In April 1976, actress Denise Nicholas, whose work included classic performances in films like A Piece of the Action and Let’s Do It Again, wrote a commentary in the magazine, Black World, called “A Personal View from the Inside – Outside”. Though I was only a wee girl at the time it was printed, her editorial captures my angst present-day about presenting critical information about race, politics, education – or my research mainstay, eugenics – unless filtered through popular vehicles like television and film.
“But something happened. Black people stopped looking at each other in their own bars, nightclubs, and neighborhoods and started watching whites on TV. We stopped needing to have discussions with each other, stopped going to hear our own music, stopped dreaming our own dreams. We started trying to live white people’s fantasies. Television was in, though, whether I watched it or not, and I just missed by a hair the kind of total absorption in it that is popular today. I didn’t get addicted until much later when life itself grew incomprehensible,” Ms. Nicholson wrote.
We’d stopped looking and dreaming, according to Ms. Nicholson, in 1976.
And here we are in 2020 and many have also stopped listening. We hear, but everything is muffled into the type of monotonous droning made by household appliances that we synthesize into the background – and only acknowledge when something excitable or titillating within it gives us pause. Too many of us are still wearing Paul Laurence Dunbar’s masks – in hopes of shielding our tears and sighs from the outside world. However, without clear understanding and direction, we stop doing the real work of challenging our own perceptions, biases, and fears and easily become locked behind those masks, or in this case television screens with our best selves rendered ineffective.
This year’s Acumen lectures have blessed me to see just how absorbed and addicted we are to the world around us – through television. But has your viewing shackled you to the television? Are your dreams sutured to the airwaves and programming you watch? Have you synthesized what you ingest on telly into background noise to keep you from being lonely, productive, responsible, engaged, or afraid?
Real talk: Set aside the masks and let’s get back to looking at and loving one another. If you must watch telly, do so with discerning inquiry and a researchers' gaze