Black In America 2, Part 1: The Good, The Bad and the Incredibly Boring

I can’t say that I loved it. I can’t say that I hated it. I believe I am solidly apathetic towards Soledad O’Brien’s latest installment for her “Black In America” series.

More after the jump.

Part of me wonders if I’m a cynic. I don’t think I am. I can be cynical, but I found myself struggling to care during some segments of the two hour show. It wasn’t that the stories weren’t touching. In some cases many were profound or very sad. I simply felt like I’d seen all this before. The segments felt safe, uneven and dull. Large swaths of substantial information was missing like statistics, the number of students attending one charter school and the size of its graduating class, a real examination of the complex relationship between wealthy blacks and the rest of black America. An explanation how an ambitious program by Malaak Compton Rock could demand no grades at first, then expect students to succeed by overseas osmosis without any follow-up, help, tutors, counselors or motivation. By cramming four complex stories together, none seemed to get told completely or well.

Granted, I wasn’t expecting a 60 Minutes quality profile (which they manage to do in 12 minutes most nights) out of CNN. But for some stories, particularly the one involving John Rice and his group gearing individuals towards MBAs, seemed to have little to actual do with being black and more about people who just happened to be black and didn’t want to be engineers anymore. In that particular story’s case, of a young, professional black woman who’d tired of her lucrative, but unfullfilling career as an engineer, I joked that they could have followed my ex-electrical engineer sister around who quit her “lucrative career” to become an accountant and volunteer in soup kitchens.

But the best segment, by far, was the one on the charter high school run by Principal Steve Perry. A dynamic and driven personality, he was exciting to watch in action as he nurtured, willed and bullied his school into success, but even it left me wanting. I wanted to hear from more students. I wanted follow up with kids who’d gone to college. I wanted to know how many kinds who’d gone to college actually finished. I wanted to know how test scores at the school compared to other private and magnet schools, as well as public schools in the state. I wanted to hear from people who both agreed and disagreed with Perry’s educational model. I wanted more statistics on the school’s class size.

I didn’t want to just feel good about Perry’s accomplishments of getting 100 percent of his seniors into college. I wanted to actually know how this school worked and why it worked better than the alternative. How did you get into the school? How did they pick their students? I needed more substance.

Which was how I felt about almost every segment. I needed to know more. Hence why I got so bored during the ones that felt slapped together, like the tale of the Tuxedo Ball and wealthy blacks. I learned nothing about their lifestyle, where they live, what they do, their involvement in the community, their adoption of aristocratic ways, their history. A little background on Free People of Color might have been nice. A history lesson. But there was a lot of tell, and very little show.

In the case of Compton-Rock taking the students to South Africa, I thought this was a good idea if it was solely meant to teach fellowship and voluntarism, but I thought it bizarre when she suddenly expected grades to magically improve. Grades were never the stated goal. It seemed odd to suddenly care when nothing was done to improve them. Unless O’Brien missed something, there was no mention of tutoring or counseling, something many of those students needed. There was no mention of assigning mentors or getting them into better schools, or promising college scholarships for good grades. There was a lot of emotion, but the desired end result seemed inconsistent with the actual work done.

Overall, I gave part one a C. I would have graded it higher if the John Rice segment had been either re-edited to include more stories or cut altogether, or if the “Our Kind of People” segment had more heft. I think it was an improvement over last year’s show, but something was missing and that missing ingredient was the difference between me being touched by the show and wanting to toss the whole thing out the window.

30 thoughts on “Black In America 2, Part 1: The Good, The Bad and the Incredibly Boring

  1. I enjoyed watching BIA 1 and 2. I think Soledad did a great job on both programs. I think some people are judging this program too harshly. But I do agree with you a little, Danielle, that maybe they could have went a little deeper in the story lines. Do you have any ties with people at CNN where you could give them your ideas on how to make the story lines go into more depth? I know it’s too late for BIA 2 but there may be a third installment or another program similar to this one. Maybe your buddies Jamal or Rolly Rolls can hook you up with Soledad! Or even better, maybe they can get you to host your own documentary on cnn about blacks in america! :)P.S. Did you ever find out from Jamal if TJ Holmes reads your blogs?

  2. I just stumbled across your site this week. Let me just say that you give an excellent summation of my feelings about the Black in America program last night. The same questions lingered in my head. I felt bad for taking only a mild interest in the subject matter. I applaud what Compton-Rock is doing but seems like I’ve seen this before. The charter school story was the most interesting segment but I too wanted to know how many kids actually earn a college degree. I couldn’t finish watching the elite blacks – it brought back too many memories that I’m not fond of. It’s on my DVR so maybe I’ll watch it. I’d love for this segment to change my mind about their society.

  3. I didn’t watch BIA because I was afraid that they would, once again, be speaking in generalities. If what you said in your post is true, how can anyone in their right mind praise a school and not include long-term achievements or compare it to the success of other schools. To me, that seems like basic journalism. I don’t think I missed anything. I definitely enjoyed the Washington Post series on Being a Black Man. If only they would do Being a Black Woman…then CNN could give it up. 60 minutes probably could have summed up black America in 30 minutes leaving the remaining 30 minutes for Andy Rooney to go on a tangent about milk prices.

  4. Malaak Compton Rock could demand no grades at first, then expect students to succeed by overseas osmosis without any follow-up, help, tutors, counselors or motivation.I didn’t understand that.I didn’t atch it from the very beginning about 15min/20min in, but why doesn’t Malaak’s program offer tutoring? Some college educated male role models for the boys – some carot and stick methods that will ensure the boys in particular will get their work done – some hardasses to make up for the fact that everyone in their regular lives expect them to fail.Kids make shitty choices, that’s why they’re adults — too many of the parents of Malaak’s kids seemed to miss the point and while it’s good to show them the world, their should be some education requirement with all this traveling.

  5. @ Alisha” maybe they can get you to host your own documentary on cnn about blacks in america! 🙂 ” why put a smile 🙂 if you are obviously saying something unpleasant. Whether snob can do a documentary or not, she has the right and the responsability to analyse BIA. This is for the good of everybody. This is why she has a blog.

  6. Your entire critique is on the money but we must also understand budgeting, staff, and any other allocation to this was not going to be maybe matched to the budgeting and staff as say Anderson Cooper’s pieces. I don’t expect Corporate America to save us and honor us and do right by us. I just liked it because it was a broad attempt to educate many Blacks about surface, superficial topical variety that they may not have had access to knowing about. I know my family does not because they don’t seek information. They are lazy and wait for it to be presented to them like in which Soledad offered. She helped my family a lot (if they were watching to learn that the world has been moving and leaving them behind). Also it educates Whites about us in the same topical, superficial way that is vastly generous because they are too sometimes to lazy to see the nuance eventhough they are very nosey (inquisitive) about keeping tabs on what we are doing wrong.I don’t and didn’t expect it to be a big budget piece produced by an established centralized government agency or deep-pocketed and old money funded project coming from a think tank. I didn’t expect it to be PBS worthy because you have to have a budget and a technical staff that budgeted that can address all those wants you wanted in a richer, in depth piece. It is what it is. And as for Malaak Compton-Rock, she is not a policy wonk. She was a privileged Black Girl that want grew into a Privileged Black Woman and married a richer man than her father. She wants to give back but she is not coming at do-gooding polished at this point because she does not have the experience of delivering it wonkish and professionally polished as some of her White counterpart charity projects are presented. From experience in creating a social innovative initiative, you need the manpower of experienced do-ers to make your endeavor top-notch and if they never come or you never make room for the funding for them to come (in your building out that type of rare talented non-profit staff), you can stay chronically stuck in the developmental stage of showmanship of the performance and metrics of your work. She needs funding and professional staff workers that have done what she is trying to do in a socially engineered way for Black kids. It’s been already done before. Her idea is not new. It’s just new for our target market and we (meaning Blacks on their asses) need to offer up some experience pro-bono to help her polish it up (instead of critiquing it because she lacks the polish). Believe me, she knows she is lacking but like most Black social innovators, they want to show they can produce instead of just talking and staying in the incubation process which most of us get trapped in (being misunderstood and called unprofessional) because we don’t have the help or the help we hire does not have the exact top-notch experience we need.

  7. I totally agree with you. I didn’t see last year’s segment, but I heard it was pure tomfoolery. This year I think was trying really hard to redeem itself. It was pretty good but there could have been a lot more depth and substance. A lot of questions were left unanswered. My only thing is I feel like it didn’t adequately explain enough about being black in America. I thought there would be more dialogue on race, progress and internal conflicts. Hopefully tonight is a good followup.

  8. One aspect that I think the special did not touch on enough is in regards to the segment which featured the wealthy Black Americans. When they showed the wall in the woman Buffy’s house, with generations of her family who were educated and wealthy, as well as when they showed the story about the young and rich black man and his family, they did not take into account the issue of color. After watching this segment, I realized that there is a correlation between wealth and light skin in the African American community. This goes back to the past when people who were lighter or looked white were given more opportunities to thrive in white society. If you notice, the young man (can’t remember his name) has a mother who almost looks white, and the woman Buffy has generations of educated and wealthy family members who are also very light. I don’t think CNN really delved into this aspect in the African American community and how color discrimination still goes on today. I am medium/light toned, but I still realize that to the dominant culture, the more you resemble what is considered the norm, the more safe you become. I think that those wealthy people should realize this and try to do more to reach out to people who they do not consider "one of their own" instead of keeping the cycle of light/wealthy priviledge in their circle only. Perhaps they are too afraid to give up what little actual power they really do have.

  9. I agree almost completely with you. The reporting was lacking a certain depth, both in terms of hard-hitting statistics and in terms of telling viewers why these people’s stories apply to a national discussion of being black in America. For instance, I wanted CNN to say why Malaak Compton-Rock’s program has national significance (is it like similar programs elsewhere, are other cities trying to do this, what have the results been elsewhere, what do experts say about the beneifits of similar programs, etc.). Otherwise, it was just a profile of one positive experience in Black America, out of millions that probably happen everyday.In general, I felt CNN needed to do a better job of explaining why everyone should be paying attention to these people’s stories (with the exception of Steve Perry, because his segment was excellent).

  10. I LOVE your blog. You seem to always capture exactly what I’m thinking. So, as usual, I totally agree with your opinions of BIA 2 LOL Specifically this:"…like the tale of the Tuxedo Ball and wealthy blacks. I learned nothing about their lifestyle, where they live, what they do, their involvement in the community, their adoption of aristocratic ways, their history. A little background on Free People of Color might have been nice. A history lesson. But there was a lot of tell, and very little show."While watching, I was thinking the exact same thing, which is why I also agree with what FutureLawyer posted.My background is in history, and I actually wrote my M.A. thesis on Creoles of Color of New Orleans. They missed a prime opportunity to discuss FPOC. A history lesson was definately needed!!

  11. @NOLA – I was born and raised in N.O. in a good ole creole family. I’d love to read your thesis. There are so many twists and turns in the light-skin vs. darker-skin blacks and the privileges that come along with skin color. Maybe they didn’t want to open that can of worms. But, it’d be a juicy can to open. As I said in an earlier post, I couldn’t watch the wealthy blacks segement. Furture Lawyer makes a good point about the wealthy blacks reaching out to people who they do not consider "one of their own." From my experience in dabbling in that world, they are a very closed society. I didn’t watch the entire segment but from the comments it doesn’t sound like there was much depth. I suppose this segement’s purpose was to show that there are blacks who have generational wealth.

  12. @BrandiI actually wrote a comment to you on the other post you commented on LOLI know they probably didn’t want to open that can of worms, but it seems so necessary. They whole BIA series just seems so watered down to me."I suppose this segement’s purpose was to show that there are blacks who have generational wealth."—-I agree with you, but again they miss prime opportunities to have deeper discussions. Like on the first one when Michael Eric Dyson made a comment basically saying he was treated better than his brother because he was light skinned. They didn’t even touch on that. Such a loaded statement to be ignored!I’m thrilled that you would like to read my thesis! From your comments, I think you would find it very interesting. It touches on racial self-identification, generational differences, the history of Creoles, all the while placing everything within a historical context.

  13. @ NOLAare their print or electronic copies that can be inter library loaned? or perhaps you can post it on google docs to share with us, I am very interested in free people of color

  14. @ Se*francophone* I was by no means saying anything unpleasant, hence the smiley face at the end of my sentence. If I meant to say something unpleasant I would have excluded the smiley face. If you read my post correctly you would see that I understood Danielle’s point about BIA making the story lines more complete. I was simply giving my opinion that I enjoyed BIA despite what others think about it.I think Danielle has good ideas that could benefit cnn considering how much people dislike BIA and other special programming (and I’m guessing this includes you.) Don’t assume you always know what someone means on these blogs b/c 9 times out 10 you’re wrong 🙂 *This time the smiley face is meant to be used for sarcasm*

  15. I believe the moral of this story is that you cannot sum up the Black In America experience in 4 2hour segments! Overall it begs the question of what is the PURPOSE of these pieces? What message are they trying to send and to whom? Going from the poor, under-educated children in Brooklyn, to the elite blacks of OKOP, and then to the middle income black female engineer in Atlanta, I guess goes to show that there is diversity in the black culture of America. But who didn’t already know this??? Certainly this show is not showing or telling me anything that I haven’t already seen or known, so I feel like this is just NOT FOR ME (and I’m black and living in America).So since this series is obviously not geared towards black folk (IMO), then what msg is is sending to OTHERS about being Black in America? Unfortunately one thing that I imagine that someone could take away from the story of the kids from Brookly: Sure they can be nice young men when in the right environment, and they’re all not gangbangers (yet), and they all ready do love Basketball (confirmed), and it’s probably their only wait out of the hood since..they’re obviously not very bright! obviously most of them can’t even get a C if they tried! UNLESSthey have great mentors and motivators like that nice principal in CT…which obviously MOST do not have in the public school systems…nor in their homes (note the alcoholic dad and the crack head mom) So we’re back to a MAJORITY of lost, unteachable young black males who, unless they become ballers or rappers, will end up dead, in jail or lost in the system. That’s why I believe that showing just a little, without showing ENOUGH, can be more dangerous than helpful!

  16. @Brandi and everyone else who is interested:Here is the link to my M.A. thesis on Creoles of Color in New Orleans:,A,1;viewer,A,1;title,A,0;creato,200,0;none,A,0;20;title,none,none,none,none&CISOBIB=viewer,A,1,N;title,A,0,N;creato,200,0,N;none,A,0,N;none,A,0,N;20;title,none,none,none,none&CISOTHUMB=20%20(4×5);title,none,none,none,none&CISOTITLE=20;title,none,none,none,none&CISOHIERA=20;creato,title,none,none,none&CISOSUPPRESS=1&CISOTYPE=link&CISOOP1=exact&CISOFIELD1=title&CISOBOX1=&CISOOP2=exact&CISOFIELD2=creato&CISOBOX2=dugar&CISOOP3=exact&CISOFIELD3=subjec&CISOBOX3=&CISOOP4=exact&CISOFIELD4=CISOSEARCHALL&CISOBOX4=&c=exact&CISOROOT=%2FNOD

  17. Regarding the intra-racial skin tone issue that folks seem to think has not been addressed: this was in fact addressed in BiA1. It was couched in the story of Michael Eric Dyson and his brother, one clearly fairer skinned and finer-featured than the other. One remains in jail, and one is a respected academe and author. The theory was presented, but I will not say that it was addressed with any level of deep introspection. @BooBooKitty really nailed it upthread when mentioning that these sorts of topics can only be explored properly with a budget and mindset like PBS, rather than CNN. People forget that CNN programming (and arguably that of any 24-hour news channel) simply is not geared to people who want to look at an in-depth study of anything. They want to move on to the next story. Quickly. So a story has to be chopped up into non-complex bits, so that said story, and others like it, can be cycled many times per hour ad nauseam until the next tidbit comes along.

  18. this is so on-the-money! you summed up almost every feeling i had about it… great post, once again!

  19. I won’t be upset to see specials like BIA disappear once there’s no longer a black potus (or serious p.candidate) to ponder indirectly via soundbite-y examinations of the black poplus.WhereTF was all this interest prior to 08 and how fast will it disappear after Obama leaves office?

  20. Hi there!I have to say that it was a COMPLETE waste of time… what did they present that blacks don’t already know??If Soledad is trying to create a Black People 101 seminar for white viewers then she is doing a mediocre job. If she is attempting to show her investigative reporting skills, she ought to consider being a full-time stay at home mom instead…Seriously.I agree with you that Malaak’s expectations were so unrealistic… she was disappointed that the two boys who were getting Ds and Fs were not focused on being A students after the South Africa trip? Jeremy got off the plane grinning at the camera and saying "my journey for change is OVER"!The segment on the black upper class was a bore… The Tuxedo Ball is nothing new or spectacular among the black elite… it’s just an event that is done because it’s necessary to continue the dynasty. I didn’t expect Soledad to discuss the relationship between the black upper class and blacks in other class tiers – there isn’t one and there never WILL be one… {yawn}I’m just not impressed by Soledad but I could see that she was trying to take a different angle this time…

  21. @ Alisha”Maybe your buddies Jamal or Rolly Rolls can hook you up with Soledad! ”I’m sorry if i was wrong. It is sentences like the one above that made me feel like is was more of a sarcasm. From what i know Snob and Rolly Rolls are not buddies. Their exchanges on this blog were not what i’ll call buddy exchanges even though it was quiet funny. Peace

  22. @ Se*francophone*Apology accepted.I know Danielle and Rolly Rolls have had some disagreements, but I don’t think they are mortal enemies. And she did state how she was friendly with Jamal. So even though I meant for the statement to be humorous, I wasn’t meaning for it to be sarcastic.On another note, how many of you will tune into "Latin in America"? I wonder if the opinions of dislike will be the same considering it will be from another racial point of view.

  23. Maybe I missed it but where was there a segment on Blacks who are not African Americans living in America. I’m Haitian so I am always aware of the differences between us. Not extreme but they do exist. Perhaps this was mentioned in the previous installment, but what about religion. Not just putting T.D. Jakes , Eddie Long or whomever your favorite TBN preacher may be to talk about the role of the church in the Black community . but talk about race and racism in church and how many Blacks who don’t have strong religious views., view the role of (historically) Christianity for good or bad in Black America. Also I was able to view the screening of BIA 2 in Hartford and was also able to view a discussion moderated by Dr. Perry and it was pretty interesting.

  24. ummm, i think this blog is a tad on the cynical side….i would give it a B. But I do share some of the concerns that the stories needed a little more context, and like others said, much more on the tuxedo ball. How did they get so wealthy, how many of them worked hard to get there, and how many were handed their wealth, how do they relate to the poorer communities etc…but really, i think all the criticism comes down to simply, the black community is too dense to represent in 8 hours, and they did the best they could with their limits!! I for example was not represented at all, black people who are first generations, or immigrants (I came here from nigeria when I was 8), I am still black in America!but why should we come down hard on CNN, when BET does a very good job at misrepresenting us EVERYDAY and making us all look like fools!!!!

  25. I appreciate this effort by Soledad. However, as with series #1, I am left extremely disappointed. I wish this series would go deeper into the trenches to explain the historical FACTS and behaviors that have influenced our current plight. When we mention the dropout rates and the fact that black students are several grades behind whites- explain the deeper "whys". The crack head mom and the alcoholic father are definitely a problem. But also show the ocean-sized gap in the quality of schools in white neighborhoods and black neighborhoods. Exposure to different things and the overwhelming amount of "second" and "third" chances that white kids get when they mess up as opposed to the "guilty before you even start" reality that black kids live in play a bigger role in what we see today. Otherwise, we can talk to the white crack head mom and white alcoholic dad and get the same story that was just told on CNN. Let’s talk about the effects on a person’s psyche when the only story they learn in school is someone else’s story. Maybe part of the problem is that black students are disconnected because, no matter what class (even math and sciences) you attend, the images and influences are not going to be a reflection of us. Maybe it’s because we have to learn about the “Diary of Anne Frank” as opposed to Henrietta Jacobs (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl), who survived years living in a cramped slave shack attic, watching her children grow up through a hole in the floor all to escape the slave master’s aggressive sexual advances. Maybe there is a disconnect because, as we are told that we are prone to violence and destruction, we are not told about what happened to people like Nat Turner. He was a brave and intelligent slave revolter who was hung, skinned, dismembered and dispersed to white onlookers for souvenirs. Someone made a purse. Another made an ashtray. Some made jewelry. We are not told about Sara Baartman, a young South African woman brought to London in 1810. She was put on display nude to show off her ample bottom and ample breasts. After five years in London she died of disease and loneliness. For 150 years her brain, vagina and body were on display until 1974. Her body was returned to South Africa in 2002 for a proper burial. For hundreds of years black women have been influenced to feel inferior about big lips, big behinds and big breasts. Now it’s okay because white women can finally get a surgeon to build them. Not being aware of these things allows someone else, much less qualified, to assume a moral authority over us. These stories of what we have endured and what we have accomplished are empowering. This is what our kids should be learning. Yet, in this show issues like that went ignored. So, are black kids behind because we have sorry parents or because we’re slow learners or because we have smaller brains or because we’re better suited for sports or should the system take a huge responsibilty for it’s institutionalized neglect? When it was reported that seeing a healthy marriage in black families was not common, there was a failure to mention where that idea came from and the social and historical factors that play a role. How can you mention problems in black relationships without talking about the history of white people forcing black men to, not only watch their women be raped and treated like a piece of meat, but to also father babies by many different women for profit and labor. When we don’t talk about that, we may as well just say that we have all these problems because of us just being us. How can we talk about black prisoners without talking about the GROSS imbalance of equal and fair justice for minorities? How can we not address a system that is DESIGNED to be a revolving door? How can we ignore the shocking facts and statistics of the most racist tool in America- the justice system? HOW? How can you do a show about being black in America and not go to the countless little towns called Jena where racism goes almost completely unchecked. To tell the story of being black in America you need to visit some local bars where people have had a few to drink and are willing to tell you why their company has 100 employees and only 3 are black. Go to those places in America where, in 2009, black people can’t even visit or live. If I did not know my own history and the social injustices that plague us, I would walk away from this show feeling like it was more of a self- help series for a group of people who have problems BECAUSE they are black and that it has little to do with century long patterns of racism that are still practiced today. Yes, we have our own responsibilities and short- comings and places where we dropped the ball. But this series seemed like it said that being black in America has nothing to do with white America. It does. Or else it should have been called "PEOPLE Who Beat the Odds and Other Bootstrap Stories". History has been erased from these stories and the blood dripping from the fingers pointing at us is suspiciously being ignored. I think this series was a great idea. I’m just not sure Soledad is the one for the job. I really like her and truly believe her intentions and motivations are with great sincerity, but it seems like she doesn’t want to get her hands dirty. Let’s try this again with some real, raw, gutteral truth. Let’s say those things that we talk about when we get home and shed our controlled and dishonest political correctness. Ask white women and black women how they REALLY feel about each other. Ask black people how they REALLY feel about Columbus and other white “heroes” that have been shoved down our throats. Talk to African- Americans about the bitter resentment many of us have because we have to simultaneously live dual lives because who we are as individuals and a race doesn’t “fit” into our work environment. If we’ve changed so much, why don’t we see just as many white people as blacks show up for protests against blatant police brutality , discrimnation and racism. Wanna know some real truth? Talk to minorities who work in white homes as nannies and house keepers. Let’s tear this sore wide-open and deal with the real issues of being black in America. Many of us want to heal. Many of us want to live as ONE cohesive human race the way I believe it was intended. But I assure you, we will not begin to truly heal if the requirement is for black people to forget and ignore the injustices and disparities that continue till this day. It won’t happen if we have to continue to strip ourselves of “us” to have this dialogue. All who are truly interested in healing America’s racial past and present MUST KNOW that there will be sweat and tears and anger and confusion. There will be inner conflicts and outer conflicts. Relationships will be severed and relationships will be born. There will be HONEST reconciliation. There is no easy way to do this especially if African- Americans demand to not be reduced to insignificance. I demand to be recognized and acknowledged for who I am and the phenomenal history I was born from with all of its heroines and supermen. Why should they be invisible? They carried me here. We are too intelligent to accept the surface and superficial way in which we have become accustomed to dealing with the race issue. Meet me in the alley where myth ends and truth begins and don’t forget your hankies and your voice because I won’t be biting my tongue. These are the ramblings of one who sees incredible hope and potential for what we could really get accomplished if we eliminated the divisions that have separated us for too long. I leave as I came- in peace. macemore

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