Contemplating my response to CNN's Black in America series, I was reminded of something W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in the "Souls of Black Folk" published in 1903:
How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word. And yet, being a problem is a strange experience,--peculiar even for one who has never been anything else.
To be Black in America in 2008 means a "news" network has the audacity to present the Black American experience with all its diversity of genealogical, ethnic, economic, social, religious, regional, and sexual orientation in a 3-hour documentary. In CNN's view, it is a community riddled with problems, where even those who make it struggle with our identity and are seldom very far for the maladies of our brothers and sisters.
I have heard the arguments that one CNN special could not be all things to all people, or cover all the aspects of the complex issues facing America and her Black citizens. However, when it comes to their presentation of the Black family and HIV/AIDS, their efforts were an exercise in journalistic malpractice.
How could you possibly have an honest exposé on HIV and AIDS in Black America and fail to mention Black gay men?
HIV respects neither race, gender, class or sexual orientation, but Black gay men remain the most heavily impacted by the disease and we have largely carried the weight of the HIV prevention message on our backs from the beginning until now. Of course we had allies and partners but let's get real- it was Black gay men who led on Black AIDS--and we are still leading.
What was the thinking of the documentary's editors which allowed the series to side-step the issue of men who have sex with men and women without disclosing their sexual practices with their partners? What of the ravages of drug use and addition left unchecked during our endless war on drugs? The disproportionate numbers of HIV infections in Washington, DC noted in the series can be traced in no small part to our failure to adequately address the drug use and needle sharing habits of addicts.
When addressing the issue of the many Black children who are being raised by single parents, CNN seem to suggest first that only Black women were raising our children alone- ignoring the significant number of Black men both gay and non-gay who are raising children. CNN renders invisible the thousands of children being raised by two loving parents in same-sex couples.
Where was the issue of school bullying and anti-gay violence in the streets of Newark and other cities and towns or the epidemic of homeless gay youth?
Now I understand that as LGBT people, we usually have to settle for a one-liner--Bill Clinton's "I have a vision for America and you are a part of it" statement to LGBT supporters or Senator Obama's "there are gay people in red states" observation. Now before any of you get you panties in a knot, I am not bashing Bill or Barack. Certainly their commitments to LGBT civil rights and equality go far beyond these statements. Rather I am suggesting that when it comes to the main stage/primetime events, we are completely invisible or must settle for a passing mention- a pat on the head or a nod in our direction- but little in the way of real focus on the complex issues that challenge us each day.
And CNN was unable to muster even that. In almost every segment there was an opportunity to bring Black gay men, lesbian women, bisexuals and transgender men and women into the discussion.
Yet there was nothing, not even a suggestion that we exist.
So what is to be done? Of course we will call this omission to the attention of the producers at CNN with hopes to get some kind of response. I don't, however, hold out a great deal of hope that whatever they do will match the attention this much-hyped series has garnered.
In his essay By the Year 2000, published in the 1983 Black gay anthology In the Life, Max C. Smith wrote:
By the year 2000, gay Blacks ought to have a realization that Black is beautiful. That forward-thinking concept of self-acceptance will help save the Black family structure and correct a host of Black community woes by retaining within the Black community many gifted people who will no longer squander their talents in vain attempts to be people they are not. For in the final analysis, improving the quality of life within our communities depends on our willingness to be honest with ourselves and to be honest with others. The major thrust of Black gay activism ought to be toward that honesty.
It is now 2008 and we have not fully achieved that goal. CNN only reflected the conventional Black social and political conversation. Paradoxically, it is most often in conversations about HIV/AIDS in the Black community that gay men are excluded. It is our collective responsibility to be honest about who we are as men who love men, as Black gay men, as men living with HIV.
We must speak truth to power about our challenges and contributions.
If we fail to tell speak our truth and the realities of our families, or allow those who are not open about their lives and their families to speak for us, we will continue to be invisible. If we fail to support our own institutions, create our own media, tell our own stories--our stories will go untold.
Like my reflection in the magnifying mirror on a bad hair day, the reflection I saw on CNN was not one I wanted to see. But the mirror reflects reality, however unflattering or distorted, but in it, I am not invisible.