Never has the black American story — my story — been told in a thorough, candid way. Only the surface has been scratched, and no real effort has been made to delve deeper into the struggles and triumphs that characterize the distinct black American experience.
History lessons in elementary schools and high schools explore the history of black Americans — much like other groups of color — only minimally. It’s often taught that many black Americans in this country were enslaved throughout the American South, but they were suddenly set free by the 13th Amendment’s abolition of slavery in 1865. Schoolchildren are then taught that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s helped blacks and whites finally live in harmony, aided mostly by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington and his notorious speech on racial harmony, “I Have A Dream.” The end.
All that information is accurate. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. The black American experience hasn’t been explored in a forum that addresses issues that mark our unique experience. CNN journalist Soledad O’Brien tried opening such a forum with her special, “Black in America,” the first part of which aired in July 2008. A second part aired this July. Though I don’t think the specials were the best way to open up dialogue about the black American experience because it lacked an interactive element, I do believe O’Brien accurately spotlighted black Americans’ efforts to rebuild our community and redefine to the world who we truly are as a people.
Within my circle of family and friends, there has been much debate and speculation as to the intended audience of the special and the purpose it was supposed to serve. Some of them said the purpose was to give white Americans a lesson on who black Americans are and what our experience has entailed.
Others, like me, didn’t feel that “Black in America” was intended for one specific race. I suspected that the special’s intended purpose was to be an outlet for black Americans to tell their story, history and experiences to whoever would listen, regardless of racial background. It gave black Americans the opportunity to speak — and to do so without a voice from outside the black community speaking for them. The purpose of “Black in America” was to re-introduce ourselves to each other and the entire world as black Americans, telling our complete story and the challenges we face — along with showing the faces that combat those challenges.
The question is: Did CNN achieve this goal?
Undoubtedly, O’Brien showed faces of black Americans who are pioneers and experts in their respective fields, including film, education, psychology and medicine. Though the impact of the black professionals featured in the special and others who have made a career out of restructuring the black community can’t be quantified, it was Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children Zone that was most striking. His commitment to furthering the development of the black youth in Harlem physically, intellectually and socially was indeed inspiring. This was just one example of how O’Brien’s documentary highlighted the struggles black Americans undergo and the efforts that they face.
Though I am a fan of O’Brien’s, I agree with those in the black community who have said that she only scratched the surface of the black experience in this country. It’s true that O’Brien depicted the challenges that haunt black America — like the achievement gap, economic distress, the threat of immobility in corporate America and healthcare — in her four-hour, two-part segments in this year’s “Black in America 2.” But that doesn’t equate to an in-depth conversation of institutionalized and structuralized racism on a wider scale.
I am now left to wonder: Did O’Brien not feature an in-depth conversation about racism in her CNN Special because she knows this country isn’t ready to have an honest conversation on race? If so, when is the country ever going to be ready to have that conversation? Or maybe the better question is this: Is our country ever going to be ready? My hope is that this country will come to a time when a discussion — no matter how uncomfortable it may be — will be had. Because only once we have an honest conversation on race and its effects on whites and people of color alike will this country be able to progressively mobilize from systematic insensitivity.
Brittany Smith is an LSA sophomore.