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.