Saturday, March 28, 2009

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.


Carl said...

Mr. Muhammad,
Your analysis of this prime
issue for us, as a people,
is right on point.
To say to the world who
we are, we must know, in
reality, who we are.
The proper study of our
true history will guide to
what is real and what is
false or unreal.

William P. Muhammad said...

In this "media driven world" those who have accepted the "blue pill" (reference to The Matrix) only perpetuate the cycle of falsehood and continue the illusion of nihilism.

We MUST break this cycle if we as a people are to prosper in this century. I agree that the proper study of history is a prerequisite to shifting the paradigm.

I would also add that we need a systematic program that breaks the mind of so-called Black inferiority in order to overcome the mind and institutional systems of so-called white supremacy...

janice_phil said...

this is a great piece of literature but you know what i understand the history of black people i may not fully but somehow i do... n i don't think you still need to stand up for what? black people have proved enough you people are great athletes, singers, almost all fields you all guys excels, n now the president is black, isn't it enough yet? why not just be content n just do the right thing?

by the way last night i watched news and jamie fox aid lots of bad words against he said somthing bad that in my own personal opinion it wasn't right at all. so people wathed n heard that would say truly no matter what blac is black no matter what position in society.

yuo are also true that media is very influencial in human existence now adays, but i think if a certain individual has his own mind he/she can't just let the media affect his/her thinking it could serve as his inspirational but u know what i believe it just all part of human evolution.

what is saddened me is that i hope that the history of black like this black like that will be over now...but the reality is, its hard to be over because what dominates is the bad black and thats what in people non white minds just how jamie fox words just nasty.

but anyway...your write so well i hope you apply in new york times n be a writeer ther,,go! go1 go!!! try it.. i believe they will hire you... or usa today...go...i am your number reader..hehe!

William P. Muhammad said...


While I am not familiar with the Jamie Fox piece, if it was vulgar or using crude humor then I agree with you that it was inappropriate. We have too much non-sense in the mass media.

Please note that I have no problem with entertainment in general, but I also think that an intelligent mind doesn't need to be vulgar or crude to be funny.

On personal excellence, I agree with you that many Blacks have risen to the top in athletics, entertainment etc, but if we examine the masses of our population, we unfortunately have the lowest test scores in mathematics and the sciences and low numbers, particularly among men, for going into higher education.

In order for there to be true equity in this civilization, then within the Black community, there must be a concerted effort to rise above the status quo and take it to the next level.

We must not only be athletes and entertainers, but we must also be thinkers and builders.

I think Mr. Obama will serve as an inspiration toward that effect and as such, motivate the current generation of younger people to become "excellent."

With excellence, I think equity and equality will come naturally. The burden is upon self...