CNN has aired the final part of its new four-hour documentary, Black in America II. Out of all the Black in America segments, this one was the most incoherent. It seemed as though the network was attempting to shove as many random facts as possible into one episode without making any significant connections.
The first part of the segment began with a focus on marriage in the black family. It was reported that in 1963, 60% of black families were headed by a married couple, while today, that figure measures at less than half. It focused in on the efforts of the Wedded Bliss Foundation to encourage communication in marriages.
The foundation’s services are completely free of charge and are open to those considering marriage, as well as those who are currently married. While the subject matter was interesting, there was no discussion about why the destruction of the patriarchal family amongst African Americans was necessarily detrimental. To add to the problematic depiction of marriage as the ideal formation of a household, no same-gender loving families were featured. If one is truly concerned about “the black family,” acknowledging all of the ways in which it manifests itself should be a priority. This episode seemed to be more about enforcing heterosexuality as the preferred example of coupling.
In what was perhaps the most informative segment of the entire special, Soledad spoke with Dr. Lisa Newman of Michigan University Hospital. Dr. Newman’s work centers on studying triple negative breast cancer or what is known as TNBC. It seems that it is harder to detect because, unlike other cancers, the traditional markers do not exist. TNBC also overwhelmingly affects African American women. Fifteen percent of White women and thirty percent of Black women diagnosed with breast cancer suffer from TNBC.
To understand why this virulent form of cancer is attacking Black women, Dr. Newman travels to Ghana, where 60% of the women with cancer have TNBC, to collect DNA samples, which she then compares to African Americans. African Americans are used to having their health care needs ignored and to see a woman dedicated to ending the suffering of Black women is absolutely inspiring. Dr. Newman’s work is essential and she certainly deserves as much support as we can give her.
From the illuminating work of Dr. Newman, the documentary reflected on incarceration by focusing on the life of Chris Shurn. Shurn got his GED in prison and had started taking college classes. He promised before his release that he had no intention of ever being incarcerated again and planned on completing his education. As an ex-con, Shurn was not entitled to either subsidized housing or welfare. Through a program entitled Project Choice, he was able to secure a job. However, Evert Highbauer, the lead caseworker, had serious doubts about Shurn’s ability to succeed, considering that his girlfriend was pregnant with a child and the couple was already supporting several other children.
This section of the documentary focused on Chris’s struggles to support his family. He quickly came to the realization that his low-paying, manual labour job at the Salvation Army would not afford him the ability to further his education. The Bureau of Justice notes that of the 272,111 persons released from prisons in 15 States in 1994, an estimated 67.5% were rearrested for a felony or serious misdemeanour within 3 years, 46.9% were reconvicted, and 25.4% resentenced to prison for a new crime. Predictably, Chris allegedly committed an armed home invasion and he has been returned to prison to await trial.
What was most startling was not the lack of commentary about the ways in which society fails to support Black men, but the blaming of Shurn’s girlfriend, which occurred on Twitter. It seems many Twitterers were convinced that Shum’s girlfriend never should have been in a relationship with him to begin with, let alone become pregnant with his child. Many were more than willing to question why she made the decision to reproduce. This situation made apparent that blaming Black women for the actions of Black men is quite acceptable.
Shifting back to health care, the documentary then focused on the health concerns of Black men. Project Brotherhood was spotlighted for their attempts to end the disparity in life expectancy between White men and Black men. The clinic is staffed by an all-Black medical staff, which is extremely enterprising, considering that only 5% of all doctors in the United States are Black. They felt that this was a necessary position to take, considering the communal memory of the men involved with the Tuskegee experiment: black men who were infected by syphilis were purposefully untreated and for the 399 men enrolled in the “study,” it led to tumors, heart disease, paralysis, blindness, insanity and death.
One would expect that the last segment of the documentary would tie all of these experiences together, but instead, Soledad chose to focus her attention on Tyler Perry, who has become a household name with the success of movies like “Diary of Mad Black Woman” and “Medea’s Family Reunion.” It seemed like focusing on Perry, who was once homeless, was an attempt to push the concept of meritocracy, thereby suggesting that if we all apply ourselves, we, too, can achieve his success.
In all of the promotion of Perry’s work, the only negative commentary came from Dr. Todd Boyd. He stated, “It is ironic that a man in drag, engaging some of the most stereotypical images of African Americans ever created is being celebrated while Barack Obama is in the White House.” Perry may have ridden the “chitlin circuit” to success, yet his work is based in a genderized minstrel show that denigrates Black women, though he claims to celebrate our existence. The strong independent woman is told to submit to God and bide her time until she is sent a hardworking Black man from our heavenly father. Even children are not spared the indoctrination and are regularly spanked with a belt when they fail to obey Medea’s instructions on command.
Soledad seemed content to push the accomplishments of this new Black media mogul, citing his tendency to hire Black actors who have previously faced difficulties in avoiding stereotypical roles. But Perry cannot be considered our great saviour when it has even been suggested that he fired writers after they attempted to negotiate a WGAW contract. WGA West filed an unfair-labour practice charge with the National Labour Relations Board against House of Payne LLC on behalf of four writers on Perry’s TBS TV series “House of Payne.” It would seem despite the “good works” of Perry, the bottom line is still profit, just like any other capitalist enterprise.
An ending featuring Tyler Perry was completely incongruous, as he does not represent mainstream Black America and has, in fact, made a fortune playing upon stereotypes that are both harmful and demeaning. With all of the accomplishments of African Americans, it is telling that an entertainer, rather than an intellectual, is uplifted as the prime example of success for African Americans.
In this snapshot approach to Black life, the only thing Soledad really accomplished was the delivery of piecemeal information that was often either incomplete or rife with simplistic explanations. One cannot simply devote a few moments of face time to complicated issues and expect that the viewer will be left with a reasonable understanding of what it is to really and truly be Black in America.