Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

CNN: Black in America — Two Thumbs Down

July 30th, 2008 by Ajuan Mance

I would have to count myself among those who were thoroughly underwhelmed by CNN’s Black in America. The two-part documentary had little to offer in the way of new insights on African American life, community, and culture. What was new was the designation of a four hour time slot on a major cable news network dedicated to exploring U.S. Black issues and Black life.

For the most part, though, the African Americans whose voices were featured in this documentary reinforced the same hackneyed stereotypes that have plagued Black people since ol’ slavery times. The program depicted Blacks as chronic and hopeless underachievers, or else as anomalies. The highest achieving African Americans on the show, from high school well into adulthood, were depicted as curiosities who either “beat the odds” or were not truly, authentically Black.

Consider part II of the documentary. This 2-hour installment focused on African American men, and If I’d had a sip of beer every time a middle-class kid or upwardly mobile Black professional described how other less privileged Black people considered his speech/dress/interests to be “white,” I would have been drunk by the end of the program.

I suppose that with all of the attention focused on Black college and graduate school successes like Barack Obama and his wife, CNN needed to remind America what Blackness is really all about. Indeed, this program seemed deliberately aimed at interpreting the growing numbers of Black intellectuals, professionals, and other overachievers in a way that would reassure large segments of the viewing public.

“Don’t make any mistake,” the program seem to say to white Americans in particular, “those uppity Blacks with the fancy degrees are not really Black, or at least not normal Blacks like the rest of them. No need to worry. Black folks aren’t really a threat to white power…yet.”

Of course, I can’t place all of the blame on CNN for Black in America’s objectionable content and themes. After all, CNN couldn’t organize a show around the notion that Black people who are not involved in the criminal justice system, addicted to or selling drugs, or struggling to subsist are considered by their brethren (and sistren) to be “acting white” if there wasn’t a critical mass of middle-class African Americans whose experience of their own Blackness is largely defined by the perception that other Black people perceive their success, education, interests, and speech as “not really Black”/”white.”

It would serve both the public and private interests of all people of African descent if all Black adults who have ever been told that they are “acting white” or “talking white” [sic] resisted the temptation to obssess over and (in some cases) fetishize the literal meaning of these words. We are a people whose language is rich in metaphor; and while I can certainly understand why young people may fail to understand this label as primarily figurative in nature, adults (like the father of the prosecutor and music executive on Black in America) should be able to figure out that when Black people label others as “acting white” they are not really questioning the Blackness of the accused. Rather, they are inquiring, however clumsily, about their commitment to resisting white supremacy.

In this context, “why are you acting white” actually means “are you an ally?” and “You are acting white” means, I cannot tell from your actions, dress, speech, or comportment whether or not you are an ally in resisting white supremacy.
This does not excuse those African Americans who suspiciously apply the “acting white” label to all Black people whose interests, diction, or comportment seems unfamiliar. I do, however, wish to offer up the possibility that resisting white supremacy might also mean that those who have been labeled at one time or another as white acting will also have resist the following:

1) Internalizing the notion that their accentless standard English/classical music collection/Phi Beta Kappa membership/vacation home, etc., etc. really does constitute “acting white.”

2) Extrapolating from the comments of a few Black people that all people of African descent will characterize you as white acting and thus treat you as an outsider.

3) That the “acting white” label is a badge of honor that distinguishes you, the good Black person (law abiding, highly educated, financially self-sufficient) from the bad Black people (who speak non-standard English, may be involved with the criminal justice system and/or dependent on government aid, et cetera).

Posted by Ajuan Mance

Posted in African Americans, Black in America, CNN, Current Events, race, Uncategorized

4 Responses

  1. Wondermann

    I wanted more from this program, but it was a start. Hopefully they can visit other issues, like the media, TV, and music

  2. Ajuan Mance

    Indeed. I hope this program becomes a jumping-off point for deeper and more textured explorations of the Black experience in the U.S.

    The downfall of this series may have been its desire to cover so much in so little time. Why, for example, didn’t they have separate episodes for Black women and Black children?

  3. Sean McLeod

    Ajuan, I love your analysis of this program even though I myself did not watch. The title alone steered me away. No program entitled “Black in America” could possibly live up to its name and neither did this one apparently. In an age where Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee for president and many Americans are for the first time confronting the realities of black family life, relationships between different generations of black leaders, bi-racial identity, black religious institutions, and on and on, at least an hour could have been dedicated to anything on that short list of topics plus many more. Perhaps I should have given “Black in America” a chance, but hopefully, as you noted, it will be a jumping off point for future explorations that are more focused.

  4. Ajuan Mance

    Sean, I’m so glad you enjoyed this post! It took me a few days to figure out how to articulate my feelings about this program. Like a lot of Black viewers, I watched the series with guarded optimism that this time “they” might have gotten it right. It was even hosted by a journalist of African descent, for goodness sake. In the end, I was disappointed by what I saw; but I remain optimistic about future coverage of the African American community and its issues. I believe that Americans’ (especially young Americans’) thinking about Blackness and Black people is actually a lot more sophisticated that the media’s treatment of the subject. I am hoping that news outlets like CNN will pick up on this and adjust their programming accordingly.