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CNN’s Black in America 2: “Tomorrow’s Leaders”

Last year, CNN presented a four hour documentary by Soledad O’Brien entitled Black in America. The first part was called The Black Man and the second part was the Black Women and the Family. Much criticism was levelled at the documentary for the ways in which it erased so many members of the African community, as well as how it played on stereotypes instead of fact. It appeared to be a documentary made to educate Whites who rarely interact with Backs, rather than a critical refection on the diverse experiences of African Americans.

In its second attempt to encapsulate the African American experience, CNN stayed with its binary understanding of African Americans by dividing the show into affluent versus poverty stricken. The first part of the segment focused on Malaak Compton-Rock’s Journey for Change Program. The goal of this program is to take students from Bushwick Brooklyn to Soweto South Africa to widen their understanding of the world. For Malaak, it is important for these students, who have been on the receiving end of handouts, to be a part of giving for a change. They must then commit to a year of service in their community to pass on the lessons that they learned.

Malaak makes it clear that she could just write a check but she believes that mentorship is the best path to success. Though the program has had great success, using Africa in this way is extremely problematic. Africa is far more than its impoverished population and this kind of trip once again reinforces the view of the so-called backwardness of African peoples. It teaches these children that Africans need to be saved instead of revealing to them what and who is really responsible for the impoverishment of South African Blacks. Unless this trip is properly contextualized, the students will not really come to terms with the lessons on privilege that Malaak is attempting to teach.

The way that this segment was presented seemed to be teaching this kids that they should be grateful for the squalor that they live in, because it is better than the conditions that the poor people of South Africa live in. Even though the situation of the impoverished of Africa is wrong, that does not in any way make it acceptable that so many African American children are living in poverty. Saying “look how good you have it in comparison” to those people erases the responsibility of Whiteness to make any substantial efforts to break down the racial divide. By this token, we could say “look how much better it is for them versus children that were born into slavery” to erase the negative conditions in which they are living.

Furthering the conversation on education, the documentary shifted to Steve Perry, the principal and founder of Capitol Preparatory Magnet School in Connecticut CT. One hundred percent of the students that graduate from his school go on to college. The school has longer days and runs on Saturdays. When students arrive, they are typically reading four grade levels below where they should be.

Steve Perry is doing amazing work, however, his criticism of the kids’ parents is at times questionable. These children are from very poor families and it is not uncommon for parents to be forced to work two jobs to keep a roof over their heads. Not showing up at a school function does not necessarily mean that a parent does not care; it could simply be a matter of not being able to afford to take the time away from work. The way this segment was presented made it seem like all poor African Americans suffer from a drug dependency.

On the other side of the coin, when CNN chose to feature affluent Blacks, those that were light-skinned were over represented. They showed one family of generation after generation of successful professionals, never once commenting on the fact that hueism and talent must have both played a role in their success. Hueism extends beyond the media privileging light skin Blacks; it is as systemic to the Black community as racism is to the country. If one examines photos from the first Back sororities, what is quickly evident is the fact that light-skinned Blacks far outnumber dark-skinned Blacks. They are the direct descendants of the house slave and the privilege still continues to this day.

Hueism is a subject we are loath to speak openly about in the Black community, because it is a reflection of the internalization of the racist constructions that have been foisted upon African Americans. However, hueism is reified in such way as to continue to play a major role in which Blacks will be chosen by whiteness to act as representatives of African Americans. Even Steve Perry, the dynamic educator featured in the documentary, is light skinned. Soledad O’Bria,  the producer of Black in America, is herself a light-skinned Black woman. In the first incarnation of the documentary last year, hueism was a topic of conversation, however it must be one that is continued when it is so obviously visible. To fail to mention the degree to which class privilege in the Black community can be traced to hueism only further serves to maintain it as an “invisible” marker.

This latest incarnation of Black in America suffers from many of the same issues as the first. It is impossible to diminish even a small swathe of the experiences of a community as rich as that of African Americans into a two hour documentary. Inevitably, one will be reduced to repeating oft-said stereotypes without any real deconstructed analysis. One can only hope that the second part of the new series will offer a more nuanced understanding of what it is to be Black in America.


Renee Martin

Renee Martin lives in Canada and writes the famous Womanist Musings blog. She is as interested in socio-political issues as she is in television.

5 thoughts on “CNN’s Black in America 2: “Tomorrow’s Leaders”

  1. Wow I’ve never seen such pessimism for something that was so beautiful. The show was great and regardless of what you think of Steve Perry he said what was true. You should be involved in your children’s academic life and if you’re soo poor that you have to work 2 jobs and neglect your children then you shouldn’t have had them int he first place.

    As far as the light skinned blacks go you’re just fanning the flames of internal division within the black community. Who cares how dark a person who identifies as African American is? We come in all shapes, sizes, shades, hair textures and sexualities.

    I hope you can see the positive in the series tonight.

  2. We as Black parents should take more time with our kids instead of worrying about what we wear and how we look. These kids are the future and if anyone should care it should be us.

  3. I agree with your sentiment. While I didn’t see Malaak’s portion of the show, I did see the “Tuxedo Club” and “Perry’s” portion.

    I have a problem with Malaak making these kids continue with their community service for a year. I have no problem with and even encourage community service for children as well as adults but I don’t think it’s something that should be forced upon them. I also think that people should be able to choose the population and or place that they want to work with, whether that be older adults, children, the homeless, or animal shelters. Who are you to dictate what I should be doing with my free time. Maybe there were students who would rather use their free time going to art museums or libraries discovering texts that they didn’t know about. I, myself, didn’t foster a love from reading until I had time to engage in pleasure reading which wasn’t until I left high school. If I thought all books were like the drivel that they made us read in school, well, then I would never pick up another book.

    As for the Tuxedo ball, I have always had a problem with exclusive clubs like that. It seems very elitist and exclusionary–people can’t join, they have to be invited! And “Buffy” had the nerve to say you don’t have to be rich you just have to be apart or like us. That type of self-segregation does not help students/young people who want to make a difference in the world but didn’t come from the “right” backgrounds. There was just an air of “I’m better than you” in her mannerisms and speech. I’m all for black people having doctorates and master’s degrees. I’m very proud that both I and my sister have master’s and my other sister plans to get one as well. But, I would never make someone feel inadequate because they didn’t have what I have. It’s a total accident of birth that she was born to parents that both had graduate degrees in the early 20th century and she should be proud of that but we shouldn’t denigrate others because our parents didn’t have the same. I would rather have heard her say, that you are not beholden to the faults of your parents or your relatives. We all make choices and can choose to better ourselves no matter what–let no one or nothing stand in your way. That would have uplifted anyone watching it. Instead I felt the sting of classism and privilege as in, you look like one of us but what does your father do?

    As for Perry’s school, great. But I would much rather hear about the students who are regular. Not every student has a drug abuser for a mother or an alcoholic for a father. Most of us didn’t do well in high school because there is a disconnect b/w what it takes to get into college and what you have to do in HS. If I know what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have skipped out on those two AP exams I was invited to take for history and global studies. I probably also would have done the extra credit to change the B+ to an A. I always knew I was going to college but you wouldn’t know it by my study habits or lack thereof. I think that needs to be address much more. Most students don’t have addicts for parents or I should say most don’t know it or their parental addicts are so highly functioning that no one can tell. it was just a mess, through and through.

    It left me wondering on where all the regular black folks are. And don’t get me started on that 18 month training for black executives. While I applaud the idea I can already see lazy companies picking their minority talent pool from MBL (i think that was what it was called) and then saying well we already have our black/latino applicants, if they didn’t go through that program then we don’t need/want them. It breeds laziness on the part of the companies and then sends a message that if you want to succeed, you must be apart of this program, which I’m pretty sure is NOT free.

  4. Wow Renee, thanks for the fabulous analysis. I had many of the same thoughts while watching Black in America 2. When I saw the original air last year I was disappointed and angry that CNN had tried to distill the ‘black experience’ into prison and welfare. I don’t know if you noticed but the sole black man they held up as successful had married a white woman and raised his children completely away from black society.
    The irony was immediate for me since I was watching the program at my college, the University of Florida, surrounded by the Black Student Union, which is filled with middle and upper class students, none of whom could relate to it.
    But as a dark skinned former Jack and Jiller I couldn’t cosign the new program either. You completely right on the issue of pervasive hueism. Both O’Brien and many of the ‘Tuxedo Ball’ mothers were so light it was difficult to actually name them as black. I’ve def. experienced the hueism that is rampant in organizations like that as well as our BLGOs. But what do you think of Tyler Perry, a minstrel if there ever was one, being held up as a role model in part two for “beating Hollywood at its own game”? Should he be celebrated for selling out black society before a white person does?

  5. Thank you for clarifying CNN’s white-framed approach, Renee. I knew this next round would again be disappointing. If only O’Brien would think and talk more about how she literally embodies both hueism and white preferences for certain kinds of black people.

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