Black Reality TV and the Rebirth of Fool

Nsenga K. Burton Ph.D.
TLC's Best Funeral Ever

(The Root) — It's official. Reality-television executives have lost their minds. The reality-TV shows featuring mostly black casts debuting in 2013 are setting back images of black folks in television at least 60 years.

While critics are obsessed with the controversial film Django Unchained, there is a movement taking place in reality television that has elevated black buffoonery to the highest level possible while diminishing black culture to the lowest level in recent memory. The images of blacks on TLC's reality shows Best Funeral Ever and The Sisterhood and Oxygen's All My Babies' Mamas are appalling. They are also reminiscent more of images of blacks in film at the turn of the last century than of blacks in television during the last 60 years.


While we're spending hours upon hours debating one film on social networks and in the media, tomfoolery is raging on TLC and Oxygen in the form of reality-television programming that has little to no entertainment value and is more exploitative than any Tarantino film could ever be. As my late grandmother would say, we are "focused on the wrong thing." The images of blacks as buffoons, jezebels, coons and Aunt Jemimas are circulating through our living rooms on a daily onslaught in the form of reality-TV promos, reruns and marathons.

As if trying to survive the damage done to our televisual images by Real Housewives of Atlanta, Basketball Wives and Love and Hip Hop franchises isn't enough to manage, here comes a slew of shows that would make the "ladies" of those shows gasp and swoon.

In all honesty, I could barely get through the first episode of Best Funeral Ever, a reality show highlighting the Golden Gate funeral home in Dallas, where the narration proclaims, "You may be in a casket, but it can still be fantastic." The funeral home will do any funeral service one can imagine.

In the first episode, someone who loved Christmas and "bopping" (dancing) is being laid to rest, so the relatives decide to give him a Christmas-themed funeral. Fast-forward to the funeral planners, who are in a costume shop bopping around wearing a snowman head throughout the store.


Surprise, surprise: The funeral planners become engaged in a power struggle over the planning, which appears to be going off budget, with one planner saying that she can't be "undisciplined." Undisciplined? You're bopping around a costume shop wearing a snowman's head in preparation for a funeral, and you're worried about the budget?

But, but, but, wait … it gets worse (in my best Sticky Fingaz voice): The next scene is of one of the funeral home owners training a group of "professional mourners." This man is literally coaching and directing folks who attend funerals to amp up the emotional quotient, since sometimes folks "don't know how to cry." When he called for the "Tornado Roll" — someone rolling across the floor and throwing herself against a casket — I had to shut off the TV.


My psyche couldn't take any more coonlike behavior, and I honestly could not figure out the entertainment value of this show other than for people who like to see black folks looking a hot mess.

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.


Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.

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