Many academics, public intellectuals, and fellow bloggers have now voiced their opinions about Black In America 2. Some have praised it as being better than last year while others have said that Black In America 2 and the number 2 had much more in common than CNN would like to admit. I am more on the side of it being better than last year but agree that it is still off the mark. One of the key differences that made it better than last year is that in the first segment (of which I will speak about further below) they grounded the discussion of the poorer students and the problems they face in the historical legacy of and lasting effects of the rapid deterioration of their neighborhood as well as urban decline. I may be giving Black In America 2 too much credit here because even this discussion was short and rather weak. If you are going to begin with such an opening, then structural forces—decline of jobs, residential segregation, and the like—must be put at the forefront and stated explicitly, not in passing. Nevertheless there were some, for lack of a better word, problems with it that stuck out to me beyond what has been talked about in other venues. I focus on two points that I felt slipped under the radar.
The first has to with the apparent Africanism in the first segment but also its place in larger society. Although highlighting the work of Malaak Compton-Rock giving to the community, they presented Journey for Change as a program not to expose inner-city youth to a different way of life per se, but rather to a poorer, more destitute way of life so that they can appreciate what (little) they have back home in Bushwick. I am sorry but if that is not a variation of Edward Said’s Orientalism I do not know what is. One point Said makes of the harmful effects of orientatlism is how “the Occident” began to see “the Orient” and conduct themselves toward the region itself and also those from that region.
I must stop here and say that I am an unapologetic Americanist, though one with humanist tendencies. Nevertheless, maybe because I am an Americanist, I do not jump on the bandwagon of those who go outside the United States to help those in need. If two houses are burning, which one do you put out first: your’s or your neighbor’s? I know that framing it this way makes it an either/or question without moral implications and as one that ignores present day politics and the history of colonialism and the like. However, the question remains that if there is a cancer threatening to destroy your body from the inside from the same mechanisms, through the same actions, and that of someone else, what do you do first?
The way in which it was framed also obscures the plight of blacks, Latinos, and some whites here in the United States. I am sorry, if you wanted to show them more extreme poverty than what they are used to, there are pockets here in the United States that are just as or even worse off economically. Both urban and rural. Let us not forget the work of Amartya Sen who found that even though one may live in a richer nation, one’s life expectancy and quality might be quite lower than those in poorer nations. If you wanted to show them the detrimental effects the AIDS virus has on communities, there are pockets in many Chocolate Cities that have as high or higher concentration of AIDS than many parts of Africa. I mean to speak honestly, the way in which they first introduced Journey for Change overshadowed the positive cultural, educational, and political aspects of the program. It was almost as if they used Africa—since there was so little (i.e. none) conversation about how Africa is more than just South Africa and that it was a heterogeneous place (another form of Africansim with roots in the theme of orientalism)—as a tool to shock, awe, and inspire. I am sorry, but this is both amoral and wrong. As those over at The Retort noted, Compton-Rock spoke as if this trip was to act as a panacea of social and academic ills. I am sorry, it doesn’t work like that.
Before I continue, I must say that I appreciate programs like this and those who invest time into them, the organizers, family, and students themselves. However, I stand with my previous criticism of this program.
The second aspect of the first segment that stuck with me was the lack of parallel between the ages of the low income black students from Connecticut and New York and middle class blacks. This may seem like a minor point but I do not believe it is; in fact, I think it highlights both some of the assumptions and prejudiced thoughts about blacks in America. If you notice, the poor blacks were middle and high school aged individuals. The middle class blacks were college aged or above. Remember, we only saw low-income older adults as parents with medical, mental health, or financial issues. Even though I too appreciated the awareness of racial issues of this year’s cohort of middle class interviewees, I was troubled by this age divide.
I think that parallel would have been stronger if they would have went to Exeter, Andover, St. Paul, Deerfield, and the other prep, day, and boarding school in the Northeast to see the experience of same aged middle class blacks at these predominately white institutions. Or, to flip it the other way, found some low-income college black college students to parallel those middle class blacks that spoke of their experiences. Believe it or not, poor blacks (and minorities for that matter) make it to both the Ivy and non-Ivy halls as well. Instead of a smorgasbord of black people and education, CNN, NOT SOLEDAD O’BRIEN ALONE, missed an opportunity for a richer and deeper glimpse inside Black America.
We missed another opportunity to access what it means to be black in America. Though I have to admit this year was a step forward rather than backward (though I admit that would have been hard even for Black In America). I do not know if what I have presented here is more of me responding more to what was in the show or the way it was presented. I am happy if it is both.