Black Reality TV and the Rebirth of Fool

Instead of debating Django Unchained, we should be harsher critics of shows like Best Funeral Ever.

TLC's Best Funeral Ever

Speaking of hot messes, The Sisterhood is a TLC show about the wives of church pastors, also known as “first ladies,” who live in Atlanta. This program actually has some redeeming qualities — demonstrating the diversity of black families and the complicated role of representing Christianity publicly to others while struggling to maintain those standards in one’s private life — but fails to focus on this interesting premise.

The possible informative and entertainment value of the show is undermined by the focus on Tara and Brian Lewis, a black-and-Jewish couple who moved to Atlanta from Los Angeles to pastor a church, only to be let go after six weeks. Tara, a fitness addict, is obsessed with speaking in Scripture, while Brian is a self-proclaimed Jew who loves Jesus.

The problem is that they don’t seem to take Christianity or Judaism seriously, focusing on giving their child a “Christian bar mitzvah” with a theme of being the first black Jewish president of the United States, a vision given to Tara by God. Did I mention that as Tara describes receiving this word from God, she seems to be reciting it and doesn’t look as if she believes what she’s saying herself?

Add their inability to get along with anyone, their tendency to insult people in their homes and their need to serve as the arbiters of Christianity while engaging in un-Christlike behavior, and Houston, we have a problem. The historic trope of making fun of churchgoing black folks in television and film has reared its ugly head again in the form of this reality show.

Finally, it pains me to even address Oxygen’s All My Babies’ Mamas, about Atlanta rapper Shawty Lo’s 11 children by 10 women. A program like this isn’t a stretch from a network that built its brand on portraying young girls as violent, promiscuous, alcoholic, drug-addicted and duplicitous in the hit series Bad Girls Club.

What is mind-numbing is how a concept like this can be pitched and make it past the many steps it takes to get a show produced in cable or network TV. It appears that no one called flag on the play, instead creating a program that panders to the vilest stereotypes of black male and female sexual behavior — not to mention perpetuating the false idea that traditional family structures don’t exist in black communities, which is simply unconscionable.

In a city like Atlanta — which is rife with rich African-American culture, history and intellectual capital, reflected in the number of elite HBCUs and mainstream colleges and universities in the area — is this the best slice of reality that Oxygen can muster: a Z-list rapper and the simple women who would procreate with him?

Therein lies the problem with black reality-television programming. There are far too many blacks willing to humiliate themselves and far too many TV executives willing to pay them pennies on the advertising dollar for that humiliation, which is why these shows continue to be made.

Not everyone is taking this lying down, and petitions calling for the cancellation of The Sisterhood and All My Babies’ Mamas are circulating. Even Congress has gotten in on the anti-reality-TV bandwagon, with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) asking MTV to reconsider airing Buckwild, a reality show following a group of friends from the foothills of West Virginia. I keep wondering if and when black TV executives or members of Congress will go on record against these shows that clearly have an agenda: to play on and perpetuate the most despicable stereotypes of blacks in this country.

While folks are concentrating on critiquing and boycotting one film, perhaps they should turn their attention to TV, where something wicked this way comes. If not, then the rebirth of fool will continue to be the standard in reality television that features blacks.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. She is also editor-in-chief of the Burton Wire, a blog dedicated to world news related to the African Diaspora and global culture. Follow her on Twitter.