We’ve spent the last few weeks avoiding CNN’s incessant importuning to watch ‘Black in America’, and as it neared its premiere yesterday, the din from our social circles only grew louder. E-mail forwards. Facebook status updates. Text message reminders. A vegetarian restaurant nearby actually hosted a screening of it.* It was like the Negro Super Bowl was happening, and people were planning parties around it.
In a conversation with Shani yesterday, she compared the excitement to that anachronistic last page of Jet magazine that lists a bunch of black people who will be appearing on TV in the coming week. And while there was undoubtedly a time when seeing a black person on TV was probably a gather-round-the-RCA moment, that hasn’t been the case for decades. “It’s like it’s 1955 or something!” Shani said.
1. It’s on CNN, a network incapable of looking at anything with nuance, simply by virtue of it being a cable news channel.
2. Why do blacks in America need to watch a special on being black in America? Is it to verify that we are, indeed, both black and in America?
3. Considering the fact that all black people aren’t from the same background — slavery, namely — it’s ridiculous to suggest we all have the same vision and experience in the US.
4. If there was ‘Hispanic In America’ or ‘Asian in America’ folk would be in an uproar. Mexicans vs. Puerto Ricans, Koreans vs. Vietnamese.
5. I can already tell you what it’s gonna cover: it sucks to be a black woman, because sistas are forced to do it for themselves. Also, black men are an endangered species due to institutional inequity and a propensity for committing violent crime. But blacks have hope for the future. The end.
And here’s a bonus: it’s a ratings ploy! Come ON people!
These more or less sum up my issues with the series, though I’d quibble with a few points. West Indian Caribbean immigrants to the United States may have not had ancestors who suffered under the yoke of slavery in the America, but their ancestors were in those countries because they were slaves. And more recent African immigrants still have to deal with the continuing fallout from centuries of de jure dehumanization and disenfranchisement.
That said, she’s right: television news routinely does a sublimely shitty job when it comes to nuance. Race and class are particular blind spots; rare is the show that actually lays out the parameters for what it means by ”Asian-American’ (an label so broad that it would include both Bengali and Laotian immigrants) or ‘middle class’ (‘middle class’ in Greenwich or ‘middle class’ in Detroit?) or any other ill-defined sociological descriptor.
The other part is the issue of pluralism: There is no ‘our story,’ or ‘black experience,’ which is where CNN is screwing up: trying to craft a coherent, cohesive narrative about a population of 30 million-plus people — among them Christians and Muslims and atheists and gays and the transgendered and the apathetic and activists and progressives and conservatives and vegetarians and C.E.O.’s and cab drivers and line cooks and physicians. Instead of trying (and necessarily failing) to paint a ‘general’ portrait of black life in America, it may have been wiser to take a look at one issue and really dig into it. There’s plenty of topics that would be worthy of their own hour-long specials: the wealth and achievement gaps, gun violence, housing, health care, etc.
Also, should we hold out hope that being ‘Black in America’ doesn’t only mean being straight and black in America? Or that there will be more air time for compelling, confounding contrarians like Roland Fryer than for speechifying slicksters like T.D. Jakes? Somehow we’re not terribly optimistic.
Anyway, expect plenty roundtables.
*I actually went initially with the intention to watch and roll my eyes, I ended up being distracted by one of my best friends and the very tasty vegetarian half-chicken.