To be or not to be. That is the question.

William Shakesphere’s most oft-recited phrase is back with a vengeance with a slightly new twist. What is it like to be Janet Jackson right now? What is like to be an Iraqi insurgent? What is it like to be Bill O’Reilly? What is it like to be an African-American in 2009? CNN is attempting to tackle the last question in the second part of Black in America on July 22nd and 23rd. The first series, which aired last year around this time, elicited many responses from many different sects, but for once, there was a general consensus in the black community:

It was inessential, extraordinary (as in extra ordinary) and featured more of the same stories.

Stats of despair and poverty, overwhelming amounts of gangsta’ rapping, black women having to cope with copious ills within the black male demographic and the Willie Lynch-inspired light-skinned/dark-skinned divide was a common reminder that we are pretty much doomed. Apparently there’s no fun in being black in America. Perhaps CNN’s target audience for the series are not blacks. Therefore, it makes sense to point out what is highly obvious within. But if other races are the primary audience, then why is it necessary to portray us as a megalithic pathology of woe?

CNN should be applauded for asking these types of questions, for they have the resources to examine the issues of society in-depth. Mass media should seek the truth and ask the hammer-hitting questions. They should be appreciated for endeavoring to figure out this race thing, to make sense of a problem that has been as old as America itself. There are about 39 million African-Americans in this country. There are over 60 million German-Americans. Yet, there is no question of a German-American problem or any series examining what it’s like to be German in America.

And therein lies the rub.

The premise of the show is a noble one, but its execution and practical implications were not so. It’s a safe bet to say that the oeuvres and peccadilloes of Black America provide the seasoning of the Earth. I’m pressed to think of any industry in America that hasn’t been set off by the contributions of blacks, yet, in mass media, there is this nagging depiction of a group who are perpetually embittered and in constant need of attention. Ratings, not to mention revenue, are being generated in spades off such portrayals of Black culture. Last year’s Black In America series drew almost 16 million viewers (for perspective, the Sopranos finale drew just under 12 million viewers), and the CNN website drew nearly 15 million unique visitors. According to Mark Nelson, vice president and senior executive producer at CNN Productions, black viewership “increased almost 900 percent.” So how is one to think that CNN is any different in this regard than this network?

At this point, the answer to what it’s like to be Black in America is no longer relevant.

A far more interesting question would be, “In 2009, what is it like to be White in America?” To wit:

  • Look at our current president, who provides a slight deviation from the prior 43.
  • White people buy more rap albums than any other demographic. Why?
  • White people were also the core audience of the Chappelle Show, a hugely popular racially-charged sitcom. Why?
  • More and more multi-ethnic people in higher places.
  • Slavery took place hundreds of years ago, yet, there are still angry blacks who will never approve of them, no matter how benevolent they are. How do white people deal with that?
  • Gun sales have spiked since Obama went into office, over 450 percent.
  • Views like this, while at once widespread, are considered anachronistic. Or are they?
  • The Rush Limbaughs of the world are now opposed by a large voice of progressives liberals, something unheard of when there were governors were brazenly spouting this stuff.

The concept of being white in today’s society is in many ways, radically different than, say, 1985. But would a segment like that produce ratings? I’m not sure. Will a Black in America show magnetize viewers? You betcha! (Sorry Sarah). This is where my pause begins. The pause ends somewhere along the lines of a television special trying to sum up a culture with a headline “Black In America.” Of course they’re not going to capture what being black in America is through a show, so why create a false premise?

Because in the world of the televisual, hyperbole sells. Reality is not an income-generator (even “reality” shows are dramatized for effect). A holistic portrayal of the black experience cannot be captured by mainstream media; it’s too rich, too ornate, too tragic. That should not be the aim of the documentary. The same with Hispanics, as CNN recently announced plans to pursue a similar dive into their world, hosted by none other than Latina/Black/Irish Soledad O’Brien. That brings up another issue, one that is beyond the scope of this piece, but not an insignificant detraction from the series.

Lupe Fiasco said something very telling in last year’s series, when he stated that that African-Americans “are uniquely American. We will never be African. We were neither immigrants nor willing participants in our captivity.” Indeed. Whether we like it or not, we are American. We probably relate more to white Americans than Africans in Africa at this point.

However, the rest of the documentary failed to use that salient fact to highlight the main point: The separate accounts, the Negro problem distinct from the American problem, is what truly ails any real discourse on how racial relations has hindered American democracy. Black problems are American problems. Black successes are American successes. Du Bois said this over 100 years ago, yet there was no direct or indirect reference to that statement in the first segment.

Of course, there’ll be a major audience around the tube when Part Two airs, and I’ll probably be one of the people checking in. Unlike Shakesphere’s Hamlet, it won’t question whether a state of non-existence is preferable to a dreaded state of existence, but rather reveal whether the ills and trends of Black America are a detached display of entertainment for many or a vital part of the American fabric. Stay tuned.

To chime in about the series, talk back at The Retort and air your opinions, concerns or praises.

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