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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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  • Tony Roberts

    Hey Girl, I love your show. Especially today when your topic was CNN’s B.I.A.2 and like you, i had a serious problem with it. First off, what qualifies O’brian to cover a story on black issues. Isn’t she Irish? I thoght Don Lemon or any other of the black journalist that CNN has would have Don a better and more convincing job. Definitely not O’brian. She doesn’t really care about black issues. I peep this during the presidential debates when she was in certain towns with a mixture of people from different political affiliations. Even though there were a few black people in the mixture, she did not ask them any questions about what they thought or felt about the topics that were being debated. I saw that the black people on there were more like stage props than participants. I don’t think i was the only one to notice. I guess this is CNN’s way of saving face with black america. Finally, since we have a lock on black entertainment, why can’t we get together as black people and launch another network geared to the black community and call it, Black Eduaction Televison. Here, we can focus on black education for all races. That way we can disspell the stereo-types about black people through black education. We have to represent who we are to the world, instead of lettting CNN misrepresent us to the world. Thank you for your time. Keep up the great work you are doing. May God continue to bless you and your family. That is my prayer for you.

  • Ditto, Ditto, Ditto!!! I was just telling my husband that this series makes me cringe and I am not quite sure why. But the reasons above all validate my sanity for me.

    It just feels like our dirty laundry is being aired and for no good reason. It feels like the untold story is being left untold. Like the centuries of psychological and the systematic reasons that explain the state of “some” Blacks in America today. The whole system of testing, credit scoring, and the negative connotation associated with being Black in America should be addressed. In my opinion, reparations for Blacks in America should be a free college education for every Black person born in America. If that were the case, the next generation of Black people would truly have a different experience.

  • MeT

    -Black know what it’s like to be black in America.
    -Other races generally don’t care about the Black American experience.

    …So what races was the intended viewer of these sorry @ss docs?

  • MeT

    Corrention: …So what races were intended viewers of these sorry @ss docs?