It happens at least once a day. Seemingly out of nowhere I’ll hear a frustrated former TV lover go on a tirade about the sad state of programming that features predominantly African American characters. These rants always contain references to the the moving affection of The Cosby Show, the social responsibility of A Different World, or the brash hilarity of Martin.
There’s really no rebuttal to these criticisms because they’re absolutely right. Nothing crafted for Black viewers today comes close to the quality we’ve witnessed in the past, yet African Americans are consistently deterred by other Black viewers from honestly critiquing representations of ourselves on television.
The reality is although cable brought more black and brown faces to scripted television series in the past year, most of the showings have been less than impressive. We watch every episode in droves hoping for the best and providing realtime reactions via social networking sites like Twitter. But when the show disappoints, we don’t hesitate to air our grievances.
However, if Twitter is any indication, there are a growing number of Bad Black TV Defenders (BBTVDs we’ll call them) telling those with the gall to have standards to shut up and be grateful for the few vaguely positive images we receive. These series have yet to be able to find that perfect synergy of nuanced acting, compelling writing and skillful direction. That’s the truth, so why shouldn’t say it? Because the BBTVDs believe we’re still beholden to the idea that we have a duty to support every Black production. But they’re wrong.
We are consumers, and we deserve better.
We deserve more than the cinematic scraps that have been fed to us since the golden age of Black television and film in the 90s. We are not defeating ourselves by calling a spade a spade.
A good sign you’re watching substandard Black television is when the positive comments are reduced to things like; “at least it’s not by Tyler Perry,” “it’s so nice to see Black actors working,” or “her shoes are really cute.”
Black audiences are so used to the deprivation that we’ll hold up things that really aren’t victories. Not only should we continue to be critical consumers, but we should be even more forceful in our evaluations. African Americans don’t have to just accept what’s tossed our way because we are valuable, and everyone knows it except us. The Game’s premiere this year was the highest rated sitcom broadcast on Cable ever. That’s huge.
That we should shut our mouths and be happy for what we’ve got seems like the ultimate concession to racist television executives that refuse to acknowledge our buying power and brand loyalty. We give them numbers, but what do they give us? Quite frankly, It’s heartening to see that we still have standards. Not every show is going to be iconic like The Wire or A Different World, but asking for a show on basic cable with a solid storyline and strong character development shouldn’t be looked upon as hypercritical.
I appreciate the creatives who fight for fair representation, but there is much work to do. Black women are looking for characters that challenge the stereotypical ideas of our womanhood, and even in shows that are created for us, that’s nowhere to be found. After seeing the buoyant elegance of Clair Huxtable on screen for eight seasons, the outcry for a similar depiction is perfectly normal.
For Black audiences television has regressed, and viewers are simply asking If we could do it in the height of the Reagan Administration why on earth can’t we do it now? There are more than enough Black and brilliant actors, writers, directors, and producers in Hollywood. Perhaps they’re not given adequate resources for their projects or perhaps the talent that’s funded is subpar, but something has to change.
I was always taught most people will do as little as you’ll accept and no more. Well right now the arbiters of our images are doing the least, and our silence won’t help that.
I don’t watch Good Morning America, so last week when my Twitter timeline exploded with mentions of Chris Brown, I was entirely confused. What had this man done now? Within minutes, someone directed me to video of the most uncomfortable interview I’ve seen in years and images of a smashed window on a skyscraper and the shirtless singer on the streets of New York. Chris Brown had once again made himself the center of attention for behaving badly, and everyone had something to say about it.
Brown’s behavior was indefensible but of course there was a chorus of sycophants on blogs and social networking sites who could not wait to bow before the altar of Chris Brown martyrdom. Repeating refrains of “Shame on Robin Roberts" and "Can’t a Black man move on?" They willfully ignored the fact that this incident was not simply a result of Brown’s beleaguered racial caste but his unresolved inner turmoil. In America —or anywhere in the world for that matter— the issue of race cannot be entirely extracted from any situation, but it can be used to obscure other deeper. less-convenient issues. Thankfully, we have impassioned, well-reasoned voices in our community who were willing to not only call out Chris Brown but his cadre of enablers.
The day of the incident, BET.com published a piece by noted journalist and filmmaker dream hampton called The Trouble with Chris Brown. Hampton’s writing was characteristically stirring. Heartfelt yet stern it embodied a radical love that is our only hope to expel the demons that continue to torment Black America’s youth. And 72 hours later, the piece was removed from the website without explanation.
It’s reasonable to infer that the performer’s management had a hand in the article’s removal since Brown and his music have been a staple on the network for the past 18 months. BET, like any cable outlet traffics in ratings and ad dollars, and many of the young men and women who tune into the network’s second longest running show 106th and Park when Chris Brown premieres a video or promotes his album are the same members of #teambreezy who on blogs and social networks claim he’s been provoked or scapegoated. The network formerly known as Black Entertainment Television once again valued the economically expedient over the socially responsible.
As a business first and foremost, BET is required to do nothing but stay Black (ownership excepted, obviously) and generate profit. I’m under no delusions that the company was ever meant to be “movement media,” and no one would ever imagine that its top execs would put the larger interests of African Americans before revenue. But the most widely distributed cable network for Blacks in America had an opportunity to promote a candid discussion about issues which run much deeper than Chris Brown. They balked at the chance, and used a minor scandal and a poignant piece of writing for page views.
In this situation he is not a victim, but the tragedy of Chris Brown is one of pain and exploitation. In that way, he is not much different from the tens of thousands of 20-something Black men in America. His record label, manager, publicist, et al have failed him. Now BET has taken its place among the enablers to which dream refers. The status quo will not be changed without a fight. It is time to demand more of the media that supposedly caters to us.
I don’t observe Kwanzaa, but I respect and appreciate its seven principles. I concede that in an age of antipathy, it is nice to see blacks in this country come together for such a celebration. Ujamaa, cooperative economics, strikes me as particularly powerful. Unfortunately, the idea that African Americans should contribute to our own economic uplift by supporting Black-owned businesses has not completely taken root.
She writes about the “horrible” negative stigma attached to her first employer:
Many people at the time compared the launch of BlackPlanet.com under a mostly-Asian management team to the stereotyped situation of “the Koreans who own the corner store in a black neighborhood.” That kind of horrible statement makes you wonder: what group might also have some race issues?
With this statement, the author willfully ignores the continued exclusion of Blacks from media ownership on and offline and the historic commodification of Black culture. Yes, African-Americans do have some “race issues” because we’ve seen how rich our words, images, and music have made everyone but us. And promoting the same pattern of cultural appropriation in the digital space can do nothing but harm.
I think we can have more black-owned Web sites, and I don’t knock the black-run Internet entities that are a success like Bossip and Media Takeout. But when you look at the type of content produced by some of the top black sites (I’m looking at you World Star Hip-Hop) — it almost makes you consider black ownership a bad thing.
That’s interesting. I’ve yet to hear anyone cite Perez Hilton as a reason why Latinos or homosexuals shouldn’t be media owners. Or heard the same racialized concerns of countless other repulsively misogynistic and hate-filled blogs or TV channels owned by White men.
It’s unfortunate that the most trafficked Black blogs are entertainment/ignorance focused, but to ignore the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of quality Black-owned media outlets is an egregious oversight.
So Ms. Stodghill may be right to ask
Are we sometimes the first in line to sell our people out?
We are often the first to sell each other short in defense of the status quo. You may be happy with the way things have always been, but that does not make it best for “our people.”
I’m most concerned that these types of statements embolden the conservatives who would have us do away completely with initiatives and legislation that provide support and funding for would be minority media owners.
In 2007, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps called the rapidly declining presence of minority media owners a "national disgrace." Even still we continue to backslide in the arena of broadcast media.
And now that consolidation has become standard practice in the digital realm, independent online publishers face a new crisis in trying to stay afloat.
Ownership matters. It matters in hiring. It matters in outreach, and it certainly matters in content.
There simply are not enough Black and Brown faces calling the shots, and this will not change until we abandon the labor mentality and adopt one of ownership.
Left of Black #25 w/Guthrie “Guy” Ramsey, Jr. and Esther Iverem March 14, 2011
Left of Black host Mark Anthony Neal is joined via Skype by musician, author, professor and curator Guthrie Ramsey, Jr.. Later Black indie digital media pioneer and SeeingBlack.com founder Esther Iverem, joins Neal, also via Skype.
→Guthrie Ramsey, Jr. is the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor of Music at the University of Pennsylvania and co-curator of Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment, currently exhibited at the Museum of the City of New York. Ramsey is the author of Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop ( University of California Press, 2003) and the forthcoming In Walked Bud: Earl “Bud ” Powell and the Modern Jazz Challenge.
→Esther Iverem is founder and editor of SeeingBlack.com, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. A journalist, poet and author, Iverem’s most recent book is We Gotta Have It: Twenty Years of Seeing Black at the Movies, 1986-2006 (Thunder’s Mouth Press). A former staff writer for several newspapers, including The Washington Post and New York Newsday, she is the recipient of numerous honors, including a USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Fellowship, a National Arts Journalism Fellowship and an artist’s fellowship from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. She is also a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.
I first encountered The Fembassy a little over a year ago when I was trying to get more information on a new release from one of my favorite artists. Since that time, the site has grown to be the premier hub for women in hip hop.
Glennisha Morgan created The Fembassy to remedy the lack of coverage and support of female emcees. The highlights of our discussion include:
How she built her community
Are women’s voices undervalued online?
Why it’s necessary for us to create alternative spaces
I just finished reading The Billion Dollar BET. I loved it. It’s part biography of Bob Johnson and part profile of the creation of BET. The book is incredibly well-researched, and I walked away from it feeling like I understood the dynamics of the company and of Johnson himself. I’m not entirely certain if I was riveted because I’m a huge nerd for these types of behind the scenes stories, or if it’s really that compelling. Either way pick it up. You won’t be able to watch the network the same way after. Here’s what I learned:
BET is exactly what it set out to be: a profitable company.
Working with friends and family gets messy.
Going public sucks.
Traditional media operates with astronomical costs and slim profit margins.
Great business partners and mentors are invaluable.
Black audiences are continually undervalued.
Black consumers are extremely fickle but also loyal.
A well-recognized brand does not equal a well-respected brand.
When you monopolize the market, you can do whatever you want.
We call it exploitation, but Bob Johnson calls it business.
With degrees from MIT and USC, New Media consultant Liz Burr parlayed her education and talents into developing a thriving online community at VerySmartBrothas.com and snagging invites to exclusive events like the Grammys. The highlights of our discussion include:
The transformation of the blogosphere
Meeting close friends and business partners though blogging
How her secondary education has contributed to her new media success
Why you often have to “fake it ‘til you make it” on the web
What it will take to get more Blacks involved in tech and media
Building a largely successful blog and community from the ground up
The mainstream media opportunities she’s received through social media
Why starting a blog is an absolute must
Liz continues to use her social media expertise for social good as she recounts her travels to Haiti on her personal blog. Connect with Liz via Twitter.