Black Power TV

Black Power TV

by Devorah Heitner


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822354246
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 06/12/2013
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 9.10(w) x 6.10(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Devorah Heitner is a media scholar based in Chicago.

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Duke University Press

Copyright © 2013 Duke University Press
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ISBN: 978-0-8223-5424-6




Visualizing Black Brooklyn, 1968–1971

I happened to come from the pool hall and turned the television set on, to my surprise I got my first look at your program. It is great! Primarily because it helps bring the need for identification which in the past has been missing in Bed Stuy. Furthermore, I'm quite sure it helps in other ways, such as showing the residents and all concerned people a true and positive picture of what this community is all about.

—Letter to Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant

* A tired night-shift worker coming home to his or her New York City apartment in 1968 and turning on the television would undoubtedly have been surprised to find a group of Black students from Boys High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant earnestly discussing their community activism and their plans to return to their Brooklyn neighborhood after college. The shaky cinematography and poor sound quality would have been less surprising to this viewer than the simple fact of seeing actual Black people on television. That these young men—a valedictorian, a captain of the football team, and a student-body president—were also articulate and politically outspoken would have made the image that much more notable. In a television landscape in which Black faces were rare, Brooklyn's Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant portrayed a Black world that featured citizens making art, contributing to their community, offering political critique, and maintaining their families in spite of difficult conditions. In doing so, the program offered a distinct contrast to news images of African American protesters being arrested during urban uprisings, images that tended to depict inchoate rage, and to fictional images of Blacks that minimized American racism, such as the prime-time programs I Spy and Julia.

Broadcast on New York's leading independent commercial station, WNEW, Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant was one of the first of what would become a national genre of Black public-affairs television. It was the only Black public-affairs program to focus intensively on a single neighborhood, albeit one of the largest African American communities in the country, with at least 400,000 residents in 1967. This chapter examines the implications of both the aesthetics and the content of Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant's first two years of production. Building on my analysis of twenty-three archived episodes of the program, letters to the program, and oral history interviews with three of the program's producers and one former host, I explore how this low-budget television show articulated a positive picture of Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant that intentionally emphasized the community's divergence from outside impressions of the community.

The program initially aimed to challenge negative stereotypes while demonstrating that the community's problems were deserving of state financial support. Ultimately, it did much more: with its personable and even-handed hosts acting as ambassadors, Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant offered political and cultural visibility, claimed spaces, and depicted and supported a lively Black public sphere. In doing so, it transformed television from a site of oppression and exclusion to a site for liberation, by providing a mode of rhetorical self-defense to racist discourses circulating in the culture, documenting and encouraging activism, and celebrating Black artistic and political achievements. The program's history illustrates how a television show that focused so intimately on a single community could articulate alternative visions for Black life and Black community that were relevant to many situations beyond the neighborhood's boundaries.

Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant centered the neighborhood it documented in two important ways. First, the program, by its existence and focus on homegrown talent and political organizing, declared Bedford-Stuyvesant to be an important discursive and cultural center. This was a significant claim in a city where Harlem, with its nationally known cultural output and outspoken political leadership, dominated claims to iconic status as a Black metropolis. Bedford-Stuyvesant was seldom considered in cultural terms or as a political powerhouse. Second, the program actively centered Bedford-Stuyvesant by drawing neighbors together, interconnecting disparate elements while allowing participants to rebut arguments with which they disagreed. On the program, the neighborhood was shown to be not simply a physical space but a vibrant Black public sphere.

In the Black Power era, greater independent media resources and distribution channels facilitated African Americans' speaking both within their own communities and to a wider public—a "counterpublic strategy," in Catherine Squires's terms. Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant employed this strategy, but it also mobilized an enclave strategy: its hosts spoke to Black audiences with insider references, fully aware that Black audiences might have different understandings than other audience members. The simultaneous mobilization of these two strategies for Black publics created a program on which, as letters from viewers demonstrate, multiple interpretations were possible, yet the critique of present conditions in Black America was universally apparent.

The Origins of Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant: Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation

In the summer of 1964, unrest turned into an uprising in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant. An incident between young people and police sparked a riot by residents, who were angered by housing conditions and a lack of city services in the neighborhood. Journalists later labeled this and a nearly simultaneous uprising in Harlem the beginnings of "the long hot summers" of civil unrest. Despite the unrest and the substantial size of the community, media coverage of Bedford-Stuyvesant was minimal, even in comparison to other maligned and misrepresented Black communities, Harlem included. The only media attention the neighborhood received commented on the abysmal living conditions of some residents. In 1966, in an attempt to address these conditions, activists from the Central Brooklyn Coordinating Council invited U.S. senator Robert F. Kennedy, a Democrat from New York, to tour Bedford-Stuyvesant. At the end of the tour, the activists—among them the coordinating council leader Elsie Richardson and the prominent local judge Thomas Jones—challenged Kennedy to help the community. When Kennedy proposed to study the area, Richardson responded emphatically, "No more surveys. We've been surveyed to death."

As recently as the 1950s, Bedford-Stuyvesant had been a racially and economically mixed community with a comfortable standard of living and a solid residential core of brownstone row houses. Between 1940 and 1960, the neighborhood shifted from being 75 percent white to 85 percent African American and Latino, and by the summer of 1964 it had a reputation among many outsiders as "one of the largest ghettoes in the United States." Because of conditions created by redlining—a practice in which banks refused to grant loans or mortgages to African American businesses and homeowners—many African Americans in Bedford-Stuyvesant in the 1960s paid high rents for substandard housing. Redlining and real estate speculation intensified the demographic shift set in motion by suburban homeownership and highway expansion. Yet Bedford-Stuyvesant retained a substantial middle class of African American and Caribbean American homeowners and a large number of beautiful brownstones, despite its economic decline.

In 1967, Kennedy's collaboration with activists in Brooklyn launched Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation (BSRC), the country's first community-development corporation. The concept of community-development corporations came into being as part of the Special Impact Program, a piece of War on Poverty legislation from 1967 that amended the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. Community-development corporations intended to address critical problems by attracting private investment into under-resourced neighborhoods. Johnson's idea was that through these government-funded corporations, community action would replace cumbersome state bureaucracy and provide direct service to the poor. This mission appealed to some local activists, as well as to liberals who wanted to contribute to improving life in "the ghetto." The emphasis on private, nongovernmental response appealed to conservatives.

Kennedy did not choose Bedford-Stuyvesant for his experiment with community development by chance: he described himself as being "impressed with civic life" in the area. Another possible reason for the choice was that Bedford-Stuyvesant did not have a powerful and media-savvy Black elected official comparable to Harlem's congressman Adam Clayton Powell. The community was sufficiently poor to justify the corporation's necessity, yet it also had a middle-class base and a strong set of institutions, including the Pratt Institute, with a vested interest in working to improve conditions.

Furthermore, the community had beautiful homes that could be restored. It was on these homes that the BSrc focused its initial efforts, sponsoring employment and neighborhood improvement programs that trained unemployed local people to rehabilitate the area's ailing housing stock. An enthusiastic article about the corporation appeared in an issue of Life magazine from March 8, 1968. Calling the corporation a "ray of hope," the article's writer, a white journalist named Jack Newfield, took a positive, even promotional view of the promise of community-development corporations for poor neighborhoods. Newfield, who had grown up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, acknowledged that the BSRC had thus far produced mixed results. Many of the program's graduates, even those with demonstrable skills, were nonetheless shut out of jobs by racist unions and employers. Despite this discouraging result, Newfield still described the corporation in idealistic terms: "The project is a holistic, systematic attack on urban poverty starting with the idea of convincing private enterprise to invest massively in the ghetto. 'Because of Vietnam there just isn't enough federal money available to do the job' says Senator Kennedy who developed the project with his staff, 'so we must convince the private sector that it is their responsibility too. They can create dignifying jobs—not welfare handouts—for the poor.'"

Recognizing the potential power of such media exposure to improve the image of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Fred Papert, a BSrc board member, proposed that the BSRC start a television show of its own. Papert's suggestion, made shortly after the release of the Kerner report, also came in response to the report's criticism of the media for ignoring Black issues while sensationalizing riots. Papert suggested that the BSRC could organize a program illustrating the achievements of individuals and groups from the neighborhood. Initially, BSrc staff members asked Leslie Lacey, an African American children's author, to produce the program. According to Charles Hobson, Lacey found the "Kennedy people" difficult to work with and passed the job on to him. Hobson worked at the time for WBAI, an independent, progressive radio station in New York City affiliated with the Pacifica Network. Now a well-known documentary filmmaker, he had grown up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and he prepared a proposal for the program describing the beauty, character, and vitality of the neighborhood as he hoped to represent it. The BSRC approached WNEW (Channel 5, in New York City) and worked out an agreement to air the show.

Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant relied on both foundation sponsors and corporate sponsors to subsidize its appearance on commercial television. The mixture of sponsors it attracted reveals that both corporations and foundations were aware of and responsive to a changing racial atmosphere in the years after the uprisings. First National City Bank, Commonwealth Edison, and New York Telephone all funded the initial episodes. In subsequent seasons, the program also received funding from Coca-Cola. Each of Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant's funders had its own interest in African American representations or in Bedford-Stuyvesant as a community. Banks and utilities most likely gave to the program to display their generosity at a time when they were the targets of criticism and protest by community residents, for both their poor services to neighborhood residents and their employment practices. Dating back to the 1930s, civil rights groups had targeted both Consolidated Edison and New York Telephone for employment discrimination against African Americans and other groups. According to the former BSRC staff member Ben Gelascoe, companies like Consolidated Edison had many African American consumers in Bedford-Stuyvesant; contributing to the program was an effort to represent the company's ostensible goodwill toward the Black community. These companies used the advertising space in Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant's first season to attempt to broadcast their changing employment practices, undoubtedly in response both to new legislation and to the urban uprisings of the previous summers. The show's broadcasts also included advertisements that directly solicited African American applicants for employment with the utilities, a practice no doubt influenced by a rising tide of support for affirmative action and greater enforcement of equal-opportunity regulations.

The Ford Foundation and the Stearns Foundation, both of which helped fund Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant, also funded antipoverty organizations and efforts more broadly. In the case of Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant, foundation support for a program on commercial television that was clearly not commercial in the conventional sense suggests that the distinction between public and commercial television remained somewhat fuzzy. Indeed, Black public-affairs television itself blurred the distinction between commercial and public television in this era, as both kinds of broadcast outlets responded to the pressures to create Black programming. At the premiere of Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant, in April 1968, Fred Papert spoke of the paucity of media resources available in the community: "The series is a perfect example of television being as good for the audience as it is for the sponsors. It's responsive to the basic communications needs of the nearly half million people who live in this community who up to now have boasted no radio, television or daily newspaper of their own."

Showing the Good Side of the Ghetto

Newsweek quoted the producers of Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant, saying that the show focused on the "'good side of the ghetto," and the New York Times described the show as "a mixture of neighborhood news, interviews, and entertainment television." The windblown hosts Roxie Roker and Jim Lowry (see figures 1.1 and 1.2) linked the program's seemingly incongruous elements, including outdoor performances, news segments, and community forums. The pair interviewed Black Panthers and Black congressional hopefuls, introduced performances by musicians such as the Persuasions and Max Roach, and gave a platform to local activists. The thirteen episodes of Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant's first season were created with a low budget of $45,000. This resulted in hastily filmed and edited footage that appeared sloppy by television conventions of the time. It was clearly the content that attracted the audience, not the style. In an interview, Charles Hobson recalled: "Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant was a very minuscule production ... minimal production values.... In a way, if the content weren't so interesting and historic it would almost be like an embarrassment.... We worked with what we had."

The decision to film outdoors, likely made due to budget limitations, nonetheless created a distinctive aesthetic. This style emphasized the accessibility of the program and created a significantly different feel than that of a studio-based program. The hosts and crew became a familiar sight in the neighborhood, increasing the comfort level of Bedford-Stuyvesant residents with the program. The program's accessibility, unusual for television of this era, made it porous: individuals could and did walk on camera during the filming and as a result were featured in the broadcast. Most local news coverage of African American communities, by contrast, consisted of a breathless, get-in-and-get-out-with-a-story style of journalism, eschewing the sustained engagement of Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant. Filming the program throughout the neighborhood invited viewers from many parts of the community and showcased the diversity of the area's architecture, public spaces, and institutions. By naming these locations "inside," as the title suggests, the program claimed them as being part of Bedford-Stuyvesant and proudly marked it as a beloved and thriving community, a strategy that helped to improve the community's image in the minds of both residents and nonresidents.

Excerpted from BLACK POWER TV by DEVORAH HEITNER. Copyright © 2013 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Reverberations of the King Assassination 1

1 Welcome to Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant, Your Community Program! Visualizing Black Brooklyn, 1968-1971 24

2 Say Brother and Boston's New Principles of Blackness 53

3 No Thanks for Tokenism: Telling Stories from a Black Nation Black Journal, 1968-1970 83

4 That New Black Magic: Black Arts and Women's Liberation on Soul! 123

Conclusion 153

Notes 159

Bibliography 171

Index 185

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