Long before Rev. Al Sharpton and Melissa Harris-Perry anchored talk shows on MSNBC, and long before the nightly news was read by people of color, several public television stations took tentative steps to bring the voices and faces of African Americans into US homes. Devorah Heitner’s new book, Black Power TV (Duke University Press) focuses on four of them – two local and two national – and addresses their long-term impact on the racial politics of viewers and on the media itself.
According to Heitner, a look back at history suggests that there were dual impulses for including black viewpoints on television. First, after urban riots broke out in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s 1968 assassination, TV served as a pacifier. After all, if you were sitting on the couch watching a talk show or performance, you were not out protesting. On the other hand, programs focused on black communities validated the diverse contributions of people of color, whether they were activists, entertainers or doctors, lawyers, teachers or preachers. This not only educated white viewers, but also served as a way for the black community to acknowledge the gains and accomplishments of the civil rights movement. At the same time, the programs refused to shy away from the many issues that were still-pressing; poverty, racism and discrimination were regularly addressed and passionately denounced.
While the book could have used a better tie-in to contemporary media and the ongoing struggles of people of color for funding and visibility, the history Heitner presents will be eye-opening for readers who are unfamiliar with the long struggle to diversify what we see on screen. The four case studies she presents – Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York; Say Brother in Boston; and the nationally syndicated Black Journal and Soul! offer an incisive glimpse into the era’s politics.
Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant, for example, began in 1968 and ran until 1971. And while it was broadcast on New York’s leading independent commercial station, WNEW, it was on at 1 AM and 7 AM, hardly optimal times for wide-scale viewing. “The program initially aimed to challenge negative stereotypes while demonstrating that the community’s problems were deserving of state financial support,” Heitner begins. “Ultimately, it did much more: With its personable and even-handed hosts acting as ambassadors, Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant offered political and cultural visibility, claimed spaces, and depicted and supported a lively black public sphere. In doing so, it transformed television from a site of oppression and exclusion to a site for liberation, by providing a model of rhetorical self-defense to racist discourses circulated in the culture, documenting and encouraging activism, and celebrating black artistic and political achievements.”
Similarly, Boston’s Say Brother, aired on public television station WGBH, offered dance or musical performances alongside sometimes-heated discussions of problems facing the city’s black neighborhoods. Despite this, Heitner writes that the program served as a “counterpoint to mainstream news accounts that presented African Americans as victims.” As advocacy journalism with a clear point of view, she also notes that the program refused to shy away from controversy. Furthermore, she reports that despite its sexist name, Say Brother zeroed in on issues of concern to women, from punitive welfare policies to racist beauty standards. “By documenting community members’ struggles for school desegregation, cultural recognition, welfare reform, political self-determinations, and black women’s fights for equal rights and adequate health care, Say Brother countered the invisibility of Boston’s African Americans,” Heitner concludes.
WNET’s Black Journal, a public affairs program, brought similar issues to a national stage. Initially produced by a white man, the show began in June 1968 with seed funding from the Ford Foundation. Trouble began brewing immediately. “From the outset, black staff members felt hemmed in by NET’s control, frustrated that they had few black crew members on the production side, and galled that NET was allowing the world to think that the production was utterly controlled by African Americans. These frustrations were among the catalysts of the strike that prompted the black staff to walk out in August 1968 to demand black editorial control,” Heitner writes. The story had a happy ending for the workers; once they took their grievances to the mainstream press, WNET quickly caved and, under the leadership of William Greaves and Wali Siddiq, the show became bolder and edgier. Covering controversial topics became its raison d’être: from interviews with black cops and black GIs serving in Vietnam, to the liberation struggles being waged throughout Africa. What’s more, the show expressed overt sympathy for domestic political prisoners.
While many viewers cheered the show’s progressive stance, others greeted the show with predictable jeers and derision. This, of course, impacted the show’s reach. Indeed, Heitner indicates that local WNET affiliates could censor or reject Black Journal by taking a pass on a particular episode or by refusing the entire series. “Unlike network affiliates for commercial television, they were not required to air a certain amount of NET programming . . . By 1972, only a quarter of PBS’s 139 stations chose to carry Black Journal,” she writes.
Soul!, another black-led nationally telecast show, was similarly important – and similarly shunned. The program made it a point to feature community icons – and lightening rods – including The Last Poets, James Baldwin, Nikki Giovanni and Amiri Baraka. Hosted by Ellis Haizlip, a gay man, Soul! ventured into uncharted territory, discussing sexual politics and other hot-button issue. It lasted for six years, from 1968 to 1974.
Sadly, Heitner notes that by the mid-1970s, Soul! was not the only program to fall by the wayside. By mid-decade, she writes, “the proliferation of new black programs had abated dramatically, and over time, most such programs declined in resources and influence.” But that’s not to say that they had no impact. The fact that it is now commonplace to see African Americans as both interviewers and interviewees is testament to the work of the media pioneers Heitner chronicles.
Has parity been achieved? Of course not, and there is a great deal that still needs to change before we can say that people of color, women, the disabled and members of the LGBT community are adequately represented in media. Still, had it not been for the activist journalists Heitner introduces, it’s a safe bet that straight white men would still be speaking for everyone else. Black Power TV reminds us that progress is rarely seamless or easy. That said, there’s been significant forward motion during the last 40 years. Let’s remember to toast this as we plan new campaigns and push for greater inclusivity.