My Review of CNN's Almighty Debt: A Black in America Special
By George Alexander
"Debt is a bigger problem than racism." Those are pretty strong words. At least that's what I thought when I first heard them uttered by Rev. Dr. DeForest Soaries in CNN's Almighty Debt. The documentary, which airs tonight at 9:00 Eastern, is part of the network's Black in America special series hosted by anchor and reporter Soledad O'Brien. It's followed by an engaging town hall meeting on the topic of debt in the Black community featuring Bishop T.D. Jakes, clinical social worker and public relations executive Terrie Williams, syndicated columnist Michelle Singletary, pollster Cornell Belcher and Rev. Soaries. The bottom line? This is good TV. Don't miss it.
CNN has arguably done a fine job chronicling Black life in America in its Black in America specials, which are entering their third year. Yet while some in the African American community might see these programs as safari rides into the Black world for white America, I found this piece not only timely --- given current economic conditions ---- but decidedly frank and an extremely important examination of the Black church's --- the unquestionable bedrock of the Black community --- role today in helping address the challenges facing African Americans.
The harsh reality is that while a lot of Americans regardless of ethnic background are scrambling to get by today, Blacks have had it particularly bad in this our nation's biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. CNN points out that in every leading indicator ---- unemployment, income, wealth, educational attainment, home ownership and foreclosures --- the African American financial situation is worse off than other segments of the U.S. population.
In exploring the issue of debt, Ms. O'Brien takes us to New Jersey's First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens, where Rev. Soaries preaches constantly and unswervingly about Black financial literacy and responsibility with the Bible as his backup. It's a compassionate yet no nonsense approach to spiritual uplift through self-empowerment. Stop buying what you can't afford! It puts you in bondage. That's Rev. Soaries's point. Hearing his unwavering philosophy about debt alone makes Almighty Debt worth watching.
Over the course of 90-minutes, Ms. O'Brien introduces us to three families ---- all members of First Baptist --- who are the cornerstones of the film. We meet the Jeffrieses, a luxury car salesman husband and his high-end real estate broker wife, who are on the brink of losing their 3,500 sq. ft. home. There's also Carl Fields, a former vice president at an insurance company who is desperately looking for work, and a Fred Philp, a high school student and aspiring actor who dreams of attending college, but lacks the finances and the grades to do so.
But you don't get a sense of woe is me from these people. No. This is not a pity party. These people have faith. The kind of faith that the Black church has helped nurture and sustain in Black people through realities much more harsh than whether or not I get to stay in my three-car garage home with two BMWs.
What's particularly compelling about this documentary is its discussion about the history of wealth distribution and the intersection of race in our country. "Wealth is a function of generational accumulation," is a point Julianne Malveaux, the economist and president of Bennett College, explains in Almighty Debt to give some perspective and context to why African Americans still trail in the wealth department. In other words, when you break it down, it's not surprising that descendants of former slaves would have less wealth than those who owned the slaves.
"This is the first time for any Black in America we've been able to sort of investigate the impact of these massive historical phenomena like slavery, Jim Crow, unfair labor practices in a documentary and it felt like the right time," said Ms. O'Brien when I interviewed her about the project.
And while linking the issue of wealth today to slavery over a century ago may be difficult or less desirous for some to digest (and this piece only deals with the issue briefly), after watching Almighty Debt, for those seriously interested in exploring the topic further and connecting the perilous dots, I also highly recommend Katrina Brown's 2008 PBS documentary Traces of the Trade, which examines how her family still benefits today from being the country's largest slaving-trading family in U.S. history.
What I also found thought provoking in Almighty Debt and the town hall was the notion of emotional spending in the Black community largely tied to having been made to feel less than for so long. While many Americans have long gotten ensnared in our culture of consumerism, Black folks have always gotten the brunt of the sickness. Throw in some Madison Avenue influence and swagger and its over for folks who like a little extra bling to feel good about themselves.
What I find really disturbing, however, is that E. Franklin Frazier, the late chair of the Howard University sociology department, dealt with these issues in his controversial 1957 book Black Bourgeoisie (still a must-read for anyone wanting to understand the evolution of the Black middle class and its mores). And over 50 years later, post civil rights movement and all, it still persists. Almighty Debt sheds light on it once again.
Watching Almighty Debt one can't help but think about what must be done to provide solutions to the heinous problem of debt in the Black community. The documentary and the town hall provide great commentary on the matter. But perhaps Ms. O'Brien in our interview offers the best if not most sobering point of view of the issue in light of these tough times: "If you want to increase Black wealth then Black people, Black churches, people who care are going to have to figure that out. No one is going to come and bail the community out. I think there's an opportunity to take this one the road. There's an opportunity for people to learn the lessons of people like the Jeffrieses."