Modern Melting Pot

What's new in racism.

Hollywood Can Change the World

Our reality is created by the images we carry in our heads

African American organizations receive a lot of donations from liberals in Hollywood. The most generous donations would be more stories about how wonderful it is to be African American.

From my perspective as a storyteller, African Americans have been told so many stories about how hard it is to be black that we strongly resist stories about how good it can be. The natural response is --what's good about it.

To my mind “The Cosby Show” was a very successful dramatization of how good it is. And successful the show was.  During the 1980s it was the most-watched show on American television for 6 years in a row.

I am happy that my black children saw the images of people like themselves living happy, balanced lives. The general public loved the show. Cosby became "America's Dad." Were the stories true to "African American life?  I think they were as true as stories can be.

Stories never tell everything about a life, or a way of life.  The incidents out of which stories are built are selected to make a specific point about how life is. If the storyteller selects a point about how horrifying life is, then he or she will choose those incidents and cinematic elements that dramatize that point. If the point is about how wonderful life is, the storyteller chooses incidents to dramatize the wonder and beauty.

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Even in so horrible a setting as slavery, Alex Haley, author of "Roots", chose incidents many of them horrifying, to tell a story about the human spirit defeating time itself, as a black American family connected to its tribal roots in Africa. The miniseries received unprecedented numbers of viewers from a world-wide television audience.

So even with an experience as brutal as slavery, the entire matter depends on the storyteller’s intensions. Does the storyteller intend to dramatize --what horrible things white people did to black people, what horrible things black people did to each other, what small victories were achieved against a backdrop of deprivation and degradation? Or does the storyteller sets out to tell about how the human spirit can triumph even over slavery.

Yes, generations of African Americans were brutalized, and sometimes traumatized by slavery and its still-present Jim Crow legacy. Yes, generally both popular and so-called great art focuses on man’s inhumanity to man. But what would be the results if art, especially popular art focused on how good we can be to each other.

Much depends on why people become artists, or storytellers, in the first place. One of the big reasons is to use art as a sort of exorcism, a way of coping with personal demons, a way of sharing a personal truth about how bad life has been for the artist.

Far less often does one become a serious artist to celebrate life.  Those who find life worth celebrating usually spend their time in living more fully rather than stuck away somewhere writing serious novels or film and television scripts. Not often enough does a storyteller see him or herself as a person sharing a gift, or as a person who simply likes to tell fascinating tales.

There is a pretension in Western art that art is not created to make people feel good about themselves and about life. In this view the intention to make people feel good is an unworthy aim for an artist. The business of the artist is to render the truth in artistic form --but what truth? One of the most valuable things that modern life has given us is the awareness that in complex matters the truth does not exist. The best that any of us can have is a truth. A subjective experience of the objective world is our reality. 

This awareness enables us to choose what is wonderful and true for us. These choices  would make it possible for masses of people to escape the tyranny of images of man’s inhumanity to man if our story industries –novels, films, and television shows—give us more serious, believable, entertaining stories about love, compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, responsibility, harmony and a concern for others.

Hollywood does some of this, but not often in realistic shows about African American life. African American organizations receive a lot of donations from liberals in Hollywood. The most generous donations would be more stories about how wonderful it is to be African American. That would change the world.

 

George Davis is author of the new spiritual spy novel, The Melting Points, about three women pursued by danger as the clockwork universe melts around them. In development is a television series based on his soon-to-be-published nonfiction novel, Branches, which continues the spiritual journey that Alex Haley dramatized in “Roots.”  It continues the journey of America towards becoming an exceptional, multiracial nation.

 

George Davis is professor emeritus at Rutgers University. His latest book is Until We Got Here.

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