“Levees Around My Heart”, part 2
To begin…yes, I know the character Stephen Colbert plays on his Colbert Report is a parody of most right-wing talk show hosts out there, especially a certain Bill O’Reilly, and the line of questioning Colbert whips out on his guests is largely a put-on, but there is always some truth behind the humor. Some of the best comedians of years past – Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Bill Hicks, to name a few – have sought to make you think through your laughter, to see the absurdity of this thing called life, warts, dingy corners, under-the-table shenanigans, hypocrisy and all. It simply occurred to me, when watching Colbert stymie David Simon with a question of why white people like to watch black people on TV, that it isn’t such a joke of a question. It doesn’t just surround Simon, it surrounds us all.
I’ve done a lot of thinking in recent years about the ways in which white privilege is still with us despite the civil rights movement and the acts that were passed in the mid-sixties. I went back and consulted a list I’d found in David K. Shipler’s A Country of Strangers of benefits we as white people enjoy that are unseen to us but are front and center to members of the “Other” category. A larger sampling of the list, authored by women’s studies educator Peggy McIntosh, can be found here. When you consider how much our society is still largely geared towards the stuff white people like, the way white people learn, and the way white people do business, it changes your vision some – how you act, how you regard the things you take for granted…
…like, for instance, a TV show.
It’s a pisser that a show with as much potential as Treme has can’t get past the programming wall the nonpay channels have set up against programs of its ilk – and when something does get through, the results have been less than satisfactory, to put it mildly. I’m happy that locally, the Mother-In-Law Lounge has decided to step in and show the premiere, and I hope it and other public places will keep it up. If there’s one thing the entertainment industry as a whole has been quite good at, it’s turning creative voyeurism into greenbacks, but I don’t know too many people wanting to run out and get HBO just to watch this show (hell, I’m not even going to run out and get basic cable).
And so, because one has to shell out extra money right off the bat just to see this in the living room, the audience is already quite limited. With that alone, it leans heavily towards white people looking over a cathode-ray chasm at a realistic tale involving more black people than are usually seen on TV trying to rebuild their lives in a devastated New Orleans.
The question of white people watching TV shows about black people is only the beginning. The questions that further probe this subject involve how the entertainment industry works, and how it perpetuates the distances between the races for its own benefit... and how much we still take all of that for granted. Because, after all, our society is fueling what we see and what we don’t see, as well as what we choose not to see.
For nearly five years, the rest of this country has been able to push the problems exposed so harshly and cruelly by the events of 8/29/2005 off to the side. Some of those problems are unique to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, but the bigger ones concerning our crumbling infrastructure, the decisions our politicians make that send our taxes God knows where, our (lack of) preparedness for anything the future may throw our way, and how much these problems affect us differently depending on what color we are have taken shape in the form of a massive weight that has not been lifted from us to this day. I want to hope that the creative powers behind Treme reopen everyone’s eyes about these problems, especially about how unequal all things still are. Contrary to some folks’ beliefs that we are “so over it” down here, we’re not. In reality, no one else in this country is, either.
But here we all are, still doing no better than looking at each other through one-way glass.
I do hope the levees around everyone’s hearts are permeable, at least.