Can the Media Keep Up With Modern Black Families?

There are families diverse in sexual orientation, spirituality and even ethnicity. And black life is not all “struggle.” A Hampton University conference scrutinizes contemporary portrayals of African Americans.  

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Carletta Perry moderates a panel at Hampton University’s “Essentially Black: Media and the Modern Family” conference, March 20, 2014.

In the decades since 1978, when Hampton University held its first conference dedicated to unpacking the issues facing black families, plenty of aspects of American life have changed for people of all races. At the 36th annual event, held this week on the campus of the Virginia HBCU, participants took a critical look at the media's ability to stay up to speed when it comes to portrayals of contemporary African Americans.

"Essentially Black: Media and the Modern Family," hosted by the school's Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications and chaired by its dean, Brett Pulley, featured input over three days of discussions from speakers including Black Entertainment Television co-founder Sheila Johnson, CBS News' Michelle Miller, ESPN's Chris Broussard and ABC News Chief National Correspondent Byron Pitts. It also included a focus on what Pulley called "the evolving media portrayal and images of black families."

A Thursday panel discussion attended by approximately 150 students and guests set out to explore the on-screen reflections of "spirituality, sexuality and multiethnicity" in African-American culture. As Pulley put it in explaining the importance of the topic, "Families are changing, and some things that may have been taboo in black families should now be front and center."

According to the latest research, 3.7 percent of all African Americans identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, with 84,000 African Americans living in same-sex couplings  and roughly a third of those couples raising children. The biggest increase in interracial marriage since 2008 occurred among blacks. And despite Christianity's historic role in black culture, 16 percent of African Americans report that they have no religious affiliation.

Moderator Carletta Perry, an assistant professor of psychology at Hampton, said that portrayals of all of those experiences are important, noting that there's a negative psychological impact "if you don't see reflections of your experience or your family's experience in news and entertainment coverage." Even among what many deem "traditional" lifestyles, she added, "There's much more going on with black people than the struggle."

Kiera Weldon, a 22-year-old senior, wanted to see realistic portrayals of the black experience overall, even if they risked being controversial. "It's great to share what could be, but we have to show what is, too," she said after the panel.

A related forum titled "50 Shades of Black" invited the audience to join media professionals in "exploring evolving portrayals and images of modern black families across the burgeoning universe of digital and traditional media."

Overall, said panelist Broussard, an ESPN sports analyst and ESPN.com columnist, the media often "misses the nuance of black life," noting, "We're not monolithic. We've got many different types of families and different types of people."

For example, he said, "Black men get a bad rap, but I've always been around black men who are happily married and taking care of their children. You don't see a lot of those types of black men on television or in the media."

Attendees linked those negative images on-screen and in print to real-life—and potentially deadly—consequences, blaming stereotypes about black men in particular for the deaths of African-American teenagers Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, who many believed were killed because their race and gender alone caused white men to deem them threatening.