- The Good Side of the Ghetto: 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 written by Edwin Mating to Inside Bedford Stuyvesant, 29 April 1968
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 high school 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 noticeable to this viewer than the simple fact of seeing actual black people on television. The fact that these young people—the valedictorian, the captain of the football team, and the student body president—were also articulate and politically outspoken made the image that much more notable. By portraying a black world that featured African American hosts and guests, Inside Bedford Stuyvesant (IBS) contrasted with a television landscape in which black faces were rarely seen on television. The show’s images of black citizens making art, contributing to their community, offering political critique, and maintaining their families in spite of difficult conditions offered a contrast to news images of African American protesters being arrested during urban uprisings, which tended to depict inchoate rage without the articulate critique prominently featured on IBS. Furthermore, the program also offered a sharp contrast to fictional images of blacks that minimized American racism, such as the prime-time programs I Spy and Julia.
In fact, IBS, broadcast on New York’s leading independent commercial station, WNEW, was the first of what would become a national genre of black public affairs television. In addition to being the first program of its kind, it was the only black public affairs television program to focus so intensively on a single neighborhood (albeit a neighborhood with a population of more than 400,000). IBS, despite a minuscule budget and marginal broadcast times of 1:00 A.M. and 7:00 A.M., had a significant impact that was visible in both the program footage itself as well as letters the program received. WNEW, as an independent commercial station, offered the most accessible channel for such a low-budget program, a program that could not even meet the production standards of New York City’s emerging public station, WNET.1
IBS painted a living portrait of Bedford Stuyvesant, one of the largest African American communities in the country, with at least 400,000 residents in 1967. After the demise of the program the community would not see a substantial mass-media representation again until Spike Lee’s feature film Do the Right Thing created a portrait of the neighborhood in 1989. In the post–civil rights or Black Power era black public affairs programs such as IBS played a key role in partially transforming television from a site of oppression and exclusion to a site for liberation. The producers and hosts of the program accomplished this transformation by documenting and encouraging activism, celebrating black artistic and political achievements, and providing a mode of rhetorical self-defense to racist discourses circulating in the culture. In the 1950s and early 1960s, as news cameras brought the southern civil rights struggles to screens across the nation, television became a vital staging ground for struggles over African American citizenship and justice. However, African Americans still had little control over their representation and were almost never featured in the role of interpreter, newscaster, [End Page 48] or writer. On IBS the hosts and writers were African American, representing a major change in the status quo.
In Shot in America: Television, the State, and the Rise of Chicano Cinema Chon Noriega demonstrates how...