Thoughts on CNN’s “Black in America,” Parts 1 and 2

After an unsatisfying Part 1, CNN’s “Black in America” Part 2, did live up to the hype. I found several portions of the show compelling to watch.

What was wrong with Part 1? It wasn’t “bad.” I just found it bland and uninformative. It was like a series of reports that you might see from a high-end local television station. It was well done, but they covered a lot of ground (the black family and the black woman), and it seemed like they didn’t dig deep enough into any one subject. The show didn’t shed any light on hidden or neglected facts, it didn’t offer any unique insights or perspectives, and it didn’t uncover any previously ignored inconvenient truths.

I don’t think audiences, black audiences in particular, learned anything new in Part 1. Absent being informative, I would have settled for something that struck a poignant or inspirational cord, for example. But I was neither informed nor moved by Part 1.

But Part 2 did strike a cord with me. The difference between the two parts was that Part 2 focused on people whose lives showed the breadth and complexity of the black experience. Instead of focusing on issues, they let the lives of these men tell the story. And those stories were great to watch.

The story of Butch Warren, the assistant school superintendent for Pulaski County in Arkansas, was particularly touching in its many ironies. Warren went to Central High School in Little Rock during the 1960s. This was a just a decade after federal troops were needed to protect the Little Rock Nine when the school was first integrated in 1957.

As related by Warren, the school was still divided and combative over race. He recalled that when Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated in 1968, the white students made jokes and taunted the black students. Warren’s memories of those days almost brought him to tears.

Fast forward to today. After inner city violence in Little Rock led Warren and his family to move to the suburbs, he is facing a new set of challenges. Ironically, he is back in a segregated environment-except this time, he is living in an upper-class community that is over 90% white. One of his three sons is married to a white woman, and another has a white girlfriend.

His youngest son talked about his frustration that other blacks say he “sounds white.” One of his sons has been arrested for firing a gun in a crack house; another is a prosecutor in a district attorney’s office.

And the ultimate irony is that, after painful experiences in high school, Warren is now one of the highest ranking officials working for the local school system. Warren was noticeable proud of that, and he should be.

Warren’s story wasn’t so much about the black male, but more about the integration experience, then and now, although it wasn’t framed in those terms. That’s a story that hasn’t been explored much by the media. I don’t think the producers even meant to cover this topic, but even if they came upon it by accident, I give them credit for sharing it with us.

I was also moved by the story of Michael Eric Dyson, who is a well known writer and college professor. Even as Dyson has achieved much success, he grieves about his brother, who is serving a life sentence for murder. During a discussion with his brother about how their lives ended up differently, Michael Eric Dyson says,”I’m very light, and my brother isn’t… I think it made a difference in our lives.”

This happened at the very end of the show. It took the documentary almost four hours to touch on the subject of “light skinned vs dark skinned,” but at least they did get to it. It’s another subject that deserves more exploration. As with the integration story of the Warrens, the documentary didn’t go looking for this as much as they happened upon it. But these are the gems you find when you look at people’s lives and let that make a point, as opposed to trying to make a point and then looking at peoples’ lives. Part 1 and Part 2 of this documentary illustrate the different results that come from the two approaches.

In any event, I appreciated that a major network took the time to focus on the black community as it did. We need more of this. And as the media does more of this, I suspect their success in getting in right will increase over time. I hope this is the start of something.

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