If art increases empathy, shows like ‘Atlanta’ are masterpieces.
As a white guy, trying to talk responsibly about race feels like a particularly dangerous game of hopscotch. I hope to avoid the ugly squares (whitesplaining, white saviorism, racism denial) and land in the socially useful ones.
So I’ll stick to a simple set of theses:
- There is a racial divide in America.
- The divide stems (at least in part) from ignorance and fear.
- One path to erasing ignorance and fear is empathy.
- Art, more than any other method, is effective at increasing empathy.
If you buy this syllogism, it stands to reason that one way to close (or at least narrow) the divide is by increasing cultural empathy. Not sympathy— empathy: The ability to truly understand the thoughts and feelings of another.
How media fosters and disseminates empathy
In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe published “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The anti-slavery novel was not, of course, directly responsible for the outbreak of civil war. (There are plenty of culprits to thank for that.)
But in the words of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, “Stowe’s informal, conversational writing style inspired people in a way that political speeches, tracts and newspaper accounts could not. The strength of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ is its ability to illustrate slavery’s effect on families, and to help readers empathize with enslaved characters.”
Though not strictly quantifiable, the book’s effect—its ability to inspire empathy in readers—was tangible.
Fast forward 100 years, and you’ve got Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” (1952), which author and scholar of the time Therman B. O’Daniel called “perhaps the best balanced and most complete and comprehensive image of the American Negro that has yet been presented by any contemporary writer.” This book?—?along with other literary megaphones like Richard Wright’s “Native Son” and James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It On The Mountain”?—?helped represent black America at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.
Now here we are, more than six decades later, in an era afflicted by racial violence and unrest that everybody seems impotent to fix. And the somewhat gloomy reality of our age is that we don’t read many books. We’ve got Ta-Nehisi Coates’ searing “Between the World and Me,” of course—but, for better or for worse, we’re living in the golden age of television.
Which is why it’s up to TV and movie producers to do the work once reserved for serious novelists. Cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley published a review that explains fiction’s ability to increase empathy in its consumers:
“What’s a piece of fiction, what’s a novel, what’s a short story, what’s a play or movie or television series? It’s a piece of consciousness being passed from mind to mind. When you’re reading or watching a drama, you’re taking in a piece of consciousness that you make your own.”
Literary fiction is the most commonly-studied ambassador of empathy, he admits, but TV shows are able to effect the same psychological change in their viewers.
Lucky, then, that American television has seen a recent, marked rise in predominantly black shows.
The last two years have seen a spate of excellent black TV shows—“Empire,” “The Carmichael Show,” “Atlanta,” “Black-ish,” etc. Everybody should be watching these shows. They show completely different slices of black culture, from upper-middle-class families to broke amateur rappers. And watching these shows could, I think, do more to mend the current rift of black/white culture in America than any number of rallies or marches.
‘Atlanta’: a show about black people, for all people
Comedian Donald Glover’s brilliant new comedy/drama “Atlanta” is a study in black culture that Glover himself markets as a missive to white people.
“I wanted to show white people, you don’t know everything about black culture,” he said in an interview with Vulture. “When we were kids, [‘Catcher In The Rye’] didn’t make sense to us. This dude is like, ‘Everybody’s phony’?—?that’s such a white struggle, not realizing until you’re a teenager that adults are full of shit. Black people learn that real early.”
That’s kind of what the show is about, I think: the dissection and elimination of ubiquitous black stereotypes. The stunningly obvious message of ‘Hey, we’re ALL different.’
Perhaps one of the show’s funniest (and most poignant) remarks on race so far is Glover’s seventh episode, “B.A.N.” (an acronym for the fictitious Black American Network, a send-up of BET). The premise: Paper Boi, Glover’s secondary protagonist, is on a talk show to address a tweet wherein he mentioned not being attracted to Caitlyn Jenner. He seems flummoxed that there’s any backlash at all to this admission. “It’s hard for me to care about this when nobody cares about me as a black, human man,” he says. “I don’t have a problem with gay people, trans people, because that’s tolerance. But where’s tolerance for people like me?”
There follows a hilarious segment of a “trans-racial” youth, a black teenager who identifies as a 35-year-old white man. What seems at first a satirical skewering of trans culture is anything but: It is, if I’m reading Glover correctly, a comment on how white culture views black culture and how, in turn, black culture views white culture viewing black culture.
For example: Take the moment when the trans-racial teen walks by a police officer talking to a young black man. “This is definitely the guy,” says the trans-racial teen. “He doesn’t even live in the area. I’ve never seen him before.” It’s a funny, sad way to address the concept of the black boogeyman.
Which is much of what “Atlanta” does, really: It proves that black culture?—?and by extension, black people?—?are just as varied and nuanced as its (or their) white counterparts. Glover’s hero Earn is a loving father, an aspiring entrepreneur and a bit of a nerd. He’s non-violent, non-confrontational, even a bit of a wimp sometimes.
The rapper archetype is deconstructed here, too: Paper Boi, a drug-dealing amateur rapper, looks and acts the tough guy. (In the series’ first scene, after all, he pulls a gun on someone.) But as we get to know Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles, we realize he’s just an insecure young man doing what he can to survive.
Paper Boi admonishes children for pretending to shoot each other in the park. He goes to beat up an internet troll and instead helps the guy deliver a pizza. He fumbles over his words while chatting up a pretty reporter. And what piece of advice does the reporter dispense when rejecting him? “People don’t want Justin [Bieber] to be an asshole. You’re a rapper. That’s your job.” Paper Boi just doesn’t seem cut out for that.
Then there are the show’s women: Glover does introduce the oversexualized black stereotype in the form of Jayde?—?a peripheral character who makes her living off horny NBA players’ generosity—but she stands in stark contrast to Glover’s female lead Van, a teacher and mother who acts as a responsible foil to Earn’s haphazard ways.
Rounding out the core cast is my favorite character, Darius, a cerebral, stoned space cadet. The character could just as easily be a dreadlocked white boy from Southern California. Darius doesn’t fit easily into any stereotype the way that Glover’s other characters do. That’s kind of what the show is about, I think: the dissection and elimination of ubiquitous black stereotypes. The stunningly obvious message of Hey, we’re ALL different.
TV: The new fiction for social change
So how does a show like “Atlanta” help soothe our country’s racial rift? In exactly the same way that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” once did: By providing black culture with a voice that white culture might otherwise never hear, the show is able to increase empathy and start erasing some of the ugly preconceptions that it so artfully mocks.
Other shows are doing their part, too: “Luke Cage” is a show with a black hero whose skin is literally bulletproof. “Empire” explores a family squabbling for control of their music dynasty. “Black-ish” is the upper-middle -class cousin to “Atlanta,” lauded for its ability to take on weighty topics like police brutality. “The Carmichael Show” has won acclaim of its own for addressing topical issues (like the episode in which its characters argue over the Bill Cosby scandal).
“Atlanta” and its TV brethren are made to entertain, and entertain they do. I hope some ancillary racial benefit comes with that entertainment, though. Because right now, we need it.