Just Enough for the City!

Dr William Ackah is a lecturer in Community and Voluntary Sector Studies at Birkbeck. He is a co-convenor of the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race and a Fulbright All Disciplines award holder based at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary for the academic year 2016-17.

Growing up as young man in East London the words and music of Stevie Wonder had a profound influence on me. I would play the powerful and evocative songs emanating from albums like Songs in the Key of Life, Fulfilling his First Finale and Talking Book for hours and hours. I would think about what kind of society could exist where “love was in need of love today”? Or who indeed was Mr Know it all? One song that affected me then and still does today is the chilling but epic tale of youth migration from rural to urban America;  Living Just Enough for the City. Even as I write this piece the harsh sounds and those cutting words ‘back in the cell’ still send chills down my spine. Stevie’s profound lyrics come to mind as I sit here in my room in Pittsburgh one of the key stopping points on the great migration of African Americans from the South to the North in the twentieth century. Pittsburgh historically has had a great reputation as a centre for Jazz and was the home of the one of the great American playwrights August Wilson. Most of his impressive body of work – some of which I have had the pleasure to see in London – are set in the Hill District in Pittsburgh. It was all these reasons and more that have drawn me to the city.

Hill District, Pittsburgh is undergoing regeneration

Hill District, Pittsburgh

I have the privilege of being in Pittsburgh this academic year as a Fulbright Scholar, based at the Metro Urban Institute of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. I am here to conduct research on the impact of regeneration and gentrification on African American church congregations in two neighbourhoods: Larimer and the Hill District. I will be exploring the role that the Black Church plays when neighbourhoods experience economic and social change as a result of urban redevelopment. I have seen in London over the past twenty years areas of the city with large Black and Minority Ethnic populations which were considered undesirable and  plagued by crime, poor schools and lack of amenities, get investment and rapidly become very desirable places to live. With desirability comes rising house prices that then make those areas unaffordable for those same Black and Minority Ethnic populations that had lived through and endured the difficult times in those neighbourhoods.

A sign about regeneration in Larimer district, Pittsburgh

A sign about regeneration in Larimer district, Pittsburgh

What is happening in parts of London is not unique; these same processes of urban redevelopment have and are impacting African American communities in a number of US cities including Pittsburgh. What should be the role of the Church when these things are happening? The Black Church historically has been the key social institution in the African American community and is still a major institutional force throughout Africa and the African Diaspora.  In the US context it was the incubator of credit unions and schools, it birthed the doctors, lawyers, intellects, workers and leaders that enabled Black communities to endure the horrors and indignities of racism and to win important rights and freedoms. The church was also an incubator for black creativity and although its relationship to some creative forms has been tense at times, the spiritual energy of the Church has birthed some of the most amazing musical and artistic forms the world has known. In the post-civil-rights era, however, the importance of the Black Church to the wider community has increasingly been called into question. As poor urban areas have suffered from the blight of drugs, under-employment mass incarceration and police brutality it has been said of the Church that it has become so heavenly minded that it is of no earthly good! That it has not been pro-active in protecting it’s communities from these injustices. Is this however really a fair assessment? It can be argued that the Black Church has never been a monolithic entity and that over the years it has had many strands of engagement with urban communities ranging from social and political activism to non-engagement.

The past however is the past. What can the Church do in the 21st century?  Can it be an incubator for social housing, enabling poorer residents to stay in their communities? Can it be a champion for youth development, rupturing the school to prison pipeline? Can the church be an example for sustainable urban living, promoting positive ways for diverse communities to flourish together in changing contexts?

I do not think it is the role of the Church to do everything in a neighbourhood, as it virtually did in the past but as a key social institution it can create and nurture spaces that enable marginalized and excluded communities not just to live but be able to flourish in the city. I hope to discover some evidence of this during my Fulbright year in Pittsburgh.

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The West Wing

This post was contributed by Dr Janet McCabe, a lecturer in Media and Creative Industries in the Department of Media and Cultural Studies.

Credit: The Obama-Biden Transition Project

‘America’s possibilities are limitless … My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it so long as we seize it together.’ President Barack Obama used these words at his second-term inaugural address. His oratory resuscitated the language of the US Constitution and its ambition spoke of an unabashed liberal agenda, and reveals once more how Obama understands only too well how words and texts have the force to reform politics, even change government—something President Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlett (Martin Sheen) from NBC’s award-winning political drama, The West Wing, also appreciated.

Back in 2006, however, when The West Wing ended its seven-year run, the political landscape looked rather different. The beltway series concluded with the inauguration of America’s first Hispanic president—the youthful, charismatic, but unseasoned coalition-building newcomer who talked impassionedly of change and hope, which, at the time, looked idealistic at best and awkwardly contrived at worse.

I started writing the TV Milestone book on the show two years later, at the very moment when the 2008 presidential campaign started to ignite genuine excitement—and suddenly The West Wing began to seem rather prophetic. The show prefigured with remarkable accuracy the real presidential campaign: the long and bitterly fought contest between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Obama, a Republican ticket mired in entrenched ideological schism, and a ‘pro-choice’ nominee with appeal beyond his conservative base (only to be held back by it). Somehow The West Wing looked pertinent, as having something vitally important to tell us about contemporary US politics, history and culture. Time in fact had served to skew our sense of this show as somehow significant, and it was this sense of relevancy and import that I set out to explore in the book.

Judging the achievement of any show is a precarious business and it was a question I certainly I struggled with as I wrote the monograph. The West Wing began in the closing days of the last Democrat to occupy the White House, a post-Monica Lewinsky era of political scandal and partisan vitriol. Aspiring to turn around the deep cynicism pervading American political life, the NBC beltway drama combined the representation of the quotidian with high-minded governance and debated weighty political questions alongside stories of its all-too-fallible characters. Its visual pace was kinetic, its dialogue smart and witty, and its weekly civics lesson delivered with the help of the latest television image-making technology. And then there was Aaron Sorkin. Bringing new levels of stylish wit and intelligence to primetime defined The West Wing as exceptional; and credit for that went, more often than not, to this very modern of television auteurs.

At its height The West Wing was the hottest show on American network television. Big cast, big ideas, big financial investment, big profits—the series proved a powerful asset to its broadcaster as well as the company that produced it, Warner Bros. Television. Studying the media history reveals that the multi-Emmy-award-winning political series mattered because it mattered to those who mattered. The West Wing may have ushered in new ways of representing politics in television drama, but it also contributed to NBC’s distinctive channel brand as well as delivered one of the most elite audiences of any primetime show, which made its commercial time an exceedingly attractive buy. Interviews I conducted with buyers and schedulers from Europe confirmed a similar demographic profile. So while The West Wing may not have scored high in the ratings, it remained a prestigious and important acquisition, attracting a select yet loyal audience among ABC1 adults living in metropolitan areas.

Just as President Bartlet, and later Representative Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits), seduced viewers with oratory of uplift, urgency and unity, so did a young mixed-race senator from Illinois with promise to heal a divided, post-civil rights, post-9/11 America—a commitment he, as president, recently renewed. Of course, the Obama victories took decades to cultivate, beginning with the legacy of civil rights. But somehow The West Wing paved the way for how we have come to read the machinations of political power, as well as how we expect our politics to ‘look’ and sound. In and through oratory, politics, and aesthetics, the series kept alive the history and destiny of the American experience. Obama may tap into that side of the nation that sees itself as idealistic and inspirational, but as I argue in the book it is a side that for seven years The West Wing never stopped talking about.

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