H. Alexander Robinson

Invisible Man

Filed By H. Alexander Robinson | July 29, 2008 9:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Media, Politics, The Movement
Tags: Black in America, CNN, race

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.

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this is beautifully written and wonderfully put, thank you H. I really enjoyed reading this post.

Thanks and keep em' coming!

Very well done and thought provoking. Were there no strengths in the Black community covered? Was it just from the standpoint of the selective 'problems' of the Black community? Kind of disappointing. I especially like the concept of "journalistic malpractice" wonderful idea which I wish would become more evident in journalism.


I think that CNN would have done much better to make a series on the subject, several documentaries over the course of several months. But that would require an actual commitment to the truth and to helping others understand reality, and that's not really CNN's cup of tea.

I did not see the broadcast (no cable, no CNN) but I agree: how can a journalism team claim to treat the issue of HIV/AIDS in Black America without including the fact that there are sexually active Black gay men, some out, and some "on the down-low".

Unfortunately, the D/L phenomenon is what they might use for their excuse, claiming that gay Black men, D/L or not, are not part of the "Black mainstream" (whatever that is) --- when the more accurate reality is that the "Black mainstream" doesn't want to hear about such issues.

Had they included gay Black men (D/L or not) CNN would have gotten complaints from Black conservatives claiming that Black America was being unfairly slandered. Since the Black conservative forces are judgmental about men having sex with men, however it might occur, such is their viewpoint.

(I do not wish to be judgmental, either. However, I personally feel that the anti-AIDS efforts in the GLBT community, both white and Black, have softened the safe sex message too much: we have backed off to the point of presenting responsible sex, and safe sex, as if it is "optional" --- but responsibility is not optional, whether we are dealing with sex or driving an automobile, and whether one is straight or gay, white or Black, seronegative or seropositive. I think we do need to crank up the message that simple irresponsibility is not an acceptable option --- and if that is the option you are selecting, you need to grow up. Either learn how to drive safely, or stay off the road.)

But it is not a journalist's responsibility to represent a population group in accordance with the way it wants to think about itself --- it is the journalist's job to identify reality, possibly analyze it, and then report it. And especially so when the effort is to identify problems and clarify them so hopefully they can get addressed effectively.

My point being that this may have been a failure of courage on CNN's part as much as it was a failure of perception or comprehension. And you are correct, Alexander, that in taking this path CNN robs gay Black men and organizations of the worthy credit they deserve for disseminating HIV/AIDS and safe sex information in their communities. My fear is that the Black Church and the Black conservative voice has more influence than gay Black men, and thus this will be a difficult uphill battle. But as a white gay male with many Black gay friends, both seronegative and seropositive, I applaud NBJC for trying to move this boulder, and thank you, Alexander, for this important post.

Alexander and Projectors,
I watched all four hours of the CNN special, and I found it strange that when the series began talking about HIV/AIDS, that Phill Wilson wasn't more extensively quoted.

I also realize the reality that you cannot distill 400 years of a people's history, triumips, and struggles into a 4 hour broadcast.

At best you'll get a nice starting point for a conversation, but as Alexander pointed out, it's a flawed conversation because not all of the African-American family (GLBT people) was included in the mix.

I don't have cable, so didn't see show. Was there any mention of the existence of sex/rape in prison, the absence of condoms in prison, and the disparate sentencing given to blacks v whites for similar drug crimes?

Epidemiologically, this is a "duh". Of course HIV is going to be contracted in prison under these conditions, from a few prisoners who were HIV positive on entry, probably (given drug conviction) from IV drug use.

The whole special created groups of people as invisible. It seemed very interested in pushing heteronormativity. The answer to the problems that plague the black community in a nutshell was marriage. Yes traditional marriage between a man and a woman. I believe that this approach was taken because of the special reliance on the so-called leadership of the black church which as we know has not had a history of tolerance or acceptance towards the GLBT community.
In the Womans section you were either a noble single mother struggling through poverty or a dick deprived woman of affluence.
In the section on men they used Joseph C Philps to push the message of meritocracy while avoiding men that were gay and men that had disabilities. The bottom line is that this special was never intended for POC...it is further arrogance to believe that the black experience can be summed in 4 hours. I learned nothing from this special.

I would agree that the CNN Presents of Black in America did not do a good job with talking about our Black community as a whole. There were moments when I was watching and I was wondering why they didn't mention ANYTHING GLBT related in our community. They did have perfect opporunities to do that..especially with the HIV/AIDS part of the show. Their espiode called "Black Men"..I thought they should have mentioned the "Masculinity" issue with black men and black gay men and the "Gender role" we set for ourselves.