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January 09, 2006

Black Sunshine

When I was a kid there were about 12 black people on television. Among them were Ivan Dixon from Hogan's Heroes and Dihanne Carroll from Julia and the dude on Mission Impossible. I think Mannix had a black buddy too, and there was always Bill Cosby doing his I Spy thing with Robert Culp. But among those dozen characters (and nobody had more than one acting job) was hardly a scratch beneath the surface of the real black America. Naturally, we wanted more. And that complaint has grown into a predictable and multigenerational chorus. Positive Images! Right about now, that job is pretty much done, or at least it is to my satisfaction. But I'm not sure that the chorus is ready for the consequences.

What happens when black cultural production succeeds? Last night's episode of the Boondocks is probably a good example. In case you hadn't seen it, Riley Freeman cuts a videotape and sends it to Xibit and that construction guy with the bad haircut. They win and their ride gets pimped and their house gets one half of an Extreme Makeover. This episode, taken with the sum of the others illustrates the failings of the Freeman clan. Huey's radical leftist paranoia, Riley's vulgar gangsterism and Grandpa's shallow materialism. The episode was funny and entertaining, it contains just the right amount of truth about blackfolks to show the writer's grasp on reality is firm, not phony. But what about the positive images?

It is said that sunshine is the best disinfectant. Airing dirty laundry, therefore should be a good thing. But should blackfolks be embarrassed about it? That all depends on how close to home it hits. I don't live in the 'hood any longer. It has been about 7 years since I was even close, and those two years were exceptional. So it doesn't hit home for me, nor does it bring up painful memories. I've got some critical distance. But would it be embarrassing because it's true? I think that the answer is yes, and that's what successful black cultural production does.

Let's talk about the O word. Oppression. Why is oppression bad, Virginia? It's bad because it limits people, smashes down their future, crushes their ambition. Oppressed people are dirty and unhappy. They are not happy darkies, they are beat down. So to the extent that there is real, honest intelligent black cultural production out there, then we will percieve the truth about what oppression does to blackfolks. That is to say if blackfolks are truly oppressed. And Huey, Riley and Grandad talk about niggas and bitches because they are close to the hood in spirit. Niggas and bitches aren't a figment of Hollywood's imagination. They're real blackfolks, dirty and unhappy. But they are dirty and unhappy in a uniquely funny and accurate parody, which is the genius of McGruder, when he's not too far off the deep end. The Boondocks did that right last night, they aired some dirt.

When it's all said and done, blackfolks are going to have to look back on the Boondocks and say, yeah that was me, a little. Or maybe a lot. It depends. So here's where it gets deep. What if a white person calls bitches bitches or niggas niggas? Well that's because we do, and if the point of black cultural production is being truthful, than the truth is going to go out to everyone who pays attention.

Now us snobs over here aren't oppressed. When we keep it real, it's not about niggas and bitches. We don't read the booty books and we don't care about what R. Kelly is singing about, nor whose leg Marcus Vick is stepping on. We may suck our teeth because Obie Trice got shot, but we can't name his songs, because it's not about us. It's about niggas and bitches, and we don't really associate. African America is way too big for all of it to fit on the TV tube, no matter how wide the screen is. And as black cultural production advances more of us get included, warts and all. At some point it won't be necessary to call it black, because it will achieve the transcendent and speak to all people. In the meantime, so long as blackfolks are actually oppressed and suffer for it, the truth will be ugly.

Can you handle the truth?

Posted by mbowen at January 9, 2006 09:43 AM

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I am new to your blog (which is a little sad, as your writing is excellent)... I am 38, my dad is from Poland, my mom's grandparents were from Eastern Europe. That makes me clear, er, peach, er, white. Also, I'm Jewish, so I appreciate anyone who speaks on the subject of oppression. I firmly agree with your statement that African America is way too big for all of it to fit on TV. I can empathize, as Jews are, for the most part, portrayed pretty thinly on TV. Sure there are exceptions for all cultures. Like Raven and her TV family. My daughter loves that show and so I have seen several seasons and I never see anything that strikes me as having to do with skin color. The scripts might as well feature a Chinese family or a Samoan family (can the Samoans get a little TV love for once?). In fact, I'd like to see a similar show featuring a Jewish family, and I mean a real one, stereotypes and non-stereotypes mixed together. Now what's funny about my text here is that I can't put down the TV pipe Your prose seemed to suggest that maybe the TV isn't the best way to go, and if that is what you meant, I concur. I mean, what about the books we read? Unless they are historical, the books I read create translucent (non-color specific) characters in my head. Will the written word (books, internet, whatever) free us from the need for oppression? Yes, I said "need", as it isn't anything less, because otherwise it wouldn't have existed this long. Pet Rock? That was a "want". But oppression, like racism, like defamation, is a need. My suggestion is that we abandon all sports, for every age, and focus on teaching non-competitiveness. A dramatic step, but one that might actually put a dent into all the ugliness that humanity needs to produce.

anyway, I'm just a guy standin' here, reading your blog. I hope the day treats you well and that you keep writing.

oh, and as a Jew, I have to ask you this: Should I feel guilty because I love "Boondocks"? :¬)

Posted by: Stu Mark at January 9, 2006 01:18 PM

So I take it you saw the preview for next week's episode? MLK Jr. waking from a coma into modern day. I don't even know what to expect.

Posted by: matt at January 9, 2006 01:34 PM

the dude on Mission Impossible

Greg Morris as Barney Collier.

I think Mannix had a black buddy too

Gail Fisher as Peggy Fair.

Posted by: D.C. Thornton at January 9, 2006 02:32 PM

01 09 06

Interesting article Cobb. Wow you hit so many points of interest that I could write a book. But I will keep it short. I believe in discretion. Airing dirty laundry should happen at a community level before it is nationally aired. I think many people gravitate towards mess and that is why Jerry Springer got so popular and that is why there is such a skewed exhibition of Blacks in the MSM. But you are also correct in that if there weren't elements of truth to those depictions, we wouldn't take them to heart as much. I am saddened that such depictions are reality for some Black folks, really anyone but I wish Hollywood didn't try to profit off of our community pathologies either. Good post Cobb.

Posted by: mahndisa at January 9, 2006 02:44 PM

Remember HotGhettoMess.com? It doesn't bother me. Why, because there's TheHistoryMakers.com. You've got to pick your people.

If Atlanta is the black mecca it's because blackfolks in Atlanta are so well adjusted to class distinctions.

I'll get back to you Stu.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 9, 2006 04:09 PM

I think many people gravitate towards mess and that is why Jerry Springer got so popular and that is why there is such a skewed exhibition of Blacks in the MSM."

If what's being aired regarding black America today is dirty laundry, the media is a laundromat.

Posted by: MichaelEmanuel at January 9, 2006 04:41 PM