Thoughts on CNN’s Black in America Series

by Latoya Peterson

I have been interested to watch how the Black in America project has been received around the blogosphere. It was an eighteen-month project that many think should have been thought about a bit more. A summary of the series is here.

Tariq Nelson provides an interesting perspective on why he isn’t annoyed:

Last night I watched the first part of the much anticipated ‘Black in America’ program on CNN.

The first thing that I really appreciated about this show is that it showed that in spite of the many problems in our community, there are black Americans that are hard working, have strong families, businesses and that there are black men that are working extremely hard to make sure that there children have a better life, even if they are struggling themselves.

I would have probably thought that this program was just a retread of what has been done so many times before, but I have been really irked lately by some “religious” people (black ones at that) that have been writing me, putting down blacks and demanding that I distance myself from my own background based on some misguided “religious principle”. Some of these self-righteous individuals have been trashing me in other places on the internet for my refusal to abide to their demands. In any case, from this, I know now more than ever that there is a strong need to tell the story of hard working black people that value their families because too many have bought into this myth that none of us care for our families.

Tariq also provides his perspective on the second part of the series, focusing on black men:

This episode was more depressing for me than the previous one because it just reminded me of all of the problems that face our community. It reminded me of the many people that I have met just like those shown tonight with similar problems. Many of them are dead now. We were presented (once again) with the crack epidemic, criminality, lack of job opportunities, discrimination, prison and on and on. So many young black men become resigned to a fate that they are doomed to a life of crime, violence and drugs. Many of them will die in prison.

This is the singular side of blacks that so many non-blacks think of when they think of the entirety of black America. It is totally absurd and maddening, but while many of us may not have lived like this, this dark side is very real and must be addressed. Anyone that denies the destructive impact of these ills is not in touch with reality. [...]

I saw these problems on similar specials 20 years ago and now I am seeing it again. Will we see the same problems on display 20 years from now? Do we want our sons and daughters of the next generation to be trapped in these same disastrous conditions 20 years from now? Whatever the case, we are failing them. With the world being more competitive than ever it is more essential than ever to make sure that our children are prepared for the challenges they will face in the fast changing world over the next 20-25 years.

Mahlena-Rae Johnson was miffed at the assumptions of TD Jakes about not understanding the need for a man in the household:

Looky here, Mr. Jakes. Just because I have continued to excel “educationally and academically” does not mean that other people, i.e. men, cannot do the same. Education is not a zero-sum game. I can’t horde all the education and prevent other people from getting it. It’s not my fault that men supposedly have poor self-esteem because they are “struggling to find their relevancy in the family today”. What kind of farkakte logic is that? If these men you are talking about choose to leave their family because they chose not to get an education and therefore cannot provide the kind of paycheck that their educated female partner can, how is that my problem? Why should I be responsible for men who aren’t even trying to do something with their lives? I have my own self-esteem issues. As D. L. Hughley says in his celebrity interview, those men need to get out of their own way.

[...]

Furthermore, not every black woman wants to have a child with a man. Not every black person wants to have a child. Not every black woman wants to be with a man, and not every black man wants to be with a woman. Not every black man deserts his family. Overall, I am tired of hearing these same arguments posed as the problem with the black community. As if there aren’t white deadbeat dads or Asian deadbeat dads. As if the problems in Latino communities could be solved if only Latinas showed more appreciation for trifling men. I don’t think so.

(Mahlena-Rae has also thoughtfully provided a transcript of TD Jakes’ comments, for those who missed the series or cannot hear the audio/video.)

What About Our Daughters summed up the series in this way:

For those of you depressed by Soledad O’Brien’s Black Women and Family forever known in these parts as “Black Women It Doesn’t Suck to be You it only FEELS that way,” I have some news to break the negative deluge, apparently Black women are far more likely to be early adapters of technology than our counterparts. [...]

I know you like your cellphones, but before you pay sprint or T Mobile, make sure you pay yourself first because according to Soledad O’Brien, you are going to need that money in your old age because we’re all going to die old and alone and be eaten alive by nine cats. RUN FOR YOUR LIVES SISTAS!!! Like the hounds of hell are upon you.

Renee shed some light on what was missing from the series:

Though it is wonderful to see a black male so heavily invested in his children, a show that is dedicated to the struggles of women should have presented a black mother first. This of course was only one example of the way in which a show dedicated to women, was in fact aimed at reinforcing a certain idea of what constitutes a black woman. It is assumed throughout the entirety of the documentary that not only can black men speak on behalf of women, it is right and proper for them to do so.

If someone were to watch this show with little knowledge of black women in the US, they would assume that they are all CIS, and that they are all heterosexual. It seems that these are the two main identifiers of black females. Throughout the two hour documentary not one mention was made of black lesbians or transgender women. It seems that sexuality or gender identity in some way conflicts with identifying as a black female. By making these groups invisible it further highlights how marginalized they are by mainstream America. If a documentary is dedicated to black women, it should include ALL black women. I suspect that much of this omission had to do with its continual linking to the black church, which we know has not historically been in support of people that refuse to identify as heterosexual, or that refuse to live the gender binary. There wasn’t even a referral to a single black female minister, even though we all know that they exist. The reverend T.J Jakes cannot speak on behalf of black female clergy, and their theological experiences, and theories.

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It was further troubling that the documentary was insistent in promoting marriage as the answer to the poverty that black women face. Marriage is no guarantee that the relationship will survive, and offers only the potential of stability. Progressive programs like socialized day care, or education subsidies as concrete solutions was not even proffered as a legitimate counter to the “traditional heterosexual lifestyle.” [...]

Whole groups of women were erased in this documentary. As I sit here I wonder about the women in the prison system and how race effects their experiences. What about women working in the sex trade industry as either prostitutes, strippers, or porn actresses, how has race effected their life experiences? When we think of the black woman we are meant to either think of the noble, self-sacrificing single mother, or the rich affluent over achiever who spends her nights embracing a vibrator lamenting on her lack of access to good dick. Had CNN bothered to look outside of the cultural images that exist about black women they could have created a documentary that was far more inclusive, and spoke to the various identities that make up black females in the US. Once again we are misrepresented and constructed as something that we are not.

Renee also noticed some omissions from the Men’s portion of the documentary:

Okay CNN where are the gay and trans men? Why the hell aren’t they worthy of 5 mins of representation, in your documentary that attempts to teach us all about the experiences of black men? I understand that part of your goal is to push heterosexuality, however heterosexuality is only understood as good because homosexual is constructed as bad. It seems in its quest to push heteronormativity, certain groups of people due to their sexuality or gender fluid identity somehow become non black, and non relevant. I am sick of this shit. When we refuse to acknowledge gay men, and trans men we leave them open to attack, and some have paid for homophobia and transphobia with their very lives. This is a black issue, just as much as men in prison, or men dealing with a high unemployment rate. [...]

One of the issues that they really focused on was black over representation in the prison population, and the effect that it has on their chances of getting employment. I thought that was a particularly good segment but it should have been married with the fact that black men are also over represented in the military. image It is no accident that they appear in both of these groups. Black men are cannon fodder, to fight wars in which they have no personal stake to enrich transnational corporations. [...]

I did learn something really substantial watching this series….drumroll please…blacks don’t have disabilities. Nope we are all incredibly, magically, able bodied. I guess that is the reason so many of us are represented by athletes. There are no blind, deaf, or mentally disabled amongst us, and even if there were, what possible special challenges could they have? Whatever they daily negotiate is certainly not legitimate enough for CNN to look past the impoverished ghettoized man / affluent bourgeoisie dichotomy. If you don’t fit specifically within these limited categories once again you are not black enough to count.

While I feel that this segment did a much better job at showing a wider range of the black experience (no surprise it was about men) there were several critical connections that they failed to make. When you are going to discuss “isms” it is important to understand that they are interlocking and as such, cannot be examined individually. In the four hours that I dedicated to watching this, I certainly did not learn anything new, but then this show was not created for the black community.

Tami gives a good summary of why the series did not live up to its potential:

I had hopes for CNN’s “Black in America” series–not high hopes, just…hopes. Frankly, I am always skeptical when the mainstream attempts to define and describe black folks. Somehow it never turns out quite right. But I had hoped this show, led by a self-identified black woman might “get” us better. After watching the first episode of the “Black in America” series, I believe this effort is no different from past ones. The study wasn’t awful…wasn’t evil…but it wasn’t quite right.

While I am happy to see the stories of black Americans being told on primetime television, my gripe is that our stories always seem to be framed in the same way. We are always defined by our challenges, not our successes…by our weakest, not our strongest members. I was glad to hear one participant in the show state that most of black America is not poor. Neither have most of us been arrested. Most black Americans are strong, but so far, with a few notable exceptions, CNN has framed us mostly as struggling in education…struggling with our health…struggling with interpersonal relationships…just struggling. It is true that many African Americans are struggling, but there is more to us than that. I was touched by the Kennedy family, and wonderful young, Eric, who I hope to God does not fall through the cracks. People need to know about boys like Eric. But don’t they also need to know about women like me?

I watched the first part of the series and while I didn’t think it was terrible (it is still better than BET), it appears that we are still falling into the same traps over and over again. Why is there always just one woman on the panel? Where are the progressives? One of the Facebook groups I belong to made heavy mention of the linking of poverty and blackness. Wouldn’t we have benefited from a discussion of class politics? Talking about hip-hop has become a quick way to cover black youth, but it is an incomplete conversation without discussing things like patriarchy and kryiarchy. It is also tiring to see hip-hop either treated with kid gloves (we must defend the art at all costs!) or at arm’s length (rap is destroying our community, but the youth love it!) Where is the critical discussion of the role or potential of hip-hop as a mobilizing political force? What about the entrepreneurial drive of many hip-hoppers? What about a series on dealing with the contradictions that we live with?

So, readers, I am opening the floor. What kind of racial discussions would we like to see from CNN?