Anomaly TV: Inside Bed-Stuy
The only reason people can now see Inside Bed-Stuy, New York City’s first African-American community television program and one of the only remaining visual resources documenting Bedford-Stuyvesant in the late 1960s, is because of a manager who worked for 25 years at the WNEW/ Channel 5 warehouse. The show, broadcast in the NYC area in 52 half-hour episodes between 1968 and 1970, included interviews with Harry Belafonte, Julius Lester (author of Watch Out Whitey, Black Power’s Gonna Get Yo Mamma), a Black Power children’s performance led by Amiri Baraka and, most importantly, the diverse voices of community members who spoke about everything from welfare rights to anti-Semitism. In the midst of the civil rights era, when news often portrayed black culture in connection to protest, riots, or crime, Inside Bed-Stuy took an in-depth look into a vibrant and complex African-American social and cultural center.
The rediscovery of Inside Bed-Stuy began when Charles Hobson, an original writer and producer of the show, was at a Ford Foundation cocktail party in the early 1990s. Someone there inquired about the fate of the show’s tapes, setting Hobson in motion. Soon he tracked down the warehouse and found that the manager, who had apparently realized the importance of the tapes, remembered exactly where they were. “It’s amazing that they weren’t thrown out,” says Hobson, who then received a Ford Foundation grant enabling the original and disintegrating two-inch videotapes to be restored and transferred.
Inside Bed-Stuy was, and still is, an anomaly of sorts. It is one of the only portrayals of the complexity and discourse that was alive and well in the then-400,000 strong community. Though not as well known as Harlem, Bed-Stuy was one of the core African-American cultural centers in the U.S., and it remains so today. But, like other predominantly African-American areas, Bed-Stuy has often been portrayed in the mainstream media not as a complex, multi-layered place, but as a ghetto connected to crime or disorder. After Inside Bed-Stuy ended its run, it was not until Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing that the area was again presented as a multi-dimensional society.
Where Did It Come From?
For a show like Inside Bed-Stuy to be on one of the major NYC area stations, especially at a time when there were only a few channels, was in many ways surprising. Of course, the concept was not commercial in its inception, but was instead born out of a connection to Robert F. Kennedy’s Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Project, an inner-city development program that was the first of its kind and came to influence a model for thousands more around the country. Kennedy’s network of supporters during his presidential campaign extended far enough to include the owners of Channel 5/WNEW as well as prominent ad agencies. Through some initial money from the Ford Foundation as well as a line of sponsors, the first program to profile social issues in a black community was, ironically and tragically, announced on the same day Martin Luther King was assassinated. And the first show was broadcast on the day of MLK’s funeral.
At that point Charles Hobson was working as Director of Production at WBAI/Pacifica, and, because he had grown up in Bed-Stuy, was asked by a writer who clashed with the Kennedy people, to do the show. Hobson was in charge of the writing and booking all of the series, and in the first shows he scheduled singer/activist Richie Havens and soon after the Bed-Stuy based group the Persuasions. WNEW supplied the crew and equipment. These were the days of the first phase of videotape and, according to Hobson, huge clunky cameras arrived in big trucks that used “remarkably massive” two-inch tapes. There was minimal editing and no lighting. “What you saw is what you got,” Hobson added, “and that does give it a feel of what is now seen more on public access.”
From Belafonte to Black Power
A “highlights” reel of Inside Bed-Stuy has been shown at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, Yale, and Harvard, among myriad other venues. It illustrates the show’s cross-section of interests, from celebrities and music to politics and community issues. One segment has the ever-smooth Harry Belafonte surrounded by residents and talking to the hosts on a nice sunny day in the park about Bed-Stuy reconstruction and national policies. Another shows a performance of a large orchestra from the Pratt music program featuring the legendary jazz drummer Max Roach. Here again, it is a pleasant warm day and the soft black-and-white texture of the early video captures close-ups of young men and women sitting and listening. Roach, evidently not too conscious of the camera, thanks “all the lovely young ladies and, my competition, the young men with them.” When speaking to the female host he says that one of his secret ambitions is to be “the world’s greatest lover. And I don’t just mean to you, but to my wife out there and all the lovely ladies.” Most people are laughing. He then goes on to give a searing improvisational drum performance.
Another interview is with Julius Lester, the author of the aforementioned book on Black Power, who talks about how the term has been co-opted by the likes of Whitney Young and was being defined as black capitalism. He becomes exasperated at the end of the interview, saying “I mean Nixon came out for black power. If Nixon came out for it, it’s time to roll on!” An ironic note: Hobson points out that Lester has since converted to a hardcore Orthodox conservative Jew.
But probably the most powerful clip on this highlights tape is a performance from the LeRoi Jones Young Spirit House Players and Movers of Bedford- Stuyvesant and Brownsville. This is a group of kids, many of whom are seemingly under 11, who recite a poem along with choreographed movements and some chanting under the direction of Amiri Baraka, who was then known as LeRoi Jones. It is a wild ride, perfectly executed, punctuated with chants like “What has America done for me? Nothing, but made me a zombie—I don’t know who I am!” and “America made me a robot, a puppet, Frankenstein.” At one point a young girl steps forward and says “You keep talking to us about Mary had a Little Lamb; Mary was white; the lamb was white and what about Snow White?” According to Hobson, this is one of the most requested pieces.
Other notable segments include an interview with a teen who was one of the first blacks at a boarding school in upstate New York and a discussion with a black police officer and IBM executive from Bed-Stuy about anti-Semitism. While controversial at times, the insights from these discussions on anti-Semitism were valuable enough that the Jewish Museum requested a copy for its archive.
The Power of Culture
Inside Bed-Stuy set a precedent for more nationally influential shows like WABC’s Like It Is and PBS’s Black Journal. Even though its time slot was either very early in the morning or very late at night, the program was well respected, found an audience, and gave exposure to people and issues in the community. Even though it contained radical discourse, Hobson does not recall any complaints from advertisers, audience or government of the kind that some viewers later had regarding Like It Is. The show revived some careers, like Eubie Blake’s, the great ragtime pianist, and launched others, like Roxie Roker’s, one of the hosts of the show, who went on to be Helen Wills on the sitcom The Jeffersons.
More than on any individual, though, the show focused on the real Bed-Stuy, an area with a stable black middle-class, beautiful privately-owned buildings, multiple ethnic enclaves, lots of churches and, like most large urban areas, poor sections beset by crime and drugs. Still, most outside the area bunched Bed-Stuy together with Brownsville and East New York as a run-down “ghetto.” But Hobson, who is of West Indian descent, recalls how he attended an Episcopalian church near the largely West Indian area he grew up in or how two of his neighbors were white, one a dentist and the other an eccentric Irishman. Regardless, because of the fact that it was predominantly black, “Bed-Stuy was represented as risky and drug-infested in the mainstream media,” says Hobson, “but there have always been nice areas and many different kinds of people living there.”
Less Hope Now
While public access television today may offer similar coverage of communities like Bed-Stuy, its limitations include the necessity of having a cable subscription, a lack of corporate sponsorship, as well as issues of resources and quality. In short, the proliferation of media has not necessarily meant more programming that breaks stereotypes and presents Bed-Stuy and other African -American communities as multi-layered. “In general, I still don’t feel understood or represented by media,” says Hobson, “I know black actors and producers who live in LA and still have a very hard time with how blacks in commercials and entertainment are portrayed because it doesn’t reflect how people live. There is still a struggle to show the reality, both bad and, more importantly, good.”
Inside Bed-Stuy provides not only a time capsule but a resource that excites young people today. As Hobson says of his local presentations, “High school kids were really fascinated and had really interesting questions about the discussions in the show.” While media representation of areas like Bed-Stuy has not drastically changed, living conditions in many low-income black communities have worsened. One segment from Inside Bed-Stuy presents a discussion with a group of activist women who talk about welfare rights and say that “in this day and time there is no need for a poor person to have to beg for anything, this country’s too rich.” Ironically, Hobson states, “while there were many angry reflections in the program there was also more hope in those days. Now, there has come to be a cold-blooded, ruthless approach to social services and I would think because of that there is less hope.” Perhaps if there were more shows like Inside Bed-Stuy on network television today, viewers would not only understand the inequities we have in our own society but also see the cultural richness and sophisticated discourse actually present in areas that many blindly categorize as “the ghetto”.
Copies of Inside Bed-Stuy can be found at the Museum of Television and Radio, Brooklyn Historical Society, the Schomburg Center in Harlem, and at the Film and Television Archives at U.C.L.A.