This (Black) American Life

Sometimes I imagine that I am Ira Glass, reflecting on society’s oddities and ironies behind the microphone at WBEZ Chicago, pondering new punchlines to humanity’s oldest riddles, narrating stories with the conversational rhythm of old friends at the kitchen table.

To my mind, there is no better radio program than This American Life (and maybe Car Talk) for its creative and clear-eyed appreciation of everyday life. Take an episode from this past summer called “The Fine Print” (#386) that brilliantly loops together the hidden meanings of contracts, forced confessions, insurance policies, a parent’s divorce papers, and an fictitious agreement between a son and his overbearing mother. This last story by David Rakoff, subtitled “Occupancy May Be Revoked Without Notice” made me howl with laughter and passive-aggressive shame.

The show isn’t well known for its rich cultural representations; what’s “American” about this particular life is the diversity of experience – microscoping in, telescoping out and around the peculiarities of a single theme. I think it’s safe to say that the show’s content reflects the interests of the typical white, progressive, well-educated NPR listener, though its audience is undoubtedly¬† a bit younger than the target demographic for Prairie Home Companion. Lately, though, I’ve begun to think that This American Life is missing a precious opportunity.

In a program that takes such care in finding the unique textures of our contemporary moment, I crave more complex stories about black Americans that uncover everyday truths and unexpected levity in the midst of crisis. Mini-narratives that recognize racial realities without being limited by the latest controversy. Or segments that shape the raw multicultural materials of NPR’s Oral History Project, StoryCorps, into creative works of art. I don’t get the impression that This American Life aspires to “color-blind” airwaves – and if often covers the impact of international issues quite well – or that its producers are going out of their way to avoid stories about race and black experience. Nevertheless, I can’t help but express my growing frustration with the fact that so many stories about this American life have yet to be aired.

And now, for your consideration:

This (Black) American Life

Episode #1: Name Games


Prologue: One year into Barack Obama’s historic presidency, our nation’s Secretary of Post-racial Affairs, writer Colson Whitehead, reveals that America’s racial crisis can be better understood as a “branding problem.”

Act One: “Obama Middle School”

A reporter follows the efforts of a group of school children and their parents who want to rename their middle school, not after the 44th President, but after First Lady Michelle Obama.

Song: “Blak Girls” by Shelley Nicole’s Blakbushe

Act Two: “His mama named him Clay, I’ma call him Clay.”

As a freshman at Howard University in the 1980s, Phillip Johnson stunned his family and friends back in South Carolina by taking an African name. Over 20 years later, he considers why it may have been one of the best and the worst decisions of his life.

Poem: “I Am a Black” by Gwendolyn Brooks

Act Three: “My Name is Roosevelt Franklin.”

Hear the story from one of Sesame Street’s creators about the controversy surrounding a favorite African-American character, Roosevelt Franklin, who was retired from the show in 1975 after complaints from parents. Now as Roosevelt makes a cameo appearance in the show’s 40th season, we reflect on the lessons of the muppet who taught us that “Black is a fact, there is no taking it back.”

Song: “The Skin I’m In” by Matt Robinson (the voice of Roosevelt Franklin)

13 responses to this post.

  1. this is beautiful. i hope hope hope you’ll send it to ira glass. like, now.


  2. Posted by Wilhelmina Jenkins on November 20, 2009 at 12:17 PM

    I love it! They should hire you on the spot!


  3. Posted by Shermy on November 20, 2009 at 2:38 PM

    Agree with the earlier comments. This is just awesome! You must pitch this to somebody!!!!!!!!!!!!! I too have my issues with this (white) american life. I’ve never listened to it, or watched it, it just didn’t seem to include anything related to MY american experience.


  4. This is wonderful! I, too, love-love-love TAL and Ira … and you totallly nailed the one complaint I ever have about the show. Please send this to him (and, from Wilhelmina’s keyboard to Ira’s mind)!


  5. Thanks, everyone. I really appreciate the feedback and I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one who feels this way about the show. On Twitter, I was directed to Youth Radio for its diverse programming, so I’ll be checking that out too.


  6. Posted by Coco on December 2, 2009 at 2:35 PM

    I really love this! I always wonder what we can do for more (solid) black programming on both radio and television.


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  9. I’m just reading this now. This is great. There must be some way of making this happen, other than waiting for Ira Glass to call. (Although, wouldn’t it beyong cool if Ira Glass called?)


  10. Is THAT what happened to Roosevelt??? He was out because of a complaint from parents??


    • Such a shame, right! Something about his school looking too much like a juvenile detention center, along with his use of slang. It just looks like a muppet-version of “Welcome Back, Kotter” to me…


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