I watched Black in America 2 with great trepidation. I honestly sent up a prayer begging God to have mercy on black folks, all America would be watching this show. My prayers got stuck somewhere over Nashville’s skyline because what I saw was a diversity project gone astray.
I applaud CNN for wanting to show that they are committed to diverse subject matter. After all, they are the “most trusted name in the news.” What I find perplexing is the need to script news segments and promote the result as a documentary about life in Black America. Based on the promos, BIA2 would bring forth new ideas or solutions to old problems within the black community. Part 1, which I watched three times, gave us the same extremes that are usually spotlighted by the media and left many wondering why repeat the predictable caricatures that appear on cable news every day.
CNN’s narratives exploited the most vulnerable segment of the community and highlighted bourgeois attitudes at their worst. There is no denying that the two groups – the very affluent and the poor - are parts of the black community. But the affluent and poor are in any group of people. For millions of black folks who work hard every day, who are not making six figure incomes, who pay their bills and taxes, and who have trials and struggles like everyone else, what CNN profiled is not a total of our sums. CNN continued the perpetuation of the same stereotypical genres of black life which are the focus of the media the majority of the time. Blacks are viewed as thugs in jail, unwed teens, and absentee fathers/mothers. While true facets of the black experience, they are not reflect of all of our lives. Just like poverty stricken trailer parks and welfare mothers are not reflective of any other group. In a veiled attempt to show balance, mainstream media who most often portray the negative aspects of the black experience will occasionally show an elitist intellectual who is out of touch with his/her people and reality. Good, wholesome and normal people in the black community are rarely shown on television. BIA2 should have been renamed the “Continued Mis-education of White America” (and the rest of the world). Where is the balance between the two extremes?
In part one, CNN showed three segments. The first segment focused on thirty youth at a community center who traveled to Africa to learn more about themselves by having experiences with other youth whose circumstances were as cruel as their own. Taking young people from the inner city for two weeks to serve the world’s poorest is noble. Mrs. Compton-Rock is to be commended for her dedication to her organization, Journey for Change, and to young people. But to assume that upon their return, the magic dust of the Soweto ghetto will have a lasting effect on youth as they negotiate inner city life is implausible. The travel cost of $12,000 per child could have been used for tutors, speech therapists, and maybe even parenting classes. Traveling is one of our greatest educators. Teaching children to give and serve others should be part of life lessons no matter what zip code they live in. But often times, we miss some of our greatest treasures by not taking children to libraries and across town. Touring our national parks, national monuments will bring life to lessons taught in the classrooms. No greater gift could have been given to one of the young men profiled than a book, but did anyone follow up to see if he even read it? Throwing money at poverty without a deliberate evaluative plan is often a waste of resources and time.
Visiting the slums of another country is a good mission trip. But as we saw, the value of the trip was short lived when we are looking for long term solutions for systemic problems that a foreign trip was not able to cure. My questions to the staff of the Salvation Army: Why were these three profiled? Are they a sampling of the thirty kids or are they the exception? How did the letters of young man end up in the hands of the Mrs. Compton-Rock? Why read letters from an incarcerated father to his son on national TV if he wasn’t reading them at home? After some probing, CNN selected the kids to profile and the kids fit a premade storyline that we see over and over-poor fatherless black child saved by the altruism by some outside benevolence force. Several children in the group had two parents. Yet we saw what is typically presented.
After leaving us lost in thought with Malakk Rock vowing to not give up on her special kids, CNN gives us an uplift with the no nonsense school principal with fire in his belly for his students and his belief that his students can and will attend college. With 100% graduation rate and college attendance, Mr. Perry shares his story of being the troubled youth who got out and stayed out of the projects. A positive role model by any standards, his students love and respect for him was obvious. He also shared with America his greatest frustration - getting parents involved with his program. The two parents shown came from predictable, handpicked, scripted backgrounds, perfect for the exploitation of an otherwise uplifting story. The young lady profiled from Capital school had an abusive father and a crack addictive mother. Thankfully, both parents were shown alcohol and drug free. In this segment, we heard clear solutions with proven results, such as longer school days, six day a week school, and allowing junior and seniors to take college classes. Having a high school within a college prepares students for college transition and helps position them in college even if they do not test well on college exams. One of most profound statements made by Principal Perry and not included in this interview was thus:
“I think that the bigger issue when we have a discussion around race is not the interracial discussions but the intra-racial discussions. We don't have a conversation as African-Americans about what we actually value and within our community where those cleavages are. For instance, we don't have a conversation about why it is that so many schools run by African-Americans are so badly under-performing within communities that have always elected black politicians.”
His statement would have changed the tone of the segment and demonstrated that blacks are also holding blacks accountable for the communities they live in.
After hearing the zealous Mr. Perry, CNN does not allow us to stay excited for too long. They bring us shattering back to earth by profiling the founder of the Tuxedo Ball, Dr. Carlotta Miles, and an elite black family. The story focuses on Bertram Lee Jr., a rugby-playing freshman at the elite Haverford College in Pennsylvania. His grandfather was a prominent state judge, his late father a businessman and co-owner of the Denver Nuggets. He said his mother, a top lobbyist in Washington, D.C., instilled in him a love for his race. He was frankly honest about his life and does not apologize for not being poor. Good for him. He shares lessons learned early in life that despite his family’s successful background and affluent lifestyle, wealthy black people still very much feel the sting of racism.
Lee said he was called the N-word at his well-heeled private school and is often questioned by security when he and his black friends play basketball in the school’s gym. Lee sounded grounded and confident and has awareness that his privileged life will not shield him from racist rhetoric. A part of Lee’s affluent life is attending the Annual Tuxedo Ball.
Dr. Carlotta Miles, a psychiatrist and DC area socialite has hosted the Tuxedo Ball for 23 years. Dr. Miles shares the history of the Tuxedo Ball. It is a weekend of socializing and networking that she said grew from a need to keep privileged black children connected after integration. Prominent black families from across the country attend the weekend of events that also includes workshops, motivational seminars, and networking-opportunities. Dr. Miles shares that for generations wealthy blacks have been invisible people, noting
“We are the invisible people because we don’t match the stereotype. The stereotype for black Americans is failure, poverty, failure, victimization and mediocrity.”
When asked how to be a part of this elite group, Dr. Miles insists that in order for your kid to be invited you must be part of the group. This group is only known to members of the group. How can group of supposedly invisible people see each other? Do they wear special glasses that are available to people in the group or CNN?
Dr. Miles's snobbishness came full circle when Soledad asked “How come you don't do a similar thing for kids who are not privileged?” She explained,
“Well, because it's not our mission. There are tons of things that are done for children who are not advantaged. There was nothing for the privileged black child because to be black in America is a challenge for many people whether you're privileged or not."This statement was from the same interview but shown in an earlier program but. In a perfect world, I would send Dr. Miles and crew to South Africa to get a tutorial in humility.
BIA2 was filmed over a period of several months. After review the transcripts of several shows shown in January around the time of President Obama’s inauguration and February, Black History Month, CNN took segments of the interviews with Dr. Miles, Mr. Perry and Mrs. Compton-Rock to fit the message they wanted conveyed for that particular month. Breaking barriers and the first this and that was shown in January; historical perspectives of blacks in America were shown in February; piss poor and uneducated and socialites with impaired vision in July. One interview sliced to fit the script.
CNN does a hatchet job on black life and handpicked the theme for BIA2. This was not a documentation about black life but an experimentation on how many ways a network can mislead America, especially white American, with one interview.
BIA2 managed to show America blacks flunking out of school and only wanting to shoot basketball, while giving us a glimpse of the life of Blacks who are trying like hell not to be Black in America or see reality. If this is going to be continuing theme with CNN’s Black Folks Series, I will pass on BIA3 and BIA4.