CNN’s coverage of “Black in America” was intended to document, illustrate and emphasize the African-American experience in American culture. By giving viewers an in-depth look at Black men and women from all walks of life, it attempted to capture the Black narrative in this country.
The question — did it reach the necessary audience it intended to reach, and how accurate was the summation of Black culture in America?
Mark Nelson, vice president and senior executive producer for CNN Productions, said, “We feel the pictures people might get by looking at mainstream media in America is one of crime and punishment. When you look deeper, there are stories of success and stories of people who go against all odds in spite of what this country has to offer.”
CNN’s investigative two-part documentary “The Black Woman & Family” and “The Black Man” explored and unveiled the everyday truths African-Americans face daily. Shown were the realities behind the rising epidemic of AIDS in African-American women, single-parent homes, issues with health care, the rise and fall of success through achievement, disappointment and the road to equality.
Since the series aired, viewers’ responses and reactions to the documentary have varied greatly. Some glorify CNN’s attempt to examine and bring to the forefront issues African-Americans face, while other mass media outlets continue to ignore or perpetuate over generalized statistics.
Dr. Edward L. Wheeler, president of Christian Theological Seminary, says he was hopeful the series presentation would be balanced and expose people to the complexity of the Black community.
“I’ve been pleased that it is a beginning of the work that has to be done to understand the Black community better,” he said. “I think it was an opportunity to show the diversity that exists even in our community.”
Author of America the Racist? H.J. Harris disagrees, commenting, “The CNN special, “Black in America” barely scratched the surface of the issue of racism in America, and that its root causes have a profound impact on the lives of Black America.”
With 18 months for CNN to create a ground breaking investigation 40 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it wanted to do something substantive about the Black community — how far have we come and how much farther do we have to go?
With very little emphasis on national leaders having great significance in the two documentaries, Nelson says CNN was trying to take a different approach.
“We decided it was important to go to the local level and find out what was happening to real people with real stories,” Nelson said. “Many Americans don’t know that there is an emerging Black middle class or that there is a movement to keep families together and intact.”
The CNN special demonstrated several educational movements, including innovative efforts by Dr. Victor Keys of Houston, Texas, walking door to door to get youth back in schools; Roland Fryer’s Spark program, paying children to learn; and Maryann Reid’s Marry Your Baby Daddy Day program.
During the series, CNN and Essence magazine brought together a panel to look at “Reclaiming the Dream.” It addressed serious issues and discussed tangible solutions that affect the Black community. Actress and AIDS activist Sheryl Lee Ralph was one of the many panelists enthused about what she said was history in the making.
“I will not be one of those who in this great time of history does not participate,” Ralph said. “There is nothing about my Blackness that I have to be ashamed of, and I’m happy to be nappy at my roots.”
According to a “Black in America” press kit, Soledad O’Brien said, “This series has critical information for people of all races — the “Black in America” experience is an American story.”
“The Black Woman & Family” series stated 50 percent of Blacks graduate from high school in four years, the achievement gap between Blacks and whites continues to increase at alarming rates, and more Black women are enrolled in college than Black males often leaving educated Black women coping for themselves when looking for a comparable mate.
These statistics are what some say deterred them from engaging in the series referring to the documentary as a lack of an acute portrayal of Black culture and illustrations of negativity speckled with hints of success and tribulation.
However, the information provided during CNN’s special is exactly what this country needed says Sherrae Davis, asset manager of Veolia Water Indianapolis — a real portrayal of real people to inspire, enlighten, and shed hope about what most media ignore.
“As part of the series I watched “Reclaiming the Dream” and the discussion about Black men challenging one another to be more responsible for their families was an excellent concept.”
With the intent that these stories would spark conversation, CNN Productions vice president says his great hope was to initiate dialogue whether in churches, newspapers, talk radio or within the family. However, Nelson said there was no way this series could have included everything about Black culture.
“There is no TV program that is going to tell all of our story, and by being Black in America there are as many stories about Blackness as there are Black people,” said Wheeler. “My fear is someone will look at this and think our whole story has been told.”
“Black in America” will continue to air over the next few weeks.