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.
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