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By Stephanie Frederic, Sentinel Entertainment Editor
It’s a series you’d expect to see on TV One, or on a PBS Tavis Smiley special or possibly on Black Entertainment Television, but instead CNN, Cable News Network steps up to the plate big time during this historic season delivering a groundbreaking series on us and about us next week entitled, “Black In America.” And for the record, CNN gets it right.
The series, which will be spread out over 2 nights (Wednesday, July 23, 9pm-11pm Pacific and Thursday, July 24, 9pm-11pm) and hosted by reporter Soledad O’Brien, will be available to more than 1.2 Billion people in over 212 countries and territories.
The documentary series will focus on the Black Woman & Family the first night and Part 2, the second night, spends the entire time on the Black Man - an entire two-hour special devoted to our Black Men and their plight. Quite frankly - it’s brilliantly produced and reported.
“It was very important for us to tell a different story about Black men,” says Mark Nelson, VP and senior executive producer of CNN Presents.” CNN, special correspondent Soledad O’Brien and a team of producers go beyond the usual suspects in their interviewing. Yes, we see some famous and familiar faces, Spike Lee, Whoopi Goldberg, actress Vanessa Williams. Bishop T.D. Jakes and Professor Michael Eric Dyson, but interestingly they’re not talking about their latest project, book or movie, they and other African Americans from Houston, Detroit, Washington , New York, New Jersey, Chicago, and San Francisco and all across the U.S. are talking about living, working, thriving and surviving as a Black person in this country and it’s very compelling stuff.
Perhaps we have Barack Obama and his history-making candidacy to thank for so much attention being paid to Blacks at this time, but CNN says it started working on this series 2 years ago. “We were compelled to put into context a lot of the stories about race that we cover daily, but to give them more time and more thought,” says a very convincing O’Brien.
Jon Klein, president of CNN, U.S., whose documentary team won a Peabody, the highest honor in journalism last year, for a series called “God’s Warriors” states “we set out a few years ago to really do something that no other cable news network could do, which is to apply significant resources to the most important stories that are being under told and underreported.”
“We have conversations that people do not have,” O’Brien said. “Nuance is hard to do quickly, so we wanted to capture the nuance of the Black experience in America.”
O’Brien, who is often asked about her race (she’s Black and Cuban, but married to an Irish guy hence the last name) explores the varied experiences of Black women and families and investigates the reasons behind the disturbing statistics on single parenthood, disparities between Black and White students in the classroom and the devastating toll of the HIV/AID epidemic in Black communities. She also reports on the progress of Black women in the workplace, in universities and the status of the Black middle class.
In Part 2, she looks at the state of Black men in America and questions whether there are two Black Americas - success for some, but challenges for far too many more. She visits the 1968 class of Little Rock Arkansas’ Central High School - and those of their sons and grandsons. She touches on controversial topics of black men and fatherhood, disparities between Blacks and Whites in educational, career and financial achievement and factors leading to the dramatic rates of Black men in prison.
Again - CNN doesn’t stop there. They also shine a light on the achievements of Black men and the importance of the positive influences of Black fathers - dispelling many myths and stereotypes.
“We all know about the crime, the drugs, the gangs and the prisons. We all know about them leaving families, but we don’t hear too many stories about the successes and the struggles that they’ve overcome,” said Nelson. Those became very, very important to us in telling the story of the Black man, the Black woman and family, but specifically, the Black man who I believe has had an inordinate amount of bad press against him.”
One of the most profound and emotional stories is on two brothers. One, very successful, the other behind bars. It’s the story of well-respected author, preacher, and professor Michael Eric Dyson and his brother Everett Dyson. We all know Professor Dyson, the Princeton-educated brother who’s a frequent commentator on TV about Black culture or events that affect Blacks. He’s written sixteen books on various subjects including Tupac, Dr. Martin Luther King, Hip Hop and Hurricane Katrina just to name a few. CNN calls Dyson one of the brightest young Black voices in America.
His brother Everett is in prison. He’s served 19 years of a life sentence for murder. The special exposes the argument, did the color of their skin play a role in how they were treated by society - especially how they were treated by other Blacks?” Dyson is light-skinned, his brother is dark-skinned. Dyson says he was encouraged to flourish and his brother, a dark-skinned man, was not.
“That led to a fascinating conversation about something that a lot of Black people will talk about, not in mainstream media at all,” says O’Brien. “When we show clips of that and have our town hall meetings, the arguments that ensue are breathtaking. It’s amazing. People who say it’s just not true, it’s insane, it’s ridiculous that that man is behind bars because he was slinging heroin and he murdered somebody.”
“When you’re Black, your skin color is always in the equation,” said comedian/actor D.L. Hughley speaking on CNN’s Black in America series.
The special also tries to explain why so many Blacks are angry. But it also asks the questions so many have: “Why do you hate me because I’m Black? Most importantly, it shows Black men like Kenneth Talley who works hard to give his family a middle class life and it shows highly successful New York City marketing executive Malcolm Gillead who’s feels he always has to score big or be judged by his race. Nevertheless - they’re success stories.
O’Brien says she could have done 10 hours on Black America based on all the interviews shot and stories uncovered. “I have been so impressed and so encouraged , one, just by the support we’ve had and by the Black people within CNN who come to me and say, ‘Don’t forget this documentary also needs to tell the story of like our IT guy Kelvin who says, you know I run IT for CNN, but when I leave here after a late-night project, I cannot get a cab (in NYC). And do you know how humiliating it is for me to turn to my subordinate and ask him to go flag a cab for me because I cannot get one?’
She also relates the story of another Black CNN colleague who says, “Make sure you do the story of when I drop my kid off at school in New York City where I pay $40,000 a year to send that kid to private school, everyone assumes I’m the nanny. It’s not possible I could be the mother to the child… I’m sick of that.”
One of the L.A. stories involved comedian D.L. Hughley who grew up in South L.A. and was a member of the Bloods gang until a loved one was murdered. He got out and became successful. But Hughley says in the documentary, “When you’re Black, your skin color is always in the equation.” Hughley relays what he has told to his teenage son Kyle about how to relate to the police. In the documentary, his son recites on camera how he has been taught to respond to the police.
Whether it was in the poorest Black neighborhood in Detroit or in the home of the wealthiest Black executive or Hollywood mogul, O’Brien noticed that common conversation with most Black men with their sons.
“No matter what the socio-economic status… the story was the same,” she says. Black men repeatedly told her about what they would say to their son if police ever stopped him, “The story is word for word - if you are stopped by the police - cower, she says. “White people do not have those conversations with their children, but every Black person does, she says. That is the gap between those two things is where our story lies. What is happening in America? Why is that difference there? That to me was to a large degree what the documentary is about.”
“These are conversations that relate to America’s shared history, somewhat sometimes ugly history, black and white that dates back to slavery. And a lot of people don’t want to talk about it.”
O’Brien and CNN will show and tell part of those stories and the stories of the successful Black middle class next week.
CNN is truly going where most networks dare not tread. Let’s hope this urge to show the other side continues.
CNN “Black In America” series airs Wednesday, July 23 at 9pm and Thursday July 24 at 9pm.
On Saturday, July 19, CNN and Essence Magazine hosts a lively discussion on the most pressing concerns for Black America Today in a show called, “Reclaiming the Dream,” at 8pm.