Black Men's Voices: A Collection of Stories Breaks New Ground, but Still Falls Short

Article excerpt


By The Washington Post and Kevin Merida

Public Affairs, 354 pages

TRYING TO UNDERSTAND Bob Johnson's perspective on life as a Black man is like playing Twister--it's exhilarating to track the billionaire's lurching logic, but you're more likely to fall down laughing than make any sense of it. His interview with The Washington Post's talented Joe Davidson is nonetheless a highlight of the paper's Being a Black Man collection. The book represents an unprecedented effort from mainstream media to explore Black-American manhood that is at times as surprisingly engaging as Johnson and Davidson's dialogue, but is often as frustratingly limited as the news media's more routine efforts to cover race.


In 2006, the Post decided to put the familiar debates about Black manhood on pause and, in editor Kevin Merida's words, to instead "allow [Black men] to be seen and heard in uncommon ways." The series broke new ground in both volume and style: the Post ran 15 print stories accompanied by an impressive suite of multimedia Web features. Rarely has a news organization spent such substantive time on Black folks, and perhaps never have Black men been featured in so many of the sort of personality-driven profiles that can transform "issues" into relatable stories.

Readers' tremendous responsea to the series prompted the Post to fashion it into a book, adding a few essays and interviews. These add-ons stand out as the collection's most innovative pieces, and Davidson's provocative sit-down with BET founder Johnson is among them.

Johnson was America's first Black billionaire, who by his own reckoning got rich peddling often-demeaning music videos to what he and Davidson call "the booty shakers." He's equally unabashed about having strong-armed labor and penny-pinched his network's investment in content. But Johnson dismisses the criticism he receives for these deeds as racist cant. He insists he's been made a foil for liberal, white journalists who "do not believe in Black wealth creation" and self-serving Black reporters "who wanted to prove that they could be tough to their white editors." To Johnson, America is racist because a Black man can't be greedy.

Yet, Johnson's greed also informs a refreshingly forceful argument for state-led efforts to create equal opportunity. Having parlayed BET into an empire that includes an NBA team and 120 hotels, he sees how white the upper echelons of corporate America remain and bluntly describes the structural racism that creates that reality. "People always ask: 'Why do [B]lack people buy Cadillac cars when they don't have a house?' Well, you could get financing on a Cadillac car," Johnson quips. …