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CBS' Craig Ferguson proves tonight that white folks can talk about Black History Month just fine



100126_d0053b.jpgOne of the most important, overlooked notions in talking about the history of race in America, is that these discussions are not just about people of color. White folks have an important seat at the table, too.

100126_d0191b.jpgWhich is why I was so impressed and gratified to see that Scottish-born comic Craig Ferguson decided to devote all of this evening's show to an exploration of Black History Month with noted academic Dr. Cornel West and Funk master George Clinton.

Over time, the TV industry has grown used to treating February as a repository for 30-second public service announcements and a few documentaries on the civil rights movement.

But Ferguson will devote an entire show tonight to the history of a group which doesn't traditionally watch his program -- during a month when much of the country is in an important "sweeps" ratings period. His goal: "(to get to) know my country better and be a better American." And one of the first things he did for the broadcast, which was distributed days in advance to critics like me, was admit how awkward it feels for a white man to initiate a conversation about the history of black people. 

"That's part of being a middle aged white guy talking about race in America....immediately, I start to feel guilty," said Ferguson, in one of those brilliant opening monologues where he mixes a cheeky humor with telling truths.

Earlier, the comic said the idea was sparked by the reading he did on American history after earning his citizenship: "People say 'Craig, you can’t do a show about black history, what do you know about black history? And I’m, like, 'Nothing – that’s why I have to do a show about black history.

"I realized (the history's) not all flags and singing," he added. "Dr. Cornel West wrote 'Black people have never had the luxury to believe in the innocence of America. Although we’ve experienced the worst of America, we still believe the best of America has yet to emerge.'...This is kinda my little sandbox, this show – one of advantages of being on a show that the network doesn’t know is actually broadcasting – you can whatever the hell you want."

Jokes aside, this is the opposite of so much we see on television. These days, entire channels are filled with aggressive conflict waged by know-it-alls intent on selling their latest book, radio program or unreality show. Rarely do we see someone reach out a hand across a contentious issue with a simple message: I don't know.

"The problem right now -- we don't have enough courage," said West, in a convoluted discussion which vaulted from Plato's definition of a life worth living to the awkwardness Ferguson feels when he meets a black man with the same last name. "All the fears and anxieties that we have, the difficulty of building bridges. It reinforces a certain kind of cowardice. Hatred at its worst is nothing more than a form of cowardice."

It's also true that the discussion felt a little simplistic at times. Folks who show up tonight hoping for a little entertainment may be disappointed to discover the robot sidekick is benched, the dancing horse as taken a break, and the subjects at hand include America's Reconstruction period, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Committee and the roots of self destructive behavior in hip hop culture.

But it was the kind of discussion we need to have for the college-age, late night viewer who most needs to have it. Jokes about Snooki and Facebook are cool, but sometimes it's nice to see hosts tackle a substantive discussion on race BEFORE there a major tragedy or scandal.

"I know the discussion we're having now is going to annoy some people," admitted Ferguson. Later, he asked West, "how do you as a black man, free yourself from the resentment of the history of the black people in America?"

"Black history is about the power of everyday people to get us to think critically," said West, who can drop nuggets of wisdom like most talk show guests drop other stars' names (My fave quote: "I'm a strong Christian, but I have nothing against an orgasm...I just don't want to live an orgiastic life."). Later, he said, "In our society, we get indifference to poor people; indifference to working people."

West also called the attempt to remove the n-word from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn "an attempt to deodorize the funk of the text. You cain't do that." And he noted: "We had more black Senators in the 1870s than we do today....The Senate looks like the National Hockey League."

Check it out at 12:30 p.m tonight on WTSP-Ch. 10, if only to enjoy Clinton's wonderfully weird cast-of-thousands approach to funk music. Come for the groove; stay to see a host bust expectations -- again! -- of what it is possible to discuss on a late night talk show.

[Last modified: Tuesday, February 1, 2011 11:31am]


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