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Social Studies

Black TV

Emily Flake

By Vincent Williams | Posted 12/24/2008

On Dec. 18, The NAACP released a 40-plus-pages report condemning the ongoing lack of diversity in entertainment media, specifically in television, and how, as an organization, it's threatened to take political action if some changes aren't made. I figured that's right up my alley, and, post-election, I'm still pretty gung-ho about Change, and I'm all Yes, We Can, so I go to the ol' NAACP web page to read the whole thing. Juxtaposed on the page next to the report admonishing the lack of black images in media is an ad for the 40th NAACP Image Awards, hosted by Halle Berry and "critically acclaimed screenwriter/actor Tyler Perry." And right there is every single thing I disagree with about the manner in which black people have addressed the issue of black representation in the media. "Critically acclaimed?" Really? Look, I'm just going to go ahead and say it: I would rather there be no representation of black people at all than the type of representation that, unfortunately, I think a lot, if not most, of my people are going to get behind.

I swear, I'm not going to go on a Tyler Perry rant, but subjective opinion about the aesthetic quality of his output aside, I have fundamental differences with him. By my reading, he promotes a philosophy of anti-intellectualism, anti-modernity, and anti-urbanity that goes against my very nature. In the Tyler Perry Universe, formal education, looking forward, and urban existence are frowned upon. In project after project, the central crisis usually involves some combination of educated, bourgeoisie, citified folks who have, "forgotten where they come from" and are, thus, capital-E Evil. Well, I disagree with that. I'm the cat with a couple of college degrees trying to bang out the third one, sipping on a nonfat latte with three shots of espresso, downtown in the park with my laptop, trying to find a free wireless signal so I can download some academic articles off of the university database and work on my dissertation. I am, demographically, a Tyler Perry villain. But I'm real black and real centered and real Good, thank you very much. Even if you take Madea off the table, I find him intrinsically problematic.

But I'm the only one. Tyler Perry should host the NAACP Image Awards because he is one of the most important and influential black men in America, and he's so important and influential because black people love him. And, when the NAACP talks about images of blackness in the media, Perry is one of the prime modern examples they want to point out as what should be happening. I guarantee you House of Payne is going to win more than a couple of Image Awards that night. Look, I know I'm on the wrong side of this issue. As I get older, the black community gets together to deal with something and I keep looking up and finding I'm sitting between Shelby Steele and Stanley Crouch and, jeez, I spent my twenties fighting against those guys over hip-hop.

God knows I would love some good black television more than most, because the pickings are real slim. On the nonfiction side of things, I am still continually surprised at how much I enjoy BET's American Gangster and, boy, who ever thought one day I'd put the words "enjoy" and "BET" in the same sentence. Likewise, that Unsung series of documentaries about lesser-known black artists, such as the Clark Sisters and Phyllis Hyman, was fan-friggin'-tastic. I'm not one for hyperbole, but that Debarge episode was one of The Greatest Things Ever Filmed By Humans. So, I'd certainly get behind that turning into a series. Scripted show-wise, Everybody Hates Chris is still a must-see in my house, but anyone who went through the Roc years can tell the CW is slowly phasing Chris Rock's show out. But that's the only show with a predominantly black cast I watch. I don't have a beef with The Game, it just isn't that interesting. I don't do reality TV and, it goes without saying that I find House of Payne unwatchable in its badness--and this comes from someone who has sat through Amen marathons.

So, in theory, I agree with the NAACP. There should be more good black programming. There continues to be a real dearth of black participation in media, both behind and in front of the camera. And there should be political outrage and protest over the situation. But judging by the type of programming that the majority of my people deem "good," I think I'm going to have to sit this one out.

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