forward to the two-part, six-hour CNN special Black in America. The premiere this week (it re-airs over the weekend) was disappointing, but not unexpectedly so. What I mean is that it felt like Black People 101 for the "general audience," i.e. people who may have little or no first-hand exposure to blacks in this country. What it delivered in those six hours was a pretty superficial regrazing of territory that focused way too much on the urban black community and the socioeconomic woes in segments of black America. I was looking for more "advanced studies."
There was acknowledgment of the plight of incarceration of the black man and the unequal treatment in the criminal justice system, the lack of black men who are considered "marriage material" for black women because of underemployment, incarceration and discrimination, the impact of crack, HIV/AIDS, unequal access to quality education, black misogyny in rap -- all of these have been covered in one way or another before in the MSM. That's all well and good, but there was ample opportunity to explore areas that were undercovered or curiously touched upon then abandoned.
* the growing black middle class;
* the internal politics and tension over the definition of "black culture" within the community, including the "acting white" phenomenon;
* the generational divide in terms of political outlook;
* the digital divide and its impact, as well as the black digiterati and new activism;
* colorism and how it still holds sway in elements of the community;
* what it is like to be black and gay in America
* what is "black" in America today.
On the CNN web site, host of the series, Soledad O'Brien, who is biracial, discussed a frustrating exchange with a reporter about that last point.
I’m on the phone with a confused reporter, and I’m confused too. She keeps asking me why I “count myself as black… And why does Barack Obama?” My answer (for Sen. Obama, at least) is “have you seen him?” But she won’t let it go. “Is your father annoyed that you deny him?” My dad is white. I interject. “Let’s conference him in,” I say. “Listen, he married a black woman, he has six black children. He’d be the first person to tell you I’m black.”
The questions, to me, reveal more about the asker. This (white) reporter surely doesn’t know a lot of black people, or she wouldn’t be struggling so hard. She’d know black people come in all hues.
Unlike O'Brien, I'm not biracial, but the product of parents who have families that "come in all hues" -- and we all identify as black.
More below the fold. Acknowledging up front that race is a social construct and putting that aside for the moment, dealing with what it means to be black in America in my mind means taking a deeper look at what the expectation of being black is, not simply whether your appearance alone is the sole arbiter of how you are labeled. Because of the increasingly blurry color line, it's not only the dominant culture that seems to be having difficulties with the various hues and identities. Even within the black community there can be contentious discussion surrounding authentic blackness - that has little to do with how you look, and everything to do with how you culturally identify.
I find it perplexing to hear in some circles that Barack Obama has to prove his blackness, not only in association, but in his fealty to a particular kind of American black culture that has evolved due to the influence of the descendents of west African slaves. If that isn't his experience, why must he represent that? The same could be said of Caribbean black Americans, whose heritage and culture are in many ways differs from the "norm" (my maternal grandfather, for instance, was from Barbados, my paternal side of the family includes descendants of slaves). Does that make me more or less black?
Why is a specific kind of authenticity necessary to be seen as "black" for some in the community? What about socioeconomic status, or education? What role do they play? One can argue that the black support for Clarence Thomas during his SCOTUS confirmation process based on his race alone certainly didn't serve the interests of most black people in America, even though he was raised in the South, and had a culturally "traditional" black background. It seems rather superficial not to take a more expanded view and assessment of a person than the mere measure of hue or culture.
These are simply questions of course, not a declaration of support or dissent of a point of view. It would have been engaging to see people wrestling with these topics in the CNN special. It should be noted that there have been panel discussions preceding the debut of the showcase primetime specials, and post-broadcast analysis with live audiences and guests on AC360; some of these topics came up but if you tuned into the specials, which were divided into "The Black Woman and Family" and "The Black Man," both were weak, IMHO.
One topic discussed in great detail was the impact of AIDS on the black community - with the explosive tragic increase in transmission in heterosexual black women. This incredibly complex and controversial topic, which involves bringing up religion, man-on-man sex during incarceration (as opposed to homosexuality, since these men do not identify as gay), the resistance and low self-esteem of some women to protect themselves because of their desperate desire to hold on to a man whether he is cheating or not, the list goes on and on. The man-on-man sex and the tragic denial and pathology it leads to simply wasn't given any time. Maybe that's a good thing in hindsight, because I fear it would be handled poorly, with the further demonization of black men without any context about what is behind the denial. More below the fold.
I happened to catch one of the panels earlier in the week (prior to "the main event") featuring Dr. Julianne Malveaux, actress Sheryl Lee Ralph, and megachurch pastor T.D. Jakes, and the conversation there got within a hair of being truly frank about AIDS, as they urged pastors to speak frankly to their congregations about sex. Rev. Jakes was asked a question from host Soledad O'Brien about the dilemma pastors face in preaching abstinence outside of marriage even he or she is aware HIV is spreading through church membership. He responded with a nugget of sanity that should give the virulently homophobic pastors pause as they spew hate from the pulpit - they must preach the ideal, but also acknowledge that the faithful can and do fall short of that ideal. Reality check.
Other than that one beacon of truth, most of the commentary that I caught wasn't particularly enlightening or groundbreaking. I do urge people to visit the much more comprehensive CNN web site on Black in America, because, unlike the program, it is chock full of reports, videos, a wide range of editorials and thought pieces that cover a much wider range of topics. One recommended feature is Shopping While Black. I can identify with this one, as I've been followed in stores as if I was a shoplifter on the prowl. Leah Wells of Atlanta, described the incident to Soledad O'Brien.
"We were dressed professionally," Wells told me. "It was casual Friday. We had on dresses and casual office wear. We were racially profiled. It was as simple as that."
At about 1:15 p.m., mall security contacted Gwinnett County police saying there was a group involved in shoplifting. The police department says four officers arrived at the mall about 10 minutes later, and security pointed out Wells and her two friends as they walked away from the Old Navy store. Old Navy is owned by GAP. The officers asked the three to return to the store.
Wells says six officers were involved, not four, and that she and her friends were detained for "about an hour and a half"; the police say it was 29 minutes. In her letter to Murphy, the GAP CEO, Wells describes enduring "disdainful stares from the mothers and grandmothers and children entering the store."
Police found no stolen merchandise on Wells or her friends. But Wells says neither the police nor the store managers bothered to apologize.
..."No matter your education, your status or profession, some still only see the color of your skin," Wells wrote two months after the event.
A lot of us know exactly what you're talking about. Shopping while black, hailing a cab while black, and even driving in your own neighborhood while black, which was covered in the primetime special when a school system superintendent in Arkansas was stopped by police when white neighbors saw him driving in his subdivision where he was building a house because his presence there was suspicious.
So, I wouldn't say pass on the specials; it's certainly a stab in the right direction -- it beats invisibility. And as I mentioned, the CNN web site, which includes a discussion guide for parents and teachers, as well as I-Reports and feedback from viewers about what they've read and seen, provide the kind of depth that cannot fit into a TV special.