Had to dig deep on this one.
While giving thought to this year so far, I thought about the number of controversies surrounding Black men, ranging from the police shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo., to the abuse scandals in the NFL to the consistently increasing Black male murder rate in Chicago to the resignation of Eric Holder that have all been in the news cycle. I figured it was time for a throwback to see what this same conversation was like a generation ago.
So I found a January 15, 1988, taping of San Francisco station KPIX-TV’s “People are Talking,” a morning show not unlike many shows of the day whose basic formula was an audience that applauded on cue, semi-interesting guests and a host or two that asks non-threatening questions. In this instance, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday was the topic, but the producers of the show got far more than they bargained for.
The guests on that show that day were then-UC Berkeley professor and activist Ishmael Reed; educator, scholar, and author of Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys Jawanza Kunjufu; and Black Panther Party founder Huey P. Newton in one of his final public appearances.
The show focused on the image of Black men in our society as a topic and opened with a rundown of Black statistics that have not really changed in 26 years. The first segment focused on comments made by sports analyst Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder about Black athletes in the NFL. Despite the uproar that eventually led to Snyder’s firing, Newton actually called the comments “pretty accurate” based on what is now called selective breeding practiced by slave owners.
From there, the topic got further and further from Dr. King and then arrived at how Black men are perceived and treated in America. Before long, Newton, Reed, and Kunjufu had complete control of the show and hosts Ann Fraser and Ross McGowan (and possibly a shocked director) seem to be in way above their heads.
Probably the most-poignant part of the entire show was when Newton talked about what happened to the Black Panthers: how they were dismantled and spied upon and how Newton himself was the subject of a witch hunt — to which Fraser naïvely responded, “You scared people, Huey.”
The exchange really signified how Black males are educated, perceived, and punished, which is much more than this country acknowledges. In fact, these issues deserved a more serious forum than two feel-good talk show hosts could ever give it.
Maybe Mike Brown and Ramarley Graham happened because people actually think racial issues can be solved over the course of an hour, a few cups of coffee, and big hair.
There is a lot more to this show than I’m telling you here, but please watch it in its entirety below and learn. Much of it talks about the racial history of the Bay Area and the struggle that ensued. So for the subject matter that was discussed, there couldn’t have been a worse platform than an ’80s morning show. I mean, my God, you’re talking about racial profiling, and a few minutes later, cue the cheesy saxophone.
But frankly, campy theme music notwithstanding it’s a rare piece of television history.
Kunjufu most recently authored the 2011 scholarly work Understanding Black Male Learning Styles and is still a well-known speaker on the university circuit and his works can be found at africanamericanimages.com.
Reed runs the online publication Konch and most recently authored 2012’s “Going Too Far: Essays About America’s Nervous Breakdown.”
About a year and a half after this show aired, Newton was killed in a botched drug deal in the same neighborhood where he once organized community and youth programs.
“People are Talking” went off the air in 1992 during the ratings war when “Oprah” took over.
Madison J. Gray is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based multimedia journalist specializing in urban issues and criminal justice. He writes for NewsOne on the subject of Black males in America. Follow him on Twitter:@madisonjgray