MICHELE MARTIN, host:
And now it's time for our weekly opinion page segment. A few weeks ago, Leonard Pitts, a Pulitzer Prize-winning, nationally syndicated columnist wrote a provocative piece in The Miami Herald. Pitts argued that it is African-Americans who bear significant responsibility for the negative cultural images that are affecting the self-esteem of African-American children.
Pitts' column was inspired by the work of Kiri Davis, a 17-year-old filmmaker, whose short film, A Girl Like Me, was at self-inspired by the famous doll tests that were originally conducted by Dr. Kenneth Clark in the 1930s. These tests were used to convince the Supreme Court to strike down segregation in the Brown V. Board of Education Decision.
In Davis' effort, 21 African-American children were asked to choose between white and black dolls when asked a series of questions.
Ms. Kiri Davis (Filmmaker, A Girl Like Me): Can you show me the doll that is the nice doll?
And why is that the nice doll?
Unidentified Girl: He is white.
Ms. DAVIS: And can you show me the doll that looks bad? Okay. And can you give - and why does that look bad?
Unidentified Girl: Because he's black.
MARTIN: Davis says that 15 of the 21 children preferred the white doll. We will have a chance to talk with Kiri Davies in a few minutes. And we want to hear from you on this issue. Our number is 1-800-989-TALK.
But first, we're joined by Leonard Pitts who's on the phone with us from his office at the University of Maryland at College Park. Welcome.
Mr. LEONARD PITTS (Columnist, The Miami Herald): Thank you.
MARTIN: Thank you for joining us.
Mr. PITTS: Sure.
MARTIN: You wrote very eloquently about the scene in the film that we have heard, which I may say is as painful to listen to as it to see. What struck you when you first saw the film?
Mr. PITTS: I think the thing that struck me the hardest was that somehow I had assume that although things are certainly not perfect now that we have at least made some progress from when Dr. Clark did the same test in the 30s and 40s.
And to find, you know, roughly three-quarters of the children that Ms. Davis interviewed coming back with the same results that he had gotten a lifetime ago. That really shoot me, that really made me angry.
MARTIN: Do you think, you've - when you think about it? Do you think you've seen that in your world? I mean you're working with students. You're reporting and so forth. Do you think that you've seen that before?
Mr. PITTS: I think that there is evidence of, you know, of African-Americans self-loathing at the - sort of written throughout our pop culture, at least as it exists today with a lot of hip-hop culture, I think that's what it's based on. I just had no idea that it was quite as profound and explicit as it seems to be from this new doll test.
MARTIN: In your column, you talked about moving from heartbreak to developing a sense of outrage that African-Americans have become complicit in all this, in what way?
Mr. PITTS: Well, once upon a time when we were talking about the negative images of African-Americans, we were talking about images in which we played no part. We were not the gatekeepers. We were essentially the hired helped, the actors and actress, but we were not the writers or the producers or the directors of this material. And increasingly now, we are. It's still, you know, disproportionate - still to a disproportionate degree. But we do have more power, let's say, in shaping those images than we did, particularly in terms of music videos, than we did 60 or 70 years ago. So I think that, you know, if we're going to be the gatekeepers then we have to bear the responsibility of gatekeepers.
MARTIN: What are some other things that specifically that you feel contribute to this negative self-image that are produced by African-American - I guess, what I would say cultural workers, if you will. You know, filmmakers, etcetera.
Mr. PITTS JR.: I think that if you turned on and spent a few minutes with BET or any of the video channels, you would see it. I think you'd find, you know, prodigious and promiscuous use of the N-word. I think you would find language describing women that is more fit to be used describing dogs. I think you would find this sort of cartoon-ish sexuality on the part of women, this cartoon-ish, you know, sexuality and masculinity in the men. I think if you turn and look at most of the sitcoms that are produced by and for or about African-Americans, it's seldom that you go through one of those and one of the characters does not feel the need to break out in a dance for some reason or another. As somebody who's been African-American for 49 years, I can tell you that days and even weeks go by without me, you know, feeling the need to break out in a dance on the living room floor.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: OK. You're invited to join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Now in the film, Kiri Davis interviews several African-American teenage girls who suggest that one reason some kids buy into this, or view themselves as inferior, is still because of the legacy of slavery. Do you think that that might also be true?
Mr. PITTS: I think that's part of it. I think part of the legacy of slavery and/or the legacy of Jim Crow - the thing that we as blacks and whites sometimes fail to understand is that black people are not immune to the, you know, to the teachings of white supremacy. There's - somehow, there's this thinking that there's some sort of membrane or wall that protects us, and the fact is that there is not, that the messages that white kids get of their superiority are the same messages that we get, and that those messages can filter into, you know, black kids, and they can settle, and they can internalize if you are not very careful and very vigilant.
In our community, to this day, there are still those who believe that the finer your hair is, the better it is. They call it good hair. If your hair is kinky or more characteristically African, then it's bad hair. If you have dark skin, then you are considered less attractive than if you have lighter skin. I mean, all of these things are legacies of slavery, things that we were taught in slavery, and things that still exist to this day.
You won't hear black folks talking about it too much, you know, in public, but if you are black, you know, then you've heard these things.
MARTIN: Let's go to Charlotte, North Carolina and Calvin(ph).
CALVIN (Caller): Hi, how are you doing?
Mr. PITTS: Good, and you?
CALVIN: Great. I'm doing fine. Brother Pitts, I love your column. I read it incessantly, and I agree with you 100 percent.
Mr. PITTS: Why thank you.
CALVIN: We are complicit. We're doing a major hatchet job on our own people: our artists, our producers, our writers, our directors, our musicians. We're doing a hatchet job on African-American people, and it just doesn't deal with skin color, also. Just this whole issue of what makes a black woman beautiful just in terms of, you know, her size and her physical essence.
Mr. PITTS: Yeah.
CALVIN: We've got a problem with that, too, and that was something we didn't have, you know. I'm an actor, and I spent five years in L.A., and I would look at the pressure that African-American women who are in the industry are placed under, you know, to maintain a certain size, you know, and to do things to their hair and in terms of makeup, you know, to make themselves more acceptable, not just to whites, but also to black people.
Mr. PITTS: Yeah. I wrote a column a few years ago, citing - and the only evidence I could find was anecdotal, but it was pretty powerful - that anorexia and some of these eating disorders that afflict, you know, white girls who are trying to, you know, maintain this ideal, that they were pretty much unknown in our population. And you know, it seems like you see, you know, more of that, or at least more emphasis on this unreal body type.
And the other thing that's fascinating to me is, you know, you talk about that we're doing a hatchet job on ourselves. We're doing it for the money, which is…
Mr. PITTS: …you know, really the most frustrating thing. It's purely a sellout, because there's money to be made.
MARTIN: Okay, Calvin, thank you so much for calling.
CALVIN: Thank you.
MARTIN: Let's bring in filmmaker Kiri Davis. She joins us from the NPR studios in our New York bureau. Kiri, thank you so much for joining us.
Ms. KIRI DAVIS (Filmmaker, A Girl Like Me): Oh, thanks for having me.
MARTIN: You're only 17.
Ms. DAVIS: Yeah. I did the film when I was 16, and so right now it's just now starting to get a lot of play, and a lot of talk about it, so it's really interesting, really exciting.
Ms. DAVIS: Thank you.
MARTIN: And let me say, I hope you're not cutting class to talk to us.
Ms. DAVIS: Oh no.
MARTIN: Okay, just wanted to be sure.
Ms. DAVIS: Today's a holiday.
MARTIN: Okay, terrific.
Ms. DAVIS: Yom Kippur.
MARTIN: How did you get interested in this topic?
Ms. DAVIS: Well, it actually started out as a school project. I was asked to make, like, an anthology for a literature class, and mine was on - it was called Black Girls, Through Our Eyes. And we had stories from, like, The Bluest Eye to the Ruby Bridges story. And from my chapter divisions, I decided to interview black girls and black women about their experiences from racism to basically their families. And we also talked about beauty and the standards of beauty that they felt were kind of imposed upon them kept coming up. And the stories these girls were telling I thought were really interesting, and things that me and my friends had gone through. And I just thought it would make a really interesting film, just to kind of put it all out there so the subject matter wouldn't be as taboo, and people would kind of wake up to it.
MARTIN: Is that something that's troubled you personally, that you've been bothered by, something that you've struggled with? I mean, of course in adolescence, a lot of us sort of feel like oh, I don't like my nose. And you know, we're not the only ethnic group to have those kinds of feelings. But just on a personal level and a cultural level, is it something that you've struggled with yourself?
Ms. DAVIS: Yeah, I think in some ways, me and my friends have all kind of gone through certain things. And that's why I think the film kind of was a way to kind of just put it all out there for me, and it was a great experience for me to just make it. And just even sometimes, you know, you believe in certain stereotypes about my own people and stuff, like even when I was little, wanting to be like a princess or something and being told oh, no, you're black. You can't be a princess.
MARTIN: Who told you that?
Ms. DAVIS: The kids I played with in, like, school, and it's kind of, you know, it affects you, and you kind of somewhat almost believe it for a second. Then you grow up, and you realize, you know, you get over it. But still, it kind of affects you.
MARTIN: I was struck, though, by the young women you interviewed. They seemed very aware and conscious of the fact that there was this negativity surrounding them, but they also seemed very self-aware and conscious about trying to fight it. You know, they seemed to be fighting back in their own way, by being self-aware. Do you feel that they were exception, or do you think that they are typical of the kind of conversations young women are having, young African-American women are having with themselves and with each other?
Ms. DAVIS: I feel it's a mixture, you know? They were kind of a mix themselves. I think by - when they were doing the film, they began talking about it and realizing standards and stuff they were giving, which they hadn't even realized before. And one - I remember one girl talking about, you know, trying to wear natural now and trying to kind of go that direction, and her mother now telling her oh stop that, you're starting to look African. And so I think some girls were kind of pushing toward a certain direction, but others, you know, they still - you know, they're still going to do certain standards and stuff, because that's what they think is going to be nice and accepted.
MARTIN: Leonard Pitts and I were both struck by just how painful it was to watch this, to hear these girls talk in this way - to watch these children, you know, repeatedly, you know, reach for the white doll - to obviously feel, when they were asked to pick the doll that looked like them, to be so hesitant to do it. Was that hard for you to watch as you were filming it?
Ms. DAVIS: Yeah, it was somewhat sad and frustrating. You know, I thought, too, like after 50 years, I wasn't expecting a huge change, but I thought maybe a few more black children would choose the black doll as their preference. But you know, it's still what they see. Like, even at 4 and 5 years old, you can still tell what America values and what it doesn't.
MARTIN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's go to a caller. Let's go to Kansas City, Missouri and Michael. Michael, what are your thoughts about this?
MICHAEL (Caller): Well, my initial thought was I think if you're going to have the conversation, it has to include just society at large, because certainly there's some things that we can do as a people to stop the perpetuation. But there's never been an equal playing field. There's never been dealing with all the hurt and all the pain that we've had to deal with that have contributed to how we think about ourselves. And so the conversation, I think, needs to include the broader community, as well, not just - not that we don't have some responsibility - but I think until we deal with racism and that whole systematic approach that America has to doing things - what's portrayed on TV and in the media - all that has to do with what our children see and why they come up with the things that they have. And certainly, a lot of work has to be done. Fifty years later, we're still having the same conversation, not just about this issue but about all kinds of issues where we think we should've made strides by now.
MARTIN: If you were placing responsibility - I don't want to say blame - but if you were placing responsibility, how would you apportion it?
MICHAEL: Well, I think, you know, we have to start where it started. It started with just the racist society in which we live in.
MICHAEL: We've always been pitted against each other, even those of us who can say we've had some level of success, that success has always been at the price, sometimes, of leaving our culture and leaving our people and not identifying with where we came from.
MARTIN: Okay. What about Mr. Pitts' point, though - Leonard Pitt's point - that a lot of the people who are engaging in this are, you know, practitioners of a culture. They have a lot of cultural authority. They have a lot of authority and autonomy and that they're generating these images, you know, to get paid. It's there - it's on them. What would you say to that?
MICHAEL: It's always about the bottom line. The bottom line is going to be the money. And if that's what they choose to use to get paid, there are some people that have that limited, you know, approach to whatever they're doing. All they care about is where the money is, and that's where the money is. Those videos and that type of music is what sells. If that's the only thing that drives me, then of course, you know, I'm going to chase the money if that's the case. But there are still a number of people, I think, that don't have that as a motivation that need to be more in the fight to fight against it, because I don't think we're going to change hip-hop culture. It is what it is. But there are other entities and other cultural things in our community, I think, that can speak up and talk about more of the positive things, as well.
MARTIN: Okay. Thank you so much for calling.
MICHAEL: All right, thank you.
MARTIN: Kiri, I'm going to stick with you for a couple more minutes and then go back to Mr. Pitts, but what do you think about this conversation. I know you read Leonard Pitts' column, and you've hearing the discussion here. You know, what do you think? Do you think that some of the artists bear responsibility for the way the kids in your film reacted?
Ms. DAVIS: In some ways, I think. I agree that, you know - I personally feel that black people who are placed in, like, influential positions have a certain responsibility to kind of portray positive imagery to, like, our black youth. But then again, you know, they're kind of doing what they want, and that's not always the case that they're doing that. And I think some of these black, these media outlets that sometimes appear to be done by black people aren't always done by black people, and I think we have to look at who's controlling what's being put out. Even though it may have a black face to it, that's not always what's behind it.
MARTIN: What about you, Leonard Pitts, coming back to you. Is this - is part of what you're saying part of a broader message of black responsibility or accountability that people like Bill Cosby have been promoting?
Mr. PITTS: Yeah. I don't think it's an either-or. I don't think it's a situation where you have to choose between accountability and, you know, fighting the external demons of racism. I think it's not either-or, it's both-and. And in terms of, you know, who's ultimately responsible for, you know, the fact the these images - Ms. Davis talked about, you know, the fact that there are people who are behind the scenes who may not necessarily be white. Actually, the ultimate people who are responsible are the people who buy it, because the entertainment industry is like any other business: It's a supply and demand. And if we, the people - black, white and otherwise - were not demanding these types of images, then the entertainment industry would not be supplying it. So there's something also to be said for, you know, why do we buy, as African-Americans, why do we so readily buy that which demeans us?
MARTIN: We're down to our last couple seconds, so I just wanted to ask. You said you were disheartened to see that so little has changed. Do you have any optimism or sense of hope that things can yet change?
Mr. PITTS: I think they can yet change. I think we need to finish the conversation that we started in 1967-68 that began with: Black is Beautiful. We sort of left it there and never really followed that through, and I think we really need to indoctrinate our kids in that.
MARTIN: Okay, thank you to both of our guests: Leonard Pitts, a nationally syndicated columnist, winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. He's also the author of the bestselling book, Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood. He joined us from his offices at the University of Maryland at College Park; and New York filmmaker and aspiring high-school graduate Kiri Davis, who joined us from the NPR studies in New York. Kiri, thank you so much for joining us.
Ms. DAVIS: Oh, thank you for having me, and people who want to see the film can now see it at www.reelwork.org.
MARTIN: And just to add, to watch A Girl Like Me, visit the TALK OF THE NATION page at www.npr.org. You'll find a link to the producers of the Reel Works Teenage Filmmaking. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin in Washington.