Representation of African Americans in the media is such a problem the subject even has its own Wikipedia page. Seriously. And while the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile have only heightened these concerns due to the images and narratives of the slain black men mainstream media chooses to tell, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
BET has just announced Melissa Harris-Perry will join the network as a special correspondent. In that role, Harris-Perry will “host and contribute to various BET News programs and develop longform news specials for the network,” Deadline reports. Her first assignment will be co-anchoring election coverage for the Republican and Democratic National Conventions alongside Marc Lamont Hill (as soon an Sunday, July 24 BET is planning to air an hourlong recap special on the GOP gathering at 11 AM). And while this is obviously sweet news to our ears, we can’t help but wonder whether this appointment will have far-reaching benefits outside of our community.
For us, Harris-Perry’s new role means we don’t have to sift through political grandstanding and second-hand analyses on issues that matter to us from people who look nothing like us. Harris-Perry can speak directly to how our specific concerns are or are not being addressed during the conventions and call those who fall in the latter category to task. But what this may also mean is other networks might actually start to pay attention to the way in which news about minority issues is relayed and follow suit. It’s a hopeful premise, but the closest thing we have to manifesting Black Twitter in the flesh, lest Viacom and NBCUniversal prove to be one in the same.
Of course this isn’t BET’s first foray into hard news. From 1996-2001, Tavis Smiley hosted BET Talk, later named BET Tonight, a talk show that offered poignant commentary on issues plaguing our community most. And in 2001, the network began airing BET Nightly News which Michelle Miller and Jacque Reid hosted at different times. T.J. Holmes even landed a short-lived late night news talk show, Don’t Sleep, in 2012, but never has the network had a correspondent of such caliber as Harris-Perry.
Even if mainstream media doesn’t care what Harris-Perry has to say, they’ll likely still be tuning in for the simple fact that the Wake Forest professor left MSNBC in a blaze of non-token mammy glory when she accused the network of taking over her show during election season and then putting her on air again to “save face.” Whether to see her sail or falter, critics will be watching MHP and that could mean great things for her and BET, so long as we tune in too.
For years, BET has come to be the media third cousin we love to hate. Our expectations of the network are so low, any step in the right direction that’s made is applauded far and wide — hello Prince tribute. Given Harris-Perry’s history of not being afraid to state the facts as they are, no matter who might be offended, as a high-profile correspondent, she might just have the kind of eyeballs on her that will encourage networks to stop drudging up mugshots of slain black men or using words like “thug” to describe our men. And while there’s been no mention of synergies between Harris-Perry’s Elle post and her joining BET, it would reason that there’d be at least some overlap that would open white eyes up to the reality of the issues we’ve tried to get them to understand for years, if not decades.
But all of that depends on whether we choose to support MHP in this new post. The sour taste BET has left in many of our mouths, thanks to programs like Uncut, has led many of us to acknowledge the progresses the network has made with our minds, but not with our eyes necessarily. Viewership, you know the kind we gave to Being Mary Jane in season 1 when Omari and Gabby had some of the raunchiest, voyeuristic sex scenes we’d ever seen on a non-HBO cable station, will be necessary to facilitate Harris-Perry’s presence on BET to have the impact that it should.
If we are serious about wanting the kind of representation this appointment can provide to become commonplace rather than novel, we have to start with internal support first and give the mainstream audience a reason to tune in and learn from us.