For Colored Persons Who Have Considered Suicide When Being “Black In America” Is Enough: An Uppity Negro Response to CNN’s Black In America III

I know that’s a long title and certainly hyperbolic, but I think it addresses the gutted and eviscerated feeling that I experienced watching CNN’s Soledad O’Brien “Almighty Debt” a Black In America special.  Granted I went into this third installment of the Black In America series with some serious preconceived notions.  Rightly so I believe. The first installment in summer of 2008 told us just how bad and awful it was to be black, and the second installment in 2009 focused on the middle class to upper middle class blacks, the “our kind of people” who were so far removed from reality, one could have labeled them ontologically white.

God knows what we suffered through tonight.

I felt a bit more at ease commenting on this latest installment “Almighty Debt” because of the route CNN decided to do with the intersection of religion and culture.  Initially my thoughts, with my seminary background, prepared me for an onslaught of yet more one-dimensional journalism.  Choosing a megachurch as the pool from which pull journalistic subjects to explore this concept of debt, finances and how blacks in America were handling the recession, in my opinion was lazy.  I say this because the average church size in America is less than 200 members on the roll.  So while reality states that average church goers are used to attending smaller churches, the face of the black church is purported to be one of a megachurch.  Perhaps this was to justify the presence of Bishop T.D. Jakes later on in the program.

So, this program already has strike number one for me because I’m already seeing how this is going to be skewed away from portraying an average life of blacks in America.  Yes, perhaps average for megachurch congregants, but admittedly, that’s a smaller subset than what was portrayed.

Tonight’s focus had three major story lines.  The first was a 17 year old burgeoning actor named Fred, graduating from high school and entering college and the debt he would be saddled with when it came to student loans.  The second was a married couple with their children who were facing a serious threat of foreclosure, and the third man named Carl who had been employed for 25 years and due to the recession had lost his job.  What ensued was typical documentary film style that weaved the stories together as all of these persons were members of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in New Jersey under the pastorate of William Soaries.

Fred Phillips and Pastor Williams Soaries from CNN's "Almighty Debt" Black In America special

We saw Fred, an ambitious young black male trying to get into college and applying for scholarships from ACT-SO Awards, and not getting money.  Still getting accepted to college, he was forced to get student loans amounting to $16,000 for just one school year.  However, he had some issues with his grades and we would see, essentially, that the pastor made some phone calls on this young brother’s behalf.  I have no issue with that; that’s what the community is for!

However, I began to have some issues with the images painted of the other two stories.

This couple who was facing foreclosure lived an apparently comfortable lifestyle.  The had a mini-mansion that was clearly in some cul-de-saced enclave, in the suburbs.  They had a BMW truck in the driveway, and the inside was marvelously decorated, and all of this that seemed to allow them to have the American dream.

Then they lost their jobs and couldn’t cover the mortgage.

So now they’re faced with this theological dillemma: is God causing this to happen or is God allowing this to happen?  This line of logic is based on the fundamental principle of God’s sovereignty however.  So in the interest of not losing all of my witnesses by questioning that fundamental principle, I think it does speak to just how do black Christians appropriately respond to this American capitalistic dream.  No doubt it’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep in order to believe it.

As I watched with my friends and what numerous people on Twitter were tweeting, it became apparent that this family needed to just downsize.  Trade the BMW in for a Toyota Camry.  Get a four bedroom bungalow in the city or closer in.  Park the car on the street, a garage isn’t necessary.  Stop paying dues at the country club and go jogging around the neighborhood for exercise; you need to play tennis with Buffy and Jack twice a week.

Because of the intricately weaved connection between Americanity (the religion of American culture) and religion (the theological brand) itself, this family seemed to be unable to divorce itself from the mere idea that perhaps the trappings of success were not an appropriate lifestyle choice.  It seems to be very easy for us as Americans, black, white , Asian and Latino alike, to associate God’s blessing with material abundance.  That because I drive the BMW, I have the four bedroom mini-mansion with 3,500 sq. ft., and I live in Lithonia, Ga, that God has ordained this because I possess it.  This mindset allows preachers to implant the bad theological seed that “Favor aint fair” in the minds of the listeners.  We believed “favor aint fair” when back in 2005 people were qualifying for houses and credit cards without earning enough money — no, sorry to burst your bubble, that was unfair lending practices and actually illegal.

This idea that God was intimately involved in the lives of these people was no more apparent in the man named Carl who lost his job after 25 years of work.  He was clearly dealing with some form of depression when he uttered that he didn’t feel like a man because his wife, as an administrative assistant, was supporting the household.  Carl was shown numerous times seated at his kitchen table reading the Bible and crying and praying.  (Seriously, I was expecting a little tongue to come forth.)  He appeared to be the most churchy of them all, or rather the most fundamental in his beliefs.  He even asked for persons to stand and hold hands for prayer in a veritable job interview that the pastor set up for him with other potential employers from the church.

The last 30 minutes Pastor Soaries and T.D. Jakes were interviewed in front of a live studio audience.  I’ll come back to T.D. Jakes later.

As I was driving home, I realized what I really having problems with and it was that primarily this was not a Black in America special, but rather just an In America special.  The three main stories were not stories that were unique to the African American experience in this country.  Certainly having Dr. Julianne Malveaux speak about jobless statistics, and education statistics does create a matrix out of which these stories were birthed.  But CNN could have went to a Lutheran church in Des Moines, Iowa and easily have found carbon copies of the persons for tonight’s story.

I think had they highlighted this story based out of some churches with a membership around 200, it would have given a different feel to it.  Let’s be clear, the persons in the three stories all benefited because they were members at a mega church that had the resources to help them.  At a smaller church, the pastor wouldn’t have been able to assure Fred a spot at a university; the pastor wouldn’t have been able to go to bat for the couple about to lose their home; and the number of business connects that Carl would meet possibly landing him a job wouldn’t have occurred. This is not to say that that would have been a uniquely black in America experience, but it would have done better than the racially neutral roles that seemed to be portrayed.

Secondarily, but equally as important this unhealthy tie that we, as African American’s, have to middleclassism.  I’m certainly not saying that one shouldn’t have nice things if they can afford it, but as this special showed and financial analysts and planners alike have said, just because you can afford it doesn’t mean you can afford it.  People in the suburbs are living pay check to pay check just like those in the inner city, the difference is just that it’s a bigger pay check.

Thirdly, I don’t appreciate T.D. Jakes being the go-to person on issues such as this.  I certainly think that Dr. Jonathan Walton now of Harvard Divinity School proved himself on how he handled the Eddie Long scandal when it initially made headlines.  This is not saying that what T.D. Jakes had to say was invalid or that he’s not qualified to say what he said, but as a pastor, there are something that I think Jakes would be restricted from saying.  Not to mention Jakes is such a monumentously public figure, what he says makes it law.  Having a professional ethicist such as Walton, who’s wheelhouse is religion and culture, I think he would have been able to shed some light on that elephant in the room of what does American culture say about my material abundance and what does my Christianity have to say about my accumulation of said things, and ultimately what does it mean if I don’t have them anymore.

What I didn’t hear, not unless it was amidst crosstalk between me and my friends, was the pastor dealing with that issue of equating God’s blessings with material abundance.  Which logically would mean, if I have to give it up, does that mean my relationship with God is in jeopardy or that God doesn’t love me anymore?   Although Jakes did say that tithing does not automatically mean that you get something back from God, but using jacked up analogies about “tipping the waiter 15% and not being able to give God 10%” is mind control in my honest opinion.  Flat out, God doesn’t need your money, but the church does.  But, the pastor had to say that because that’s his bread and butter–clearly the pastor has a job.

I know I haven’t had much positive to say about this documentary, but frankly I wasn’t impressed by it.  From the cheesy intro’s to the God-awful soundtrack it just wasn’t dynamic.  Whereas the first Black In America in 2008 was hyped up all surrounding the impending nomination of Barack Obama to the Democratic nominee for president, it had cool intros, had spoken word with it’s lead ins, just an overall better production.  If the first Black In America was to Barack Obama, Black In America “Almighty Debt” is to Barack Obama’s long lost brother named Barney or something.  Seriously, that sad organ music in the background was the pits!

This leads me to question how are we as blacks in America to view mainstream media?  Not to mention the good chunk of followers who saw Anderson Cooper discuss the “doll test” that get s trotted out every few years as thought it’s monitoring the temperature of the racial fever that is plaguing our country.  Ever since Kenneth and Mamie Clark devised it as a study, the racial temperature has always neared a feverish point.  We’ve been maligned with an ague that we’ve yet to fully diagnose: we know the symptoms, but we refuse to agree on a diagnosis, therefore treatment cannot begin.

This special hosted by O’Brian, no, was not enough to consider suicide, but certainly left a bad taste in the mouths of many blacks.  For many blacks, and I’m sure this applicable to many blacks who have suffered through yet another long post by the Uppity Negro, that we peered through a glass by watching this special and we were able to see how mainstream America attempts to view us and portray us back to themselves.  We balk at this image because it’s overly homogenous and I think it’s an insult because we see ourselves being defined by others who certainly don’t always have our best interest at heart.

Yes, I’m still talking about CNN and not BET.

Nonetheless, who knows what CNN or any other mainstream media outlet will cook up next.  I’m sure I won’t be impressed then either.  As far as I’m concerned, CNN should have either shown “Roots” or “Eyes On The Prize” and called it a day.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

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7 responses to “For Colored Persons Who Have Considered Suicide When Being “Black In America” Is Enough: An Uppity Negro Response to CNN’s Black In America III

  1. Dear UN,

    Thank you for this post. I did not get to see it last nite, but I followed your tweets. Thanks for the summary. I see I didnt miss anything..another misrepresentation of whats really going on in Black America. Why is Soledad the authority anyway? I despised that Black Upper Middle Class Show that was done last year as well. I hope that people know that some of us do live within our means and we that we are doing just fine during this recession.

    Peace :-)

  2. To keep with the church theme, I am shaking my tambourine on this post. This is a great synposis of the CNN special.

    “As far as I’m concerned, CNN should have either shown “Roots” or “Eyes On The Prize” and called it a day.”

    *In my grandama’s voice* “you aint neva lied on that one!”

    Your closing comment has always been a sentiment I echoed since BIA I. Frankly, showing those shows would have done a better job putting this issue in a historical context. The overly simplistic BIA specials are wrought with generalizations and marginalizations (e.g the exclusion of LBGT) of black people.

    Also, the debt special came across as a lot of finger wagging and I think it could have further explored the source of why people are in debt, and I don’t just mean people living beyond their means. While the black couple losing their home to foreclosure appears to be a prime example of that, the show did not take into consideration that overall, the salaries of people have not caught up with inflation and people are spending more of their net income to make ends meet, especially in housing costs.

    Does this mean that people who are in a significant amount of debt have issues with their priorities? Of course not, it just means that we now have more people behind the eight ball trying to play catch up on their expenses and they never get ahead. Consequently, in certain communities, the issue of lower wages and debt disproportionally affect black americans.

    Additionally, why didn’t this special also discuss the fact people are using credit to purchase necessities and why has it become so easy for people to obtain credit?

    Also, since they had a segment on that young man trying to get into college for acting, why didn’t they use this story to further explore that federal loans to pay for education does not cover what it used to in the past, and more students have to borrow from private lending institutions to make up for the shortfall? For those who decide to go the route of college and professional studies thereafter, people are racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in student debt and they are lucky if they find a job that will pay one third of what their student debt may be. Some may consider this whining, and that there are no guarantees in life (which is true!); however, if people don’t start having real conversations about the debt associated with financing a college education and that the return on your investment may not be what you anticipated, we will find more people (regardless of race) having to deal with lingering long term debt.

    I’ll be impressed with CNN when they start looking at unexamined white privilege, colorism and covert racism. I am convinced that CNN does not like black people.

    • @ Tammy

      I think we all have a plethora of issues that we wish CNN and other news media outlets would choose to portray us. Seeing as how BET is run by Debra LEEEEEVIL, we can’t veritably do it ourselves. In lieu of being handicapped in the media, we’re left with this drivel.

      I don’t think so much that CNN hates us, but rather is part in parcel of making black culture a novelty. And for many segments of this country, they still know nothing about us.

  3. Disclaimer #1: I have attended the church profiled in the latest in the “Black In America” series for six months.

    Disclaimer #2: I have not, nor will I, watch any of the “Black In America” series.

    1) His first name is DeForest, not William.

    2) Pastor Soaries has said that initially he was reluctant to do the latest in the series.

    3) One thing that Pastor Soaries likes to say is that he does not do prosperity preaching. Judging by the sermons I have heard him preach, I agree with him.

    4) I am not entirely sure why FBCLG was chosen, but I do have a few theories:
    a) It is roughly an hour drive from CNN headquarters.
    b) The church has what they call a “dfree” program (http://fbcsomerset.com/dfree.php)

    5) I think a megachurch was chosen (question: what are the characteristics of a “megachurch”?) because there are more people and thus more potentially “gripping” stories from which to choose from. Choosing smaller churches would have taken more time and then there is the cost of getting to these churches. While smaller churches might have given a more diverse pool of people, can you be sure that the special would have turned out any differently? Besides, what makes the megachurch attendee that much more different than the smaller church attendee?

    6) I think Jakes was asked to participate because CNN wanted someone whom everyone knows who he is. From what Soaries has said, he did not know Jakes that well before the special.

    7) Carl’s feelings about his job and his wife being the primary breadwinner is not uncommon. How should men feel about it if that is their situation?

    • @ D

      Thanks for your comment. I meant to change the pastor’s name that was a result of writing this post the night it aired and being sleepy.

      To address some of your points:

      A mega church is determined by most historians, sociographers et. al. as a church with a membership of 2,000 persons or more. That being said, a megachurch attendee is vastly different than the person of a smaller more average sized church. Megachurch members have much more resources at their disposal. I think that this documentary highlighted what it meant to have a well-connected pastor; one who pastors a megachurch. Plus, he was a former elected official. That type of pull doesn’t happen often.

      Jakes being a familiar face still doesn’t negate my concern about his inability to be a good public theologian nor his failure to address the concerns I listed. And yes, I think it was evident that Jakes and Soaries didn’t know each other.

      Carl can feel how he wants, I’m not trying to take that away from him.

  4. It’s difficult for mainstream media to report on black life because black folks aren’t producing the shows. And I mean black folks that still have one foot in the hood and one in corporate america. And don’t get me started on the anchors.. TJ Holmes, and Soledad never look at home when they are around black folks. They look like they are visiting…. The Mega Church thing is getting old especially to people like me who attend smaller churches. If you repeat something enough times people start believing it. That’s why “in my opinion” people feel the need to go to a Mega Church instead of the 200 member church. They feel that is the place to be. And this whole “favor” thing… I dislike it with a passion because no one can tell you how to get it or how they got it. It leaves you to believe that God plays favorites with his children. When someone tells me they are favored I always ask to let me get near them so it can run off on me. Because unless you are liked you have to suffer in silence. I didn’t like how the guy prayed with the employers. I felt he should have been strictly talking about work. Pray after you get the job (uh oh fellow church folk won’t like that one). And the family with the big house. Their daughter was in La La Land. They better hip her to the situation quick. That’s the kind of girl that grows up wondering why her husband can’t buy her a 500,000 dollar home on a 1st years teachers salary. If the last few years hasn’t proven anything else, people should now realize that the American Dream is an empty television commercial…..

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