Black Men Give Their “Take on America” in Latest PBS Special

In 2015, Baltimore was ground zero for anti-police violence rage against when resident Freddie Gray died in police custody after sustaining several injuries. But the city was no stranger to a focus on what was happening on the street level there. The HBO series The Wire put the city on the map when it came to an intersection of poverty, disfranchisement, the war on drugs and interactions with law enforcement. The social unrest in the wake of Gray’s death brought the real conversations about it to the forefront in days when similar deaths at police hands were constantly in the news.

So the news website, in collaboration with PBS for its hourlong “Take on America” series, recently decided to bring these issues to a discussion in a room of 100 African-American men, primarily Baltimoreans, and allow it to flow organically. If there was any result from the conversation, it was the realization that Black men are not a homogenous group, despite the stereotype; have several perspectives on Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest; have at least as many perspectives on the Trump presidency; and almost uniformly detest the narrative that Black men are absentee fathers.

The discussion, hosted, by OZY co-founder Carlos Watson, was at times angry, particularly when it came to whether or not Kaepernick’s gesture was productive or disrespectful. Atlantic writer and former ESPN host Jemele Hill pointed out that the ex-NFL quarterback was being “blackballed” by the league at the same time it allows people who have been accused of domestic abuse to continue to play. Although most in the room agreed with her, calling him a “hero,” there were conservatives in the audience who didn’t think so, and felt his celebrity afforded him the notoriety to stage such a protest.

As the narrative moved on to police violence, activist DeRay Mckesson, now almost synonymous with social protest in the city, was called to participate in what turned out to be a debate with former Baltimore police spokesman T.J. Smith (who resigned two days after the program was shot) about the role of police and the impact of abusive cops. Most in the audience, expressed a frustration at the stark possibility of being the next Black man to make headlines for being killed by an officer. The conversation became an emotional question of whether a Black man’s life mattered, and it makes a viewer wonder what the conversation was like in the unedited footage.

If the discussion was heated on police violence, then it was at boiling point when it came to President Donald Trump. The audience reflected a division between Democratic and Republican voters regarding how the Trump presidency has affected Black people. While some felt Trump hasn’t done much for the community, others asked exactly where President Barack Obama or any Democratic politician have had an overall positive impact. Ben Jealous, the former NAACP head and current Maryland gubernatorial candidate, and Tony Campbell, Maryland U.S. Senate candidate, had a political debate of their own. The two men, if elected, will likely have to deal with each other on a political level and opposing views revealed themselves as they bantered.

Probably the most candid part of the conversation, though, came during the discussion over Black fatherhood. Like many conversations about fatherhood in the Black community, it started with anecdotes about damaged relationships with fathers who had been abusive or addicted to some substance. Many in the audience were Gen X members, meaning their fathers had been scarred by their experiences in Vietnam and those were reflected in their relationships with their children. But the narrative took a more analytic turn in dispelling the myth of the absentee Black father. An audience member pointed out that Black fathers are more present in their kids lives than any other demographic group and that a sexier media narrative of the deadbeat dad was consistently perpetuated, but not countered by those who know the reality. The overall truth was agreed that the Black father is not only present, but also crucial for the development of children into adulthood.

This edition of “Take on America” could probably have run for hours, given the subjects discussed and the people, well-known and not, discussing them. As with many town hall-style meetings, there was no real resolution to the issues raised, but rather an outlining of what the problems were. It was dialogue answering dialogue, largely the basis of conscious Black conversations like these and OZY’s attempt at being a part of that dialogue.

What we do see is a countering of the notion that Black men do not care about their families and communities, and confirmation that the national political conversation, which so often affects Black men, needs to include them as well.

“Take on America” runs Thursday, Oct. 18, 8pm ET/5pm PT on OZY, YouTube, and PBS (check local listings)

— Madison J. Gray

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