In Black in America, CNN's four-hour-long series premiering this week, we learn some facts that may be news to viewers, including:
— The prolific, loquacious Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson has a younger brother who is serving a life sentence for murder.
— A fresh-faced, 18-year-old black single mother in the Bronx does not have the virus that causes AIDS—despite the fact that she had unprotected sex "a strong 20 percent of the time."
— The cherubic, precocious Harvard economics professor Roland Fryer is overseeing a project at a predominantly black Brooklyn elementary school where fourth graders receive cash for learning.
These three details represent a mere sampling of the avalanche of facts, figures, anecdotes, summations, mini-profiles and surmisings that barrel forth from the CNN series. They cascade down in a fast-moving tide of information that threatens to crush viewers under its cold, heavy weight. Certainly, the show shines a spotlight on the scope of blackness. But will black viewers see or learn anything that improves their daily lives or inspires new thinking or action? And will viewers unfamiliar with "the black experience" learn anything that will expand or positively inform their opinions of blacks, or—more to the point—spur them to reach out to blacks?
In the end, not likely, but maybe that isn't the point.
Time Warner board chairman Richard Parsons told Newsday columnist Les Payne that he views the series as something other than a straight-up news effort.
"Things have changed," said Parsons, who leads the parent company of CNN, in a July 21 Newsday column. In discussing Black in America, according to Payne, Parsons went on "sliming African Americans' struggle to achieve parity as a 'paradigm of victimization.'"
"It's time to stop thinking in the old way and start thinking in the new way. Barack Obama is trying to get us to converse through this new paradigm," Parsons said.
Paradigm, schmaradigm. Parsons' invoking of Barack Obama is but one of several disconnects surrounding Black in America. Sen. Obama is nearly absent from the paradigm-shifting effort. His historic candidacy and smooth-jazz demeanor is featured once, briefly, in the black men portion of the series. (Though, in fairness, Black in America was conceived, and the reporting commenced, some 18 months ago, long before the Illinois senator became the hot ticket he is today.)
Overall, the series does a bang-up job of demonstrating so much that is troubling about the "state of blacks in America." But it does little to provide underlying context behind the high incarceration rates, high infant mortality rates, high rates of HIV infection. And for its dearth of information on possible solutions, Black in America, fails to dig viewers out from under its huge mass of mostly disheartening information, something it might have done by airing, at the end of each two-hour segment, what news people call "The Solutions Installment." This is a time-honored part of any long-form, multi-part news report, and its absence from Black in America is an unfortunate oversight.
Apparently CNN and the series' reporter/anchor, Soledad O'Brien, reasoned that a related, town-hall style discussion of the issues raised in the series, which aired this past weekend, would fulfill the solutions-installment function. To a certain extent, the "forum on what lies ahead," to use the network's press-release language, succeeded. The forum took the pulse of "black thinkers" including Bishop T.D. Jakes, Princeton's Cornel West and Bennett College President Julianne Malveaux. Viewers of the town-hall discussion learned of education intiatives, health-care proposals and new technology efforts underway to reverse some of the long-standing pathologies affecting millions of black Americans.
In the series, the segments with Harvard's Roland Fryer are the most effective in approaching talk of solutions. At P.S. 399 in Brooklyn, we see scenes of uniformed fourth graders eagerly competing to get the right answers on math tests. Their payoff is a potential $25 per test, which means that by the end of the school year, they may earn as much as $250, Fryer says. This may sound like bribery, but on the other hand, someone's got to do something radical to motivate young African Americans—in particular, those from low-income households—to take education seriously from an early age. "The fact is, these kids understand already the way money works," Fryer says. "But they don't see how education is connected [to earning a living]. This program makes that connection explicit," says Fryer, who by age 30, had overcame an early life of hardship, absentee parents and general troubled-black-male-knuckle-headery to become the youngest African-American scholar to earn full tenure at Harvard.
Fryer was also featured prominently in the separate town hall, but viewers of the series who missed the prelude discussion may find themselves wanting more.
Programming logistics aside, it is also hard to miss the inherent limitations of the story-telling capabilities of cable and network news outfits: In Black in America, the same old tricks of the trade that can make watching news magazine programs like 20/20 and Dateline NBC so unbearable are in evidence: an overabundance of scary background music to telegraph death and despair; a surfeit of "b-roll" shots of anonymous 'hoodrats engaging in shady behavior, or of flashing blue lights atop police cruisers at crime scenes; and many shots of the fetching Soledad O'Brien, wearing prim, stylish clothing, as she walks, sits next to or otherwise accompanies any number of hard-luck cases interviewed for the series. Likewise, the dependence on portentous voiceovers, dropped periodically into the filmed segments, collectively create more drama than is perhaps necessary.
Black in America is, as theater critics say, an ambitious undertaking. In visceral terms, it succeeds at effectively sharing the lives and experiences of real, regular, walking-around-trying-to-make-a-living black folks, and it does so with heart and a stunning absence of sentimentality. O'Brien and her producers pretty much lay out the big picture of what life is like for many blacks in America, the joy, the pain, the sheer frustration felt by even those who have "made it." The fact that a commercial broadcast news outlet is airing such a large volume of information on black Americans at this time is noteworthy. And while the series' mission is unstated (namely, who is the audience? And why aren't white attitudes and white racism, as they affect black Americans' lives, more thoroughly explored?) the potential for reaching millions of viewers nationwide who might not otherwise spend two seconds pondering the conditions and experiences of black folks, make the entire enterprise worthwhile.
Amy Alexander, the Alfred A. Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute, is writing a book about race and media.
Amy Alexander, an award-winning writer and editor in Silver Spring, Md., is the author of four nonfiction books, including Uncovering Race: A Black Journalist’s Story of Reporting and Reinvention. She has produced stories for the National Journal/Atlantic, NPR, The Nation, The Root and other outlets.