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|CEMOTAP is an acronym that stands for
Committee to Eliminate Media Offensive to African People. For years the
Queens, New York based organization has been actively confronting various members of the
local and national media for presenting negative portrayals of Black folk. CEMOTAP
sees such portrayals as being pervasive throughout the media industry.
Most recently, they have targeted the PBS documentary Wonders of the
African World. To get the details about this and other activities of
the organization, Kalamu Magazine recently interviewed Ms. Betty Dopson,
co-chair of CEMOTAP.
KALAMU: When did CEMOTAP Begin?
DOPSON: We started in St. Albans Congregational Church in 1987. A group of us became disenchanted with the way we were portrayed in media and we decided to move beyond just complaining and we held a forum featuring Utrice Leid, Mark Riley, and Randall Pinkston. As we started talking we asked ourselves what are some of the things we could do. So Utrice Leid said one of the things we could do was start to monitor both electronic and print media. She said "Get yourselves a grid and record when they something positive, when they something negative, when they say something you like or something you don't like and then confront them with it." Three months after that meeting, in April of 1987, that's exactly what we did. We confronted Newsday and that was the beginning of CEMOTAP.
KALAMU: What was it that you confronted Newsday about?
DOPSON: The racist and stereotypical way that Blacks are portrayed in their newspaper. We found that we were only portrayed in three areas: sports, crime, and entertainment. In the areas of labor, law, education, medicine, and science we were hardly written about at all, and certainly not politics. And shortly after that time Jesse Jackson was running for president and we noticed that he couldn't get any coverage in Newsday to save his life. So we also had to confront them about that. In fact on a regular basis they had Black men in handcuffs, in chains, on the front page of their newspaper. And when we brought this to their attention, and very forcefully so, they backed up and said they would never again feature Black men in handcuffs or chains on the front page of their newspaper. Even to this day they've kept that promise.
Newsday now has a very nice pullout on Black history and I want to take credit for that because when we confronted them and told them their news coverage concerning Black people was dismal at best, shortly after that they had a center pullout featuring Black Americans from New York City. The pullout indicated that they had made vast contributions to government and to the fabric of life in New York City, and since that time they have been featuring those pullouts. Prior to that I hadn't seen any pullouts on Black folks that was positive.
KALAMU: When you say you confronted them in a very forceful way, what do you mean by "forceful?"
DOPSON: Well, we created a collage of their front pages, a collage of their editorials, and we had a day by day, blow by blow description of what they were saying about us and the areas in which we were written about. They couldn't refute it because we'd done some very careful homework, we were very careful about our documentation. And of course they pretended to be surprised at how racist the paper was. We didn't go in there begging. We just said, "This is the way you are portraying us and it's got to stop. And if you don't stop we're going to boycott your newspaper."
They were not interested in that because little did we know that all of the newspapers were struggling to stay alive at that time as they are struggling now. All of the newspapers are losing money right today, except the New York Times. And so they were very concerned about losing the Black readership, and we were able to force some change.
KALAMU: When you went to confront the people at Newsday, did they have any Black folk in positions of authority?
DOPSON: Even if there are no Black folks in authority one of the tricks that White people use is they run and find a Black face, preferably a dark skinned Black to bring out and talk to us. They had a minister, I can't recall his name at the moment, and they brought out Les Payne. Les Payne was, you know, kind of neutral. He sat there and I think in his heart of hearts he was quite pleased with the fact that we were there. But they find Blacks. In every single case where we have confronted Europeans about the racist, stereotypical way that they report on us, they go search around and they find a Black person, and generally the Black person flings himself upon the point of the sword and says, "You know we really are working hard to correct this, you know." They put them out and they make them the scapegoats for their errors and for their racism.
KALAMU: Does CEMOTAP have chapters in any other cities?
DOPSON: We have one chapter that just recently started in Los Angeles. There was a group of young folks out there who were already doing something similar and so they decided they wanted to come under our umbrella. We're also expecting to start one in Atlanta very shortly.
KALAMU: How many people are in your New York chapter?
DOPSON: Let me just say it this way. We have 1500 individual memberships, but our memberships include the entire family.
KALAMU: Are these paid memberships?
DOPSON: Yes, they pay $25 annually. That's how we're able to publish our newspaper and to pay honorariums and to give support to African-Americans or Africans who have been abused and violated by media.
KALAMU: Since that time in 1987, in what other struggles has CEMOTAP been involved?
DOPSON: I'll give you a few. A while back Bloomingdale's published an ad in the newspapers. It was a back to school ad. And it featured little children. But when it came to the Black child, he had on a black fedora, a boom box, a great big medallion on his chest, and he looked just like a little hoodlum, not like a child you would want in your company. So we contacted Bloomingdale's. And as a matter of fact we laid siege to Bloomingdale's. We had a sixty day consumer education campaign where we were outside the entrance to all of their doors.
We would pick out the Europeans that were the best dressed, the women with diamonds and furs and everything. And we would tell them that this store you were going into has actually defiled young Black children. We would show them the ad and they would say, "Oh my God, this is horrible! What is this?" And we'd say, "This is the way this store treats our people." And one of the women went in there and she was like a wild person. She started screaming in the middle of the store, "What the hell is going on in this store? You're treating Black people wrong!" And she started throwing things around. They didn't call the police or do anything other than ask her to calm down. She was very affluent, very wealthy and probably looking for something exciting to do. I was very surprised. But these people would come in and they'd go directly to management. And we would walk through just to see how things were and it was very uncomfortable for them.
KALAMU: Did you walk through handing out leaflets or just talking or what?
DOPSON: Well, we had leaflets in our hand and we would just walk through and look around and they'd have people following us. But they couldn't stop us from walking through because we might buy something too. This was during the Christmas holidays and so Bloomingdale's made great efforts to forcefully remove us from their doors. By forcefully I mean verbally, but it didn't work.
So to rectify their mistakes they put huge full page ads in the Black newspapers. The ad that we were talking about appeared in the New York Times and we wanted them to print an apology. They didn't do that, but what they did was put ads into the Black newspapers and they also started to take out ads on the Black news stations WLIB and WWRL. So they tried to take some money to assuage our anger by giving ads to Black folks who hadn't gotten many ads from them in the past.
They also went to Andy Cooper, who at that time was the editor of the City Sun. They met with him and talked to him. They wanted him to meet with us and talk to us and get us to back off and understand that this was just an error they made and they were not interested in defiling youngsters. And we also accused them of not using a sufficient number of Blacks in their ads and we noticed they started using a lot more Black models.
We had a boycott against the New York Post called the Post Busters campaign and we were able to reduce their readership by 220,000. It was never acknowledged by the New York Post but Earl Caldwell, who was writing for the Daily News at that time, and the brother who publishes the Amsterdam News, Wilbert Tatum, were able to get that information from their trade papers. The Post then started spending money on the Black radio stations and the Black newspapers and we got the publisher of the Post at that time, Peter Kalikow, to say that he would meet with us at anytime, anyplace in New York. So we wanted him to meet with us on WLIB, and of course he wouldn't do it. We actually ran the Post into bankruptcy. Then along came Rupert Murdock from Australia with his big pockets and he bailed them out. The Post is still hemorrhaging money and there is a rumor the Post and the Daily News will merge because both of them are losing money at a rate that even wealthy people like Rupert Murdock can't afford.
And we worked to get Bob Grant off the air at WABC, who was on the air defiling Black people. Jay Diamond was on the same station and he was calling Black women the "b" word and what have you. So after years of demonstrating and writing to advertisers and various other people, churches and what have you, we were able to join forces with the ministers from New Jersey and get those two racists dogs off the air.
KALAMU: Are they still on the air?
DOPSON: They went to another station. I heard Jay Diamond on the air recently and he was such an advocate for Black folks I thought he was a Black man.
KALAMU: I heard he'd changed his tune quite a bit.
DOPSON: Totally changed his tune. He also lost his mind, you know. He was calling WABC and threatening Curtis Sliwa, and doing all kinds of mad things. He actually had a nervous breakdown over the loss of that job. But be that as it may, they picked his behind up and hired him at a lesser station.
KALAMU: Do you work with any other organizations?
DOPSON: Yes, I do. I'm a board member of the Board for the Education of People of African Ancestry which is housed in the John Henrik Clarke House, the United African Movement, the National Action Network, and St. Albans Congregational Church.
KALAMU: Currently, which movies or television programs do you see as particularly offensive?
DOPSON: They're all offensive. There is not a program that I could recommend.
KALAMU: Let's look at television first. Do any programs first come to mind?
DOPSON: Well, we joined with brothers and sisters out in California, Indianapolis, Chicago, and Atlanta against PJ's. This was something that Eddie Murphy put together. It's off the air now. That was very offensive. You see what we find offensive is that everything that is on television that uses Black stars or subjects has to do with either comedy, or some sort of a sitcom. I don't want to get into the area of sports because we dominate sports even though sports is sometimes presented in a very racist way.
All the comedies that appear on channel 5 (Fox TV) and channel 9 (UPN), they're garbage. None of these programs are worthy of support from the African community. They're all trash. They all demean and belittle us. There's nothing about the history, there's nothing about the current conditions of Black folk. There's just no truth. Programs that come out of the heads of Europeans are really a very foul scene. There's nothing that I can find I find worthy of supporting except Gil Noble's Sunday program, Like It Is. That's the only program that I can recommend Black folks watch or even encourage their families to watch.
Very recently you had the story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. Now for years and years and years, White people denied vehemently that it was even possible for one of the Founding Fathers to have children by Sally Hemmings. And once DNA proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that these were his offspring, they turn it into a love story. He loved her. He was no rapist or pedophile, he was a man who was torn by love for this woman. Television is a very sick place to be at this particular moment. We recommend that Black folk just turn it off, don't watch it, because your self esteem will improve tremendously if you don't watch TV. From news all the way through sports, there's nothing encouraging, uplifting, and affirming to Black people.
KALAMU: So you would say that of all the media, TV is the most pervasive in its description of Black people?
DOPSON: Yes, I would say TV, because images are very, very strong, very powerful, and people will do things after seeing an image of something. You have women, very Black women, with blonde hair. They see this as an image of beauty. You see women wearing spandex pants and they're grossly overweight. It's just so inappropriate, but it's that image. They don't see themselves, they see that image on television. And you have images of young women who are extremely talented, like Mariah Carey, and she seems to feel that she has to be half naked to sing. These are terrible images, but they're images that are very, very strong.
KALAMU: What about the recording industry?
DOPSON: Well, Black folks made a terrible mistake with the recording industry; with their young people. I'm speaking specifically about rap. If you can force yourself to listen to rap and don't become involved with the profanity and some of the grossness of it, you will see that you have a lot of young Black geniuses, real poets, that we turn our backs on by saying it's rap and it's noise. But I'm very sorry, because if we had gotten involved early on with the rap genre, I think we'd have a different product than we have today. I don't think it's too late, I do believe that the genius of African people is such that even though it might burst out of control, there's something that will bring it back home. And I believe in that particular area, music. You know we dominate music, we are music masters, we are creative, we're innovative, music is our thing and the rap genre is also our thing, our very special thing. We just missed it. Missed the boat on that one.
KALAMU: When you say "we missed the boat," who is the "we" you're talking about?"
DOPSON: Older adults like myself. We didn't understand it, and I think our children were crying out, and actually reaching out to us saying, "Look, this is how we're feeling inside. This is what I'm dealing with, and why are you not protecting me? What's the problem here?" I don't think we quite internalized it, and it kind of just, got away from us. White folks are making millions of dollars on it and they're turning our kids into hip hop fiends and it just isn't doing for us what it should be doing. It's ours, we should have control of it, and our children should feel protected enough to create the lyrics and expressions that reflect the love we have for them, not the hatred they have for the world and conditions they live in.
KALAMU: Which media companies does CEMOTAP see as the most difficult to deal with?
DOPSON: The so-called mainstream media feels omnipotent I believe. They feel that they have managed, if they spend enough money, to control the minds of our people, and they don't want to hear from any grassroots organization saying "this has got to stop," or writing to advertisers telling them the harm that is being done by their programs. I would say the larger the network, the more difficult it is to deal with. They start off thinking they don't have to deal with you because you can't hurt them, you can't get to them.
Now up until recently we enjoyed a rapport with Black media, Black radio stations and what have you. That has changed unfortunately. Radio stations that we worked the hardest to promote, because that is really the basis, the foundation of CEMOTAP, the promotion of Black media, I think that they have allowed Europeans to convince them that we are perhaps a dangerous organization. At one time we used to be on WLIB regularly. You will never hear us on there anymore because I guess they have the idea we're a little too radical for them or what have you. It's an unfortunate situation, one that I wish didn't exist, but I have to admit it does exist.
That forces you to find your own media, find your own way. That's one of the things we believe in, developing your own media. Don't sit around waiting for someone to put you on their station. Hey, that's their business. It's up to you to use your creativity and your hand to create your own outlets.
KALAMU: When did this change in your relationship to some of the Black media occur?
DOPSON: Within the last two to three years.
KALAMU: Does CEMOTAP have any allies in the media?
DOPSON: It's kind of difficult to align yourself. If you're working in mainstream media you dare not align yourself with a CEMOTAP. They all call us when they get fired or they feel that their job is being threatened. They all call us.
KALAMU: Does "all" refer to the Black reporters and so forth?
DOPSON: Yes. So (for someone in the media) to come to our forums or to support us financially, no. But when they get ready to be bumped off the log, they want us to come out and be the pit bulls for them. So we're in a strange position. But that let's us know that we are being successful. We know that they all know we exist and they all know that we're not just sitting around waiting for their approval. We have remained independent and we don't take funds from outside our community. Even though we've been offered grants and all sorts of money we don't take it because we want to be able to say the things we feel are necessary. So I'd say behind the scenes they're all kind of glad we exist, but to come out and say "I support CEMOTAP," I don't believe so.
KALAMU: Do you think you've had any impact in the employment of Black folk to positions of authority.
DOPSON: Yes. When we confronted Newsday, one of the things we were very emphatic about was an independent voice, to have a Black columnist talking about conditions that affect us. At that time they had Les Payne as an associate editor. And so the ball ended with them promoting Sheryl McCarthy and land of mercy, that was a bad mistake. She became Mother Teresa for White folks.
KALAMU: Has she ever acknowledged you or said anything to you directly?
DOPSON: No, and I guess she wouldn't because once we were on a TV show right after she had written a front page article on a Jewish woman and her Black maid. The Jewish woman was feeling guilty for having a Black maid or something, so we attacked her (McCarthy's) behind, and I don't think she would consider us to be a friend.
KALAMU: What was your basis for attacking her about the piece?
DOPSON: It was ridiculous, it was stupid. Nobody feels guilty about having a maid. If they did they wouldn't have a maid, and for her to write about it — it was just the worst article I have ever read. I don't even know how she could have written such an article. I don't remember all the exact details, but her sympathies went to this poor White woman who had all of this money and here she was having to look at this poor Black woman working for her and she just didn't know how to relate to this Black woman. And the quality of her writing is extremely poor. They sent her away somewhere to learn how to write because she's doing better now, but she still seeks to balance all of her stories. If you notice, White columnists don't care anything about balance, they just write what they think or their opinion. But her stuff seems to try to show both sides of an issue.
But that's what Europeans do. Their actions indicate a response of "You want a Black columnist, you want someone in the media with a voice? We'll give you someone. We'll give you someone we can totally control.
KALAMU: Is your work similar to the NAACP's efforts to have more shows with Black characters in non-stereotypical or token roles?
DOPSON: The kind of programming that we would like to see would be programming that would come out of the Black community, from a Black perspective. Not filtered through some graduate from Columbia's Communications or Film School . We need to be able to tell our own story in our own way.
Ten, fifteen years ago, there were a lot of Black programs that made sense. There was Bill McCreary's Black News, Positively Black, Like it Is. Every single one of the networks had at least one hour a week of Black programming that had some quality to it, that told something real about the Black community. Not only shows where people are sitting around telling jokes all the time, and laughing and eating. I'd like to see networks give some of these young Black geniuses the opportunity to create programs and series that made sense. Now having said that let me talk about PBS.
Very recently they had this program Wonders of the African World. Now that was an opportunity for PBS to show Africa as a place that is pivotal to the world. It is the richest land mass in the world. The culture there is different, it's not as exotic as they showed it on TV, but it's a historical culture that's been there for thousands of years. It was an opportunity to show the humanity of Africa, the beauty of Africa. But yet this Black Harvard professor used it as an opportunity to hold Africans culpable for the enslavement of Africans. So I guess what I'm saying is I'd like to see Black folks with money, understand the importance of putting their money into a production that affirms Black life. I would say, as an example, the Cosby Show. Even though that was a comedy, it had quality to it and it wasn't a put down of Black people.
There is a vast stream of life between comedy and the degradation of slavery. And you go from one to the other on TV. It's either struggle, struggle, struggle, or laugh, laugh, laugh. And there's hardly anything in between that shows the fabric, the quality, of Black life.
KALAMU: I did read that you went to Boston to meet Henry Louis Gates at Harvard and he did not appear. What happened?
DOPSON: After we saw Wonders of the African World we found out that they were indeed trying to get it included into the public school curriculum, and Black children would be taught that their ancestors were responsible for their own enslavement, we said "Let's make an effort to stop that myth." So I wrote to the president of Harvard, Neil Rubenstein, and I told him that we were coming to Boston and we would like to have a tour of the W.E.B. Dubois Center, where Henry Louis Gates is the chair, and we have some problems and concerns with Wonders of the African World because it seems to have reduced Africa to petty wars.
to my surprise we got a letter back not from Neil Rubenstein but from
Henry Louis Gates. And he said he would meet us at 3:00 o'clock. We got
there at 2:15 and we were told that he had a problem with his hip, he had
to go to physical therapy and he had to leave. We were then
introduced to a doctor Newman, a professor Newman, alternately he was
either doctor or professor. And he was supposed to be perfectly capable of
taking us on a tour of the Center. And Dr. James McIntosh, who is the
co-chair of CEMOTAP, asked him a few questions and Newman didn't know what
he was talking about so Dr. McIntosh asked him
KALAMU: What was the response to that?
DOPSON: The response was that they called the police. And we were on our way out anyhow, so when the police came Dr. McIntosh told them it was a technical matter. And we left.
Editor's note: The views expressed in this interview are those of Cemotap and do not necessarily represent those of Kalamu Magazine.
Ms. Dopson adds:
You can find out more about CEMOTAP or join CEMOTAP by calling 718-322-8454 or write to: