“Black Folk Don’t…” and the Power of Irony
By Guest Blogger: Nonso Christian Ugbode, Director of Digital Media at National Black Programming Consortium, iMA member organization
In 2011 BlackPublicMedia.org launched the "Black Folk Don't…" web series, a collection of expositional/conversational shorts about activities that black people supposedly did not do: tip, go to therapy, travel, go to the doctor, do winter sports, were just some of the titles in the first season. On June 26th, 2012 we will be launching another volley of shorts in the series - swim, get married, commit suicide, go camping, do atheism, have eating disorders - and it's interesting to see where the conversation has traveled thus far, and what part of it has resonated with a primarily public media audience, and what parts of it have worked to turn certain audiences away. I believe this is instructive as public media brands start to tackle the task of moving beyond traditional broadcast models, and welcoming the voice of communities too often left out of the wider streams of public media content. And beyond "welcoming" them, briefly creating a permanent space for them as a matter of routine.
Those who get "Black Folk Don't…" think it interesting I believe not because it presents any empirical data about the experience of blackness, but because it reveals the grey areas that litter any conversation about identity at the same time giving the individual a license to not take these presumed identities too seriously, and explore them in a more universal way. A colleague said to me recently that sharing the series with an older Jewish friend made her friend laugh because she was imagining a "Old Jewish Folks Don't…" series. (We're totally copyrighting that idea by the way, don't steal it!) "Black Folk Don't…" connects with an audience that is savvy enough to extrapolate the wider ridiculousness of the statement. Not bogged down in the specificity of "black" they are free to take the "joke" to more universal places.
Those who don't get the series, or are offended by it, are usually wagging a finger at us for "bringing the race down." Comments like "I can't believe black people made this," or "you should know better," are common to hear in this group. I accuse these people of not hitting "play" on even one episode, perhaps unfairly, but I think their main complaint rests in the "don't air our dirty laundry" category. I for one don't see the dirty laundry here. Taken at face value "Black Folk Don't.." might be seen as an indictment, but in allowing one's curiosity to engage the conversation, I believe most people start to understand that this seemingly negative frame is an important invitation to what can be a very positive conversation.
This conversation leaves us a little naked with our prejudices, all of us, and I would argue that nakedness is the very fabric of the new media age we live in. (OK, no one actually says "new media" anymore, I'm just tired of tracking the terminology. Web 2.0, whatever, you know what I mean.) The web by its very nature has grown very naked in a lot of ways (remember when your real name was no where to be found online?!), now personal and private moments make up the whole "web soup" we consume on a daily basis. Why not use that nakedness to tackle conversations we would otherwise find uncomfortable? Furthermore, why can't public media be the moderator for that conversation?
In March our colleagues at PBS.org featured "Black Folk Don't Tip" in their very first PBS Online Film Festival, and when the episode was shared with the PBS audience on Facebook it received a lot of feedback very quickly (everyone apparently has something to say about black folk who don't tip), and while the conversation was shaky at times (read: ripe with prejudice) it revealed so much more about where we stand when it comes to our thoughts on race than any polite debate might have. And it did so without making the stakes feel so high. Many comments were on the appropriateness of PBS as a venue for this sort of content; the rationale being the content was a bit too provocative. I for one fail to see the down side of that. If public media is to have a resonance beyond the current guard it must integrate into its DNA the very provocativeness that makes it uncomfortable. Now this is not a proposal to add "girls in bikinis" to Antiques Roadshow, but it is an appeal to take the blinders off a bit and be more inclusive in our shared definitions of content that is "public media."
Black Folk Don't is not that content that will bring the "millenials" rushing to PBS every night, we'll leave that to "Hip Hop Tuesdays," or something (again, copyright there), but I believe it is a step in the right direction. Somewhere between "Eyes On The Prize" and "Downton Abbey" some of us fell asleep, and it'll take a more "seductive" pool of content to wake us all.