Who defines reality in a media driven world?

By William P. Muhammad

There is an old rhetorical question which in itself highlights one of humanity’s many philosophical paradoxes: Is life an imitation of art or is art an imitation of life? In today’s media driven world we are bombarded daily with images and messages that dictate everything from the clothes we should wear to thoughts we should think. In society’s attempt to define the “mainstream,” mass media clearly plays a major role in both our preferences and our prejudices. What we accept and what we reject is but the byproduct of either the medium, which is the message (according to certain communication scholars) or the individual ethos, which together with other persons creates a collective sense of social morality.

For African-Americans or the American descendants of enslaved Africans, this paradox is perhaps most acute when discussing the socio-economic dysfunction that occurs within our various communities and neighborhoods. Particularly among our youth, we must ask the question: Was it the dysfunction that created the condition or the condition that caused the dysfunction?

For those who do not know or understand the history of Black Americans and as such, the history and consequences of our travails in North America, it would be all too easy to associate the root causes of social dysfunction to some sort of inherent flaw in Black people. While accepting such thinking is at best intellectually dishonest, failing to consider the law of cause and effect, in both nature and human nature, blinds the observer from regarding not only the problems associated with historical injustice, but also with accepting potential solutions that may be of benefit to all.

Considering the length of time the descendants of the enslaved have been in America, one may note that it has been 454 years, including the 64 years of hidden history omitted from the books. Additionally, if one considers that the practice of enslavement officially ended in 1865, and that the full rights of citizenship, at least on paper, were finally granted with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, African-Americans have been so-called free for only 44 out of our 454 years presence.

Be that as it may, the burden of history carries with it a two edged sword. On one side is the cause of grievance and on the other, its effect upon the aggrieved. Under this paradigm, an astute observer will notice that both time and pressure yield unique manifestations in the human condition. The hardening of a people’s resolve to define their own reality is one such expression as is caving in under the stress of injustice.

If the cause is the pressure of continual discrimination, inequity and bias, and one of the outcomes is either the hardening of a people’s resolve or the breaking down of the aggrieved party’s psyche, then it is safe to say that community dysfunction is not a condition exclusive to Black people. While proponents of the so-called “Bell Curve” theory may feel otherwise, it is a patent falsehood to equate the DNA of Black people to some sort of innate weakness or flaw. The prejudice such pseudoscience engenders harkens back to the days of the eugenics movement where genocidal philosophies and rhetoric led to policies reflecting injustice and the worst of mankind’s inhumanity toward others.

Reinforced through media, virtually every generation has promoted a negative stereotype of Black people. From blatantly racist films such as W.D. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation to the tasteless buffoonery of MGM’s Soul Plane, whether intentionally mean-spirited or ignorantly self-inflicted, the message of the so-called brutish or oversexed Black male has been disseminated throughout America and the world. However, in his attempt to define his own reality, the Black American has yet more battles to fight as his caricature is held before the international community as a mockery.

In this struggle to delineate the proper image of the Black man and woman of America, for far too long media has controlled the terms over which Black America is defined. Whether the “good Negro” or the “bad Negro,” America’s dominant culture has presented us to the world through the prism of its hopes and fears. Lacking a definition of our own to present as a counter-measure, mass media is free to mold our image and to classify us, according to their standards, as either an acceptable or unacceptable participant in society. Causing those unaware to embrace their media driven caricature, the Black community finds itself imitating that which media has created: the dominant culture’s definition of what it mean’s to be Black.

It is a travesty to allow others to create and control our image as a people, and the responsibility to change such behavior lies squarely upon our own shoulders. As the debate continues over which imitates the other, art or life, it becomes clear that each philosophy has its own consequences. If we believe and live as though media is a reflection of life, then we have the power and opportunity to define ourselves in a media driven world. However, if we live and believe as though the opposite is true, then we have forfeited the right to define ourselves in that same world.

Unless and until Black America chooses to define itself outside of the box media has created for us, we will continue to be trapped within the paradox of caricature and a self-defined reality. It is time for us to break the mold, stand up and take our rightful place at the table of civilized nations. We must “make a name for ourselves” and not let others make one for us.

Brother William P. Muhammad is an author and a graduate of the University of Texas at El Paso.