There is talk in the entertainment world that CNN is planning an all-black news panel featuring friend-in-my-head April Ryan, along with former Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum and political commentators Angela Rye and Bakari Sellers.
The idea for this news crew — #SquadCNN, as they’re known on Instagram — came late last month, shortly after the foursome recapped the presidential debates on CNN’s morning new show, New Day with Alisyn Camerota and John Berman. They complemented one another and their on-air chemistry worked. I don’t doubt that the yet-to-be named show, if it makes it to air, would be a good look for the network’s newsy lineup.
Still, I fear these commentators’ big picture ideas may be for naught. I would tune in, and I’m sure other like-minded people would, too. But those who can’t comprehend how mass incarceration has had a deadly effect on black families, or who have never heard of colorism — let alone the one-drop rule — or who have no idea that a kitchen is more than a place where food is prepared, and so on and so on, will never tune in.
The truth, however, is that black people understand the nuances of white lives the same way we know that George Washington was the first president. The reverse is not true. And it’s not because our stories haven’t been told. They have been covered in the black press — from Ebony to BET — for the better part of the last century. My colleagues of color at mainstream outlets work really hard to keep diversity front and center despite dwindling resources.
And let me be clear: This column is not a jab at the souls of white folk.
Yet some treat old news like new news, and cringe in defiant disbelief when confronted with facts that don’t fit into their worldview. I’m thinking specifically about recent visitors to the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana who were appalled that a tour of the grounds included a history lesson with stories of slaves being mistreated.
And on their vacations, to boot.
People have a tendency to turn away from the perspective of people of color because those truths don’t exist in the tapestry of their American fabric. That is one uncomfortable blanket.
Unless, of course, that perspective is couched in fiction. Take Black Panther, which made more than a billion dollars at the box office: It was easy for some to distance themselves from the radical ideas of black power at the movie’s core because it’s fantasy. Contrast that with the people who felt some kind of way watching Jemele Hill and Michael Smith tackle issues of race and politics on SportsCenter.
“This particular form of truth telling of nonwhite people getting to shape what we talk about and how we view history is the last bastion of color-blind racism,” said Rory Kramer, an associate professor of sociology and criminology at Villanova University whose expertise is racial segregation. “And in many ways it is the most frightening because it is what really, actually breaks through the myth as it challenges assumptions of the world and forces people to deal with [their role in] racial inequality."
My apprehension doesn’t mean that I think CNN shouldn’t produce the show. That would make me sound like the parent of an early 1960s freedom fighter who forbade her child to participate in the sit-ins at Woolworth’s counters because they could be killed. These sit-ins ultimately changed the world. And perhaps in its own way, this show could, too.
But we can’t just be relegated to a “black news hour." Diverse perspectives have to be represented all day, in all forms of reporting and commentary, so the story of people of color in America isn’t told separately.
The more information we share, the more opportunity we have to meet on common ground. But these facts can’t be color-blind; they have to be steeped in truth. There have been some great examples of that happening recently, from a historical perspective.
Earlier this year PBS aired a phenomenal special, Reconstruction: America after the Civil War. In it, scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. compared and contrasted the era we are living to the years after the Civil War, when people of color made political gains that were subsequently taken away by white Southerners who were ultimately fearful of true equality. Last week, PBS aired another special, Family Pictures USA, that tells the stories of three communities in North Carolina, Michigan and Florida through the black and white families who lived there. These documentaries didn’t separate the black experience from the overall story and did not portray black people as victims, but as active participants in history.
As a way to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first African slaves arriving in America on Aug. 20, 1619, the New York Times on Sunday published the 1619 Project, an ambitious piece of journalism, spearheaded by investigative journalist and MacArthur fellow Nikole Hannah-Jones, that seeks to reframe how we think about slavery and how it shaped America. The articles are chilling as they point out ugly truths of slavery black people know and live with today and many white people chose to bury under the rug. Conservatives, including Rush Limbaugh, lambasted the 1619 Project, saying slavery should be “put in context.”
Sweetie, America would not be America without slave labor. That is the context.
I know it will be a minute before CNN debuts its new news show, if it does it at all. I only ask that it’s not pigeonholed as “the black news show," but is one that demonstrates how all our lives are intertwined.