Missing Black People In The Media

When Spike Lee asked why Clint Eastwood’s movie Flags Of Our Fathers had no black people in it, Clint Eastwood responded with anger saying that ‘a guy like him should shut his face’.

According to Clint Eastwood, there were indeed a few black people there in Iwo Jima, but they didn’t raise the flag (which is apparently the film’s focus). He then goes on to say that he made the film based on “… the way [he] read[s] it historically, and that’s the way it is”. Well, Mr Eastwood, that’s precisely the point Spike Lee was making – maybe how you see it isn’t actually how it is.

Spike Lee’s comments are not about tokenism, nor about equal opportunities. This is about the role of movie makers in documenting historical truth, not just ‘as they see it’ but as it actually is/was. In writing black soldiers out of war movies, film makers such as Clint Eastwood are actually re-creating their own – inaccurate and distorted – version of history and passing it off as fact.

Mr Eastwood is not the only war film maker to write history from his own perspective, a perspective which does not include any people of colour. Black soldiers appear in very few Western war TV series or films despite the fact that they fought on the front lines for Western countries in sizeable numbers.

Do you know that at least 16,000 black people from the Caribbean fought for Britain in World War I and at least another 10,000 fought for Britain in World War II? In America, close to 200,000 African-American soldiers fought in the Civil War. You probably don’t. And why not? Because those people are the missing black people – rarely spoken about, and rarely depicted in TV or film – which happens to be one of our most prominent mediums for the reenactment of history.  Why is their presence not deemed important enough to be included? Not just in Eastwood’s film, but in any war film? Why should Spike Lee be accused of playing the ‘race card’ just because he is pointing out that films about war without black soldiers are factually inaccurate?

Clint Eastwood’s response to Spike Lee was not suprising. It is hard for people who are in a dominant position in society to look outside of that dominant viewpoint and see that their view may not be representative of the entire picture. However, a person of colour drawing attention to that fact is accused of seeing everything along racial lines, therefore having their argument reduced to being the view of someone who thinks only in terms of black and white.

Considering how much emphasis is put on war heroes and commemorating the lives of those who died for their countries, it really is sad that the lives of black soldiers who fought and died for countries that they were not even from seem not to be worth remembering. 

This Eastwood/Lee argument is actually about much more than Eastwood’s film. It’s about the role of the mainstream media in general in story-telling – or story re-creation. People question the role of black-orientated media, such as black news sites or black magazines because they cannot see how skewed mainstream media is towards representing one, dominant point of view, that is believed to be all-inclusive, but is in fact very one-sdied. Like in war films, black people and black stories are often hidden or missing from mainstream media stories (or presented negatively if they do appear). and OK folks, before you say it, let’s keep Obama out of this. He is one man!

African-Americans are often shocked to hear me – as a black person – speak with a strong English accent. Their shock is not simply a matter of ignorance, it’s also because they see very few, if any, black British people on TV or in films that come out of England. Yes, over the years there have been some black musicians who have come to the fore, but in the visual medium, in the main we are hidden. I remember many black Brits asking why the film Notting Hill had no black people in it, when Notting Hill is an area of London is well known for its large number of black residents. Some people would say – well, black people in Britain only make up 10% of the population.. just as Clint Eastwood said that there was only a small detachment of black soldiers in Iwo Jima at the time in which his film is set. But so what?! Small numbers does not mean that those people are not relevant or were not there at all.

This is why I am a big advocate of black media. It is necessary, in order for the past and the present to be an accurate representation of life. Can the Clint Eastwoods of this world be expected to represent anything other than his world view? It may be that a small number of black people in a war film is not really important or worth putting documenting to him. This doesnt make him a racist, it just means that he has one way of seeing the world. However, to black people like Spike Lee and myself, the stories and lives of black soldiers are just as important as everyone else’s and deserve to be part of the documentation of war. Hell, we deserve to be part of the documentation of mainstream life, as it is today!

The Global African-American influence

Prior to living in America, I had already visited the country a number of times. But that’s not how I am able to sing RnB songs, or how I’m able to rap full verses from artists like Common, Jay Z, Biggie and Tupac or even much older hip hop groups. It’s not how I understand African-American slang or can do certain dances in clubs. I know all of that because African-Amerian culture is broadcast into homes around the world. Despite growing up in the UK, I have been exposed to many aspects of African-American culture throughout my entire life, as have many other black people around the globe.

It can be hard for African-Americans to get a grasp of just how pervasive and global African-American culture is and has become. When I lived in Johannesburg in South Africa, for example, I was at times amused and at other times disturbed by the adoption of African-American language, fashion and music by young South Africans. I used to go a particular club that could have come from a Beyonce video. You would have thought you were in New York or Atlanta rather than Johannesburg.

People always ask me ‘how do you know these songs?’ and ‘how do you know about that, how do you know about this?’ and I tell them I know because I have been massively exposed to it all throughout my whole life. America, and by extension African-America, is constantly shown to the world on a huge scale.

Now, I wonder if African-Americans realized this, they would also feel more responsible about what they put out. I’m talking here about people like Nas and his new album, I’m talking about BET and the type of content they put out, I’m talking about all of those people who insist – through various media – in showing the worst aspects of African-American life. Not only is that stuff released to America, it is released to young impressionable black people around the world who look up to African-Americans as a beacon of success and progression.

I was reminded of this by a blog I came across in which the writer said he’d come across a shop in Malawi called ‘Nigger’ (see picture above) and how proud the owners were of their shop’s name, thinking that they were somehow in touch with African-Americans that they looked up to.

Nas is releasing his song Nigger not only to his homegrown community but to the global community. What will the effect be on the young kids in the townships of South Africa, for example, who don’t really understand the significance and nuances surrounding that word? What about the black kids in the inner cities in England who have only just, in the past 10 years or so, started calling each other ‘nigga’ – just because their favourite black hip hop artists have made the word seem cool – and who now believe that they are ‘niggas’?

The global influence of African-American culture is huge. It affects black people all over the world. This can of course be a great thing. It has unfortunately also been a negative thing. I just don’t think people get how far the reach of African America extends… If they did maybe people like Nas might really think hard about how they use that influence.

 

Black & White Meet: Race & Reconciliation

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On Friday April 11th at 21:00 (ET), MSNBC will host the premiere of a powerful docu-movie called Meeting David Wilson.  I highly recommend that you watch this incredible film, which looks at race and the legacy of slavery in an original and moving way. This really is a story of hope and reconciliation.

About the film: 

David Wilson, a 28-year-old African-American journalist (and a good friend of mine), journeys into his family’s past to find answers to America’s racial divide. Along the way he meets another David Wilson, a 62 year old white man who is the descendant of his family’s slave master. This discovery leads to a momentous encounter between these two men of the same name but whose ancestors were on the opposite sides of freedom. Through DNA testing, David determines his African roots and returns to his native land.

Will their worlds collide? How will they deal with the gravity of their family’s histories and issues like reparations?

MSNBC Live Event
NBC News will air a live discussion immediately following “Meeting David Wilson,” at 10:30 p.m. ET on MSNBC. The live discussion, which will be broadcast from Howard University’s Washington, D.C. campus and stream live on msnbc.com, will focus on racial themes in America. “NBC Nightly News” Anchor and Managing Editor Brian Williams will moderate the event. Williams will be joined by “Today” Correspondent Tiki Barber.

Watch the film’s trailer here: 

Best Of The Web This Week

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The Root: Blackness Primer Revisited – Writer John McWhorter argues that it’s not stereotyping to say that religious leanings, a love of fried chicken and a penchant for dancing are black cultural traits. Well, I guess there are black people out there – me included – who do these things… But how far do you go with this type of argument? A love of fried chicken is pretty harmless. However, some might say that, judging by statistics, low educational achievement, a propensity towards violence and lawlessness and poor family values are also traits that appear to be associated with black culture. But I know that’s not right and I would call that stereotyping. So I’m not quite sure I agree with John McWhorter on this one. It’s dangerous ground.

The Guardian: Black, British & Proud – This one was written by myself. My opinion is that despite being black, I am also very much British and proud to be. Being black (or any other kind of immigrant or offspring of) does not stop you from becoming immersed in the culture in which you were brought up in. I had a range of thought provoking and interesting responses…One friend of mine was sad and frustrated with me. “England colonized us”, she said. “How can you claim them?”. See what you think.

Chicago Tribune: Smear Campaign Speaks Volumes About Society – Interesting piece by Ahmed M. Rehab about being Muslim and American. Seems we are all dealing with our racial identity issues!

Stuff White People Like: This is a very funny blog, written by Christian Lander. Yoga, Study Abroad Programmes, Coffee are all apparently things that white people like. Going back to my comments on the John McWhorter piece above – is this also an example of stereotyping (the author is white by the way)? I guess it is, but it is also satirical. Plus, being interested in yoga and coffee never really affected anyone’s position in society. These are all pretty harmless stereotypes and nobody says things like ‘you’re not really white if you don’t drink coffee’.

The Guardian: Entertaining Or Exploitative – This is another one of my comment pieces published this week. As BET launches in the UK this week, I ask if it’s something that Black Britons really need? Is BET entertainment, or exploitation?

Hip Hop & Life

lilkim.jpgFor years there has been an ongoing debate about how much of an impact hip hop music has on the lives of today’s young people. It has been blamed for a myriad of problems that affect black kids. The misogyny, violence and promiscuity (amongst other things) depicted in popular music videos have been said to continue down the foodchain into communities, negatively influencing those who are already at the bottom.

However, artists and record label execs  have refused to take responsibility for the effect their music might have on the young, saying that it’s up to parents to censure what their kids see and hear, and denying any correlation between listening to certain types of music and subsequent behaviours.

But in the light of new evidence, can hip hop makers continue to deny that their music has a negative impact upon young people? Can they continue to be blase and nonchalant about what they are releasing into the world, when it is clearly having damaging effects? A report published in October entitled “Images of Sexual Stereotypes in Rap Videos and the Health of African-American Female Adolescents” has shown that “African-American female adolescents who spend more time watching rap music videos are more likely to participate in high-risk behaviors such as binge drinking and sex with multiple partners, to test positive for marijuana, and to have a negative body image”. Please take some time to let that sink in.

When well-respected robust studies (this one came from the Emory University) are showing such links, there is patently a major problem that cannot be ignored. Black music role models can no longer disassociate themselves from the negative impact that their music is having on impressionable young black people. It is rather frightening to see scientific evidence that this is the case, although it is unsuprising considering the unparalleled media exposure that young people are subjected to these days.

I have always believed that leadership comes with responsibility. If you are a role model – which you are as soon as you are able to put your voice out in the public sphere – you must be aware of how your words and actions are perceived by those who look up to you. This goes not only for rappers but for corporations like Viacom and BET who have such a stronghold on what our young people see and hear.

It’s high time the mainstream music and entertainment industry start caring about the next generation. High time the industry starts caring about those who are being shaped and moulded by their environment, which includes not only their peers at school, but the people they listen to on their ipods. The media has to become much more conscious, much more responsible. There is something highly unethical and deeply unsettling about the idea that companies are not bothered by the knowledge that their products are leading to others’ demise.

What’s so wrong with showing healthy, happy relationships between black men and women? Why do rap videos need to show naked women dancing with dog chains around their necks? Who exactly benefits from that? What’s so cool about it? In the long run, not even those getting paid millions to make the music and videos gain from it, since it only makes society a worse place.

Some will say that hip hop is being unfairly demonised and made a scapegoat. Whilst I agree that parents need to monitor their kids, the truth is that to some people music is a parent! To many, music is a friend, a guide and a mentor. And it’s time the hip hop industry starts taking that responsibility very seriously.

New Nation Black Power List 2007

damonbuffini.jpgThe New Nation newspaper has compiled their 2007 Power List of the 50 most powerful black men and women in the UK.

I have to admit I had not heard of some of the people on this list, but it’s great to be introduced to new names and see their achievements.

In the UK we can be shy about celebrating success full stop. Very rarely do we hear about the success of people of colour, particularly those outside of the music, sports and entertainment worlds.

Here is the top ten for each gender:

Top Women
1. Baroness Scotland, Attorney general
2. Baroness Amos, Labour peer
3. Heather Rabbatts, Executive chair, Millwall Holdings plc
4. Naomi Campbell, Model
5. Clare Ighodaro, Non-executive director, Banking Code Standards Board
6. Baroness Howells, Labour Peer
7. Tandy Anderson, Co-founder/CEO, Select Models
8. Carol Lake, Managing Director and Co-head, Marketing, JP Morgan
9. Michelle Ogundehin, Editor, Elle Decoration
10. Sonita Alleyne, Director, Somethin’ Else

Top Men
1. Damon Buffini, Managing partner, Permira (pictured)
2. Mo Ibrahim, Chairman of Celtel International/Mo Ibrahim Foundation
3. Michael Prest, Physical oil trader
4. Trevor Faure, Vice-president & general counsel, Tyco International
5. Tidjane Thiam, Group executive director, Aviva Europe
6. Trevor Faure, Vice President and General Counsel, Tate & Lyle
7. Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York
8. Team Hamilton (Lewis & Anthony)
9. David Lammy MP, Skills Minister
10. Lee Jasper, Director of Equalities & Policing, GLA

Why It’s Great To Be an ‘Amateur’

amateur.jpgThere’s a guy called Andrew Keen who has been in the media a lot recently. He has been waxing lyrical about what he calls ‘the cult of the amateur’ (actually the title of his book).

According to him the blogger, the ‘citizen journalist’and those using the internet to make their voices heard are bad for society. He believes that web 2.0 is “undermining truth, souring civic discourse, and belittling expertise, experience and talent.”

An interesting opinion…and one I strongly disagree with. For a start, we – or at least I – live in a democracy and have as much right as anyone else to air my opinions. That’s precisely what they are – opinions. It’s up to other people in this supposedly fair and free society to decide what to make of them.

Facts are another thing – but it is simplistic to suggest that all ‘facts’ are objective. In any case I would argue that there is a lot of opinion, commentary, and as some recent libel cases have shown, outright lies in today’s traditional news that is presented as fact.

In societies where the media is heavily used as a vehicle for propoganda it’s the bloggers and those who are able to access and use the internet who are showing the world a more balanced and realistic picture of what’s going on.

Even in England – one of the supposed bastions of democracy – the media has been shown to be used as a tool for propaganda. Remember all the noise on the weapons of mass destruction that were going to blow up the earth in 6 seconds?? Hmmm…

Why should it be up to a handful of people – and those who choose them – to decide what the rest of us should hear, read or listen to? Surely that’s for us – the people – to decide? We all know there is more than one side to every story, and the traditional media sources often do not represent the whole picture.

Anyway, it really is not the case that there is an elite group of people up there in the news corporations who know so much more than the rest of us stupid normal folk. We are all part of society and have a right to comment upon it should we so choose.

As far as I’m concerned, every newspaper and media corporation has an agenda, which is reflected in a variety of ways including the stories it chooses to run. In an ideal world, they would be impartial and neutral bodies which report strictly on facts. But this is not an ideal world – and the question to be asked is can you separate news from the people who are reporting on it?

When I was studying Social & Political Science, we read ethnographic accounts written by Englishmen who visited Africa. At the time they were supposed to present un-biased, objective views on Africa and were taken as such. Those accounts are now highly controversial and are not taken as objective perspectives on Africa, because anyone who works in that field is acutely aware that it is virtually impossible to separate someone’s viewpoint of a situation from their internal beliefs about it. There is little objective reality beyond date, time and location. The same could be said for media – including bloggers – which is why it’s good to have access to multiple viewpoints.

I don’t know what Mr Keen is reading, but there are many bloggers out there who have valid, interesting, thoughtful and reflective contributions to make. People whose voices need and deserve to be heard, and otherwise wouldn’t be.

There is a lot of positive work going on in the Afrosphere, for example. In light of the state of some African nations, should we leave it to our leaders to dictate what the outside world hears? For example, maybe we should rely solely on Zimbabwean news coming out of Mugabe’s camp since according to Mr Keen, the traditional, controlled, handed-down-the-masses news is superior and most reliable?

Mr Keen is a dinosaur. Someone keen (no pun intended) to keep the status quo, and have life fossilized so that no changes ever take place, and big corporations are able to stay within their comfort zones while continuing to short-change their customers (like the music industry, which he cites as an example of having been damaged by democratization of the web).

Mr Keen’s comments encourage me to keep on blogging! All hail to the ‘cult of the amateur’!!