Black in America.

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.

Her rationale?

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.

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Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs about race and ethnicity for National Public Radio. He is a native of South Philly and reads and writes and runs and rants. You can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to him on Facebook.

13 comments to Black in America.

  • I’m famous!

    You make a good point about Caribbean (‘West Indian’ is an awfully colonial term, for shame.) immigrants having been under the yoke of slavery, and the fallout. However, the colonial mentality’s effects don’t just affect blacks immigrants. Filipinos have equally complicated relationships with Spain as Jamaicans have with the UK. But I think that’s an aside.

    (What is half-chicken made of?)

  • LH

    Shanio nailed it, here:

    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.

    I think the concept of the series, though well-meaning (perhaps), is ridiculous on its face. How and why did “blacks” become the new hot isht to be examined by the mainstream media?

  • Steve

    I don’t think the series is really aimed at black people… obviously it was going to be scrutinized and clearly it tried to cover too many issues… but for the majority of Americans it gave people atleast some things to think about.

    I think people either went in thinking they were gonna hate it, or went in expecting to learn something they didn’t already know…

    LOL that’s massively unrealistic its CNN for godsake.

    Regardless, Soledad is pretty..

  • Karl Schneider

    “I think the concept of the series, though well-meaning (perhaps), is ridiculous on its face. How and why did “blacks” become the new hot isht to be examined by the mainstream media?”

    It’s obvious. Barack Obama, hello?

    As for the doc, I found it interesting. I agree with all the points above (especially the whole idea that because you’re of a skin color or identifier you somehow share the same hardships as another).

    (Perhaps I should rephrase that parenthetical comment – we all share the same hardships, as much as people would like to deny. Rich and poor, of any color or intelligence, every man is capable of “empathizing” with any other. It’s those who seek to divide us for their own gains, that propagate ideas like race (no standing genetically), gender (insignificant difference), and nationality.

    Here, Obama and CNN, Whoopie (however you spell that woman’s name), politicians, reporters, news stations, et cetera, all stand to gain from dividing us. Just keep that in mind).

  • LH

    Karl, it isn’t “obvious” that the mainstream media is in love with the plight of blacks as entertainment because of Barack Obama.

    You may have noticed that Obama’s name wasn’t mentioned during last night’s installment of CNN’s “Black in America.”

    Last year (I believe), the Washington Post ran a series about being a black man in America, and neither it nor the concept behind it appeared to be informed by any consideration of Obama.

    As to the universality of hardship, that sounds great in theory. In practice, however, such platitudes don’t make. The truth is that being black does exacerbate conditions such as poverty. More, being black can (and often does) limit the extent to which personal agency matters. What else would explain why a black man with a college education is viewed by employers as less desirable that a white man without a degree?

    I find your willingness to dismiss race as an idea disturbing. It’s true that there is no biological basis for it, but race is more than merely a social contrivance. Race is the prism through which people have seen each other for as long as people have existed.

    Quibbling over the noun is senseless when people oppress and are oppressed because of what that noun represents. And it’s damn well true that many who seek to divide for their own benefit do so on the basis of race primarily, if not exclusively.

  • dfine

    love the response, love the response, i’m a fan

  • Shani: It’s made of vegetarians, of course.

  • “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.”

    Brahahaha…! I got a lot of those same text messages and reminders and invites to watch the broadcast at that Brooklyn vegetarian restaurant you mention! I wondered the exact same thing – what the eff is going on? Damn.

    I didn’t watch it for various reasons, some voiced by Shani above in your post. And based on comments I’ve read from those who did watch it, my assumptions that it would be nothing more than a paper-thin “exposé,” if we can even label it as such, weren’t entirely false.

    I wonder who CNN intended its audience for the series to be. Is it a program meant to educate non-blacks about the plight of blacks in America, or is it an attempt to appease blacks in America by supposedly openly discussing the so-called “black experience” in America?

    Also, there’s a kind of exotification happening here that uneases me… or like we’re rats in a maze responding to stimuli, as we’re observed by the curious alabaster faces of the “master race.” I’d love to be a fly on the wall in one of their homes just to observe their responses to the program, and in a way, turning the all-seeing eye of the TV camera on them – in essence, as the song goes, watching you watching me. So, maybe CNN should do a follow-up special in that regard.

    In time, it will be forgotten (already done), rendering it ultimately useless. So what was the point of it all, if not to assuage white liberal guilt? I suspect CNN will pat itself on the back more than once, for the effort, even if it has zero impact.

  • JeRrY

    I believe in the power of the television to shape the opinions of people. I see that plenty of money and intense preparation was made in the marketing of the documentary. I also believe that the media outlets feed off of each other, and that Barack Obama’s presence has a lot of meaning and evokes deep emotions of racial unity and positive change. I think this was the emotion that CNN was trying to evoke in its marketing of “Black in America.” The July before the election- it felt as if this show would tell me all I need to know about black people especially since we may have a black president. If someone thinks I think to much, I would answer, “the media outlet that doesnt think this way would never survive. One must feed off of peoples current emotions to get their attention (anyone in power knows this- i hear great speakers from priests to politicians do it all the time)

  • IStayWokr

    I didn’t watch “Black in America” because I’ve developed a low tolerance for fluff. I pulled out my my VHS copies of “Eyes on the Prize” and “I Dream a World”. Thank GOD for PBS. Support public TV and PLEASE READ BOOKS.

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