I’ve received word-of-mouth reminders and advertisements for CNN’s “Black in America” ‘Special Report’ [billed as the culmination of a year’s worth of research] for the last two months, at least. Emails from black friends, family, and coworkers were filled with save-the-date type notices telling me to set my dvr for the special. No one had seen it, but sadly, the intimation that it would be respectful got a whole lotta black people happy: (“We’re gonna be on tv! In a good way!”) And then of course, the incessant commercials and teaser pieces that landed on CNN itself [which is mercilessly piped into my work cafeteria 24hrs a day]. So I set my dvr.
Then I didn’t watch it.
I guess I started out behind the 8-ball, in terms of being objective, because I tend to not be into email spam. The host of email I received on the “Special Report” was just enough to belong in that category. Then there were the commercials on CNN, which seemed to paint the piece as some kind of anthropological expose on an impossible to infiltrate tribe – a white people’s guide to ‘the black experience’, if you will.
A coworker watched a lead-in piece on education last wknd, and shared with me that for some reason, he was almost insulted that Soledad O’Brien was hosting the series. I’ve never had strong feelings about her either way, and looked up her background to see for myself – and perhaps come to her defense. Indeed, she is quite multicultural, but she is part black. She’s even a member of the National Assn. for Black Journalists. I told my coworker, but it seemed to make no real difference to him. And yes – I did think about the fact that – other than her, and the Larry Smith guy who covers sports – I couldn’t think of any other black people on CNN. I don’t watch it except when I’m on break/lunch at work – so I could be missing someone. [Robin Meade looks sufficiently ambiguous, though.]
While avoiding work, I pulled up a lovely lil article on CNN.com ~ the link cleverly titled to get almost everyone to click on the link [especially my demographic]: The article wasn’t quite what I expected. It turned out to be another piece on how there are so many single black women in America. That I could’ve done without. But I continued, forward – giving CNN the benefit of the doubt.
I began to watch the first part of the special, dealing with women and families. Yes, I already had a problem with the separation, considering part 2 was dedicated to “the Black Man” almost as some kind of novelty. So with trepidation, I watched a story unfold about a HUGE black family that has reunions every two years. [There’re like, 300 of them, or something like that – a lot of folks.] They bounced between all kinds of different interest pieces about them, even one about the white branch of their family tree. CNN even paid for some of their white relatives to come meet part of the family. In another vignette, some family members discussed their own educational tracks, and segued into the quest to re-register black HS dropouts in their local area. Statistics about the education [or what they called “the achievement“] gap streamed from my tv screen for several minutes. And then I couldn’t take any more so I turned it off.
I decided to see if the ‘Special Report’ on The Black Man™ would be something easier for me to handle. The story began with the juxtaposition of a rich man and a (relatively) poor man that had gone to the same high school [Central High, in Arkansas]. Once again, education is championed as THE great equalizer – the achievement gap rears its ugly head again. And after a few more minutes, I’m watching that show Burn Notice on USA – which doesn’t even have any black people in it.
I was not the one that this show was marketed to, so I’m not entirely surprised that it didn’t turn out to be something that captured my attention. I wasn’t expecting the vague/uneasy I-should-be-offended-but-I-can’t-put-my-finger-on-why feeling. Soledad hosting did make me a little uncomfortable, and I still can’t articulate any reason for that. The references to the “achievement” gap left me ticked, because I felt the language was misused and the issue was made out to be a simple dichotomy between the haves & have-nots – education-wise.
For some reason, I can’t get behind the idea that we could just fix the divides in income, social agency, and general standard of living by getting black kids to stay in school. And yet, even as I say that, I know it would be great – it would do wonders. Maybe it’s more accurate for me to say that I know that the reasons for black kids not staying in school are myriad, and they deserve as hard a look as the kids who are making these choices.
All-in-all, I believe my issue with this so-called Special Report is that everything that was focused on seemed to be a huge cliche. There was nothing new – no fresh insight – no solutions posited for any of the problems highlighted. Well, the was that guy paying kids to do well in school. But that doesn’t seem like a really good long-term plan, to me.
Instead of bringing out some fresh looks at black people in America, I saw a rehash of the “social ills of black folk”. Women taking the plunge to date outside their race, because all the “good black men” are married already… High school dropouts cajoled into going back by a tv camera crew – at least for a day… And a comment about there actually being two Black Americas [from Soledad] when talking about a rich black guy and a poor black guy.
So I guess it just comes down to me not being receptive to this project. For some, it may have been a learning experience, maybe even a source of pride. For me, it was an overhyped “report” that accentuated differences between white people and black people in general, and reinforced many stereotypes in the particular.
Not to mention how uncomfortable it is to sit at a table as the only black person and listen to the white silence as ‘Black in America’ commercials came on and the white folks none-too-discreetly focused on looking out the window, polishing their silverware, or just talking about work.
Although, that kind of is what it’s like to be Black in America.