Do you remember when we had Uncle Phil and Aunt Viv or Dr. and Mrs. Huxtable or “A Different World” on TV to serve as archetypes for black prosperity through formal education, the family unit and positive male-female relationships? To this idea, fellow North Carolinian and Grammy-nominated artist J. Cole said on his latest release 2014 Forest Hills Drive: “First things first, rest in peace, Uncle Phil. For real. You were the only father that I ever knew. I get my b**** pregnant, I’m-a be a better you.”
The “Fresh Prince” judge became a surrogate father to a young Jermaine Cole, being raised by a single mother. Using Uncle Phil’s example of being studious, loving and powerful, Cole went on to earn a scholarship to my alma mater, St. John’s University in New York City. Through his interpretation of media, this young boy grew up to be a better student, better son and better musician.
In recent years the media has been saturated with tales of the murders of young black men and women both by the police and their peers. Nevertheless, the top-rated television shows targeted toward black America are VH1’s “Love & Hip-Hop,” which portrays the dramatized lives of B-list music industry insiders and their… girlfriends? and Fox’s “Empire” featuring the dramatized life of a thug-turned hip-hop mogul-turned-murderer… and that was only in the first episode.
On the silver screen, Selma, a true story of nonviolent struggle and civil rights victory, has made just $50 million in domestic distribution since its Christmas Day release. This is compared to American Sniper, which has made more than $1 billion worldwide since its release on the same day.
So what exactly is Cookie, the leading lady of “Empire,” teaching our young girls? To wear animal print and to storm into rooms uninvited? Without positive role models like a Claire Huxtable, children who don’t have such worthwhile and beneficial figures in their life will naturally fall in line with their environmental influences, many times leading to crime, incarceration and trap music. Echoing these sentiments, J. Cole states, “I turn on the TV. Not one hero in sight. Unless he dribbles or he fiddles with mics.” Chaining Black America to these professions alone, No. 1 shows like “Love & Hip-Hop” and “Empire” are both are models of illegal activity, violence and destructive domestic relationships.
With more positive identifications of the African-American experience, our young black people will see that Chief Keef, Lucious Lyon and Erica Mena are not their only options for success in this country. During childhood, we can still guide them with extracurricular activities and stimulating information — all essential to affirmative self-identity development.
My favorite Spanish mantra translates to, “It’s better to prevent than to cure.” This is particularly true of our youth. For the children’s sake, it’s critical that we not only demand that the media portrays us as a more dynamic race, but also, that we support such initiatives with our buying power and ratings.
Lest we not forget, the richest man in the history of planet Earth, Mansa Musa, was an African, a businessman and prominent leader who ruled the Western world from his capital of Timbuktu. But you probably thought that city was fictitious… I wonder why? We are also inventors, engineers, activists. Blood transfusions, stoplights, Xerox, the Alaska Highway. We did all this, yet we are hardly credited for it.
So, my question is: Where’s Oprah? Not only does she have a strong presence in the film Selma, she also has her own television network, a show that’s aired in more than 140 countries and a net worth of over $3 billion. So why hasn’t she used her pull to get international distribution for a film she believes so strongly in? She could catapult a civil-rights issue into a human-rights issue, which Malcolm X encouraged us to do 50 years ago.
Since she’s such a proponent of education, what if the film was distributed across the country to all public schools? Can we say “tax deduction”? Maybe she could even open a school or two down in the delta of the Deep South where they have some of the worst poverty and quality of education. This is the same territory that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. proudly marched on in 1965. Fifty years later, let’s have a true full-circle moment.
This goes for all of us for that matter. We must provide balance in the media and in day-to-day life. Conscious rapper Common said in the CNN documentary Chicagoland: “Chicago has nourished me and developed me and along with that comes a responsibility.”
It is this self-awareness that we all need to have. For those of us who are fortunate enough to receive a higher education, as my family and I did, it is critical to make ourselves visible and set an example to inspire the kids coming behind us. We not only need to demand more of ourselves but also, more from these corporations that make close to a trillion dollars off of our backs every year. Let’s inspire, encourage, enlighten and propel our people towards our infinite potential. All we have left to lose is our chains.
Abrea Armstrong is a Camel City-bred writer and performer. She believes that once you know better, you do better.