We Ain’t What We Ought to Be

Today is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech.  The 50 years since that famous speech stand today as a measuring stick to place blackness in America against.  To paraphrase MLK himself, it’s 50 years later and the negro is still not free.  Now I can hear you shouting “Black President !” from here, and I’ve seen Obama hanging around, so I know lots has changed. Even with all the change, the needle for black people–and poor people– that the civil rights activists fought so hard to move seems to point to the same old numbers.

By every metric of social well being , blacks lag behind their white counterparts.  While civil rights gave legal rights to blacks that were long overdue, the last 50 years has witnessed the slow erosion of these gains.  Stop and Frisk, Stand Your Ground, and the Supreme Court’s decision on the Voting Rights act all remind us that racism lives on in the heart of the American justice system, while discriminatory financial and educational policies bring the fight to our homes and schools.

What about in the fantastical world of mainstream media?   Surely the media does a much better job of representation now, right?  Well……
In 1963 there was not one network show–and there were only major networks and no cable, young ones– that starred or featured a character of color.  Films, much the same.  This is not to say that people of color were excluded from media.  Of course westerns like Bonanza and Gunsmoke filled screens with feathered savages,  and there were more than a couple of black entertainers popular that year.  The racist show Amos and Andy, cancelled years earlier still ran in syndication in over 50 markets.  Whatever popular representations of race there were by and large were would not be acceptable by today’s standards….right?
Fast forward 50 years.  We have handfuls of big blacks filling up our screens, and incidentally draining our pockets.  Beyonce and Jay Z are the reigning king and queen of a kingdom full of rappers, runners and ratchet weave wearers.  We even have some young white ladies who I refuse to name here doing their best to play out their own tilted image of what it is to be black.
There’s no doubt that there are hundreds more black characters in media today, but just as in 1963, media representations show blacks as lazy and crazy, violent and vixenish.  When we fight mainstream media for representation, we can’t stop with appropriate quantity.  Quality matters.  High visibility celebs who push a self-centered materialistic life, and images that reinforce the worst of classic stereotypes aren’t progress.
MLK’s I have a dream speech resonates so strongly all these years later because still we strive to be a better more perfect union.  Until the words that echo off the water of the mall are the same that make up the stories on our screens, we still have the fight in front of us. As the old saying goes, we ain’t what we used to be, but we ain’t what we ought to be.  Lets not take another 50 years to get there.
Susan X Jane

Susan Jane thinks a lot about media and race…a lot. She teaches Communications at Wheelock College, writes and speaks about media…and race... and generally encourages everyone she meets to think about the way media shapes their sense of self and their ideas and beliefs about the world. If you're reading this, she wants you to think about it too. Want to talk about it? Let's go.

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