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#BackChannel: Death Of Quawan Charles, 'A Most Beautiful Thing' And New Beats By Dre Ad

Four Black men in a boat rowing in the water.
Richard Schultz
Courtesy of 50 Egg Films

A Louisiana family is sounding the alarm over the disappearance and death of 15-year-old Quawan "Bobby" Charles. The teen was missing for days before being found facedown in a creek. Local law enforcement officers say the boy drowned, but Bobby’s family says his disfigured corpse tells a different story. Host Frank Stasio talks about this 2020 death that calls to mind the 1955 murder of Emmett Till with popular culture experts Natalie Bullock Brown and Mark Anthony Neal.

The three also examine a new highly-artistic ad campaign from Beats by Dre under the banner "You Love Me." It is a celebration of Blackness and a condemnation of anti-Blackness. They also preview the documentary "A Most Beautiful Thing," that tells the story of a group of high school students from the West Side of Chicago who became the first Black high school rowing team. And they look at the role COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter protests are playing in this season’s television series.

Natalie Bullock Brown is a filmmaker and teaching assistant professor at North Carolina State University. Mark Anthony Neal is the James B. Duke Professor and chair of the department of African and African American studies at Duke University. He is also an author and the host of the webcast "Left of Black."

Interview Highlights

On the Quawan "Bobby" Charles case:

Neal: We've long been in a media infrastructure in which missing Black people — missing Black children — generally don't rate the same kind of media attention that we see for the nominal white woman: a white girl who would disappear every month and have a huge campaign in support of finding her and rightfully so. But we don't see that same kind of attention shown to young Black folks. And then the general kind of lack of care and concern from law enforcement, as if somehow Black kids disappearing is something that's normative and doesn't rate further investigation.

Brown: I think that Quawan's mom has reason to think that there was some sort of disregard for her son because of his race, because she's asked questions that no white mother or father would be asked about their child. And so I think that there's a way that law enforcement is callous, certainly toward Black families, when a loved one is killed, or is missing, and then is discovered to have been killed. … I think that there's a lot about this case that just points to this larger problem of disregard, disrespect [and] lack of concern for what happens in the Black community.

On the new Beats by Dre ad:

Neal: One of the most memorable scenes in Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" is based on this conversation: The white pizza owner’s son, who loves Prince and loves Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan, but really can't stand Black folks. And so it's doubling down on this and a moment in time, when America at least thinks that it's had some sort of breakthrough, some sort of epiphany around race and reminding them: Yeah, you know, just buying our products is just one part of that epiphany.

Brown: This ad is coming out at a time when 73 million people voted for Donald Trump. And presumably, a lot of these people, at least at some point, may have been affected by, changed by — on some level — the protests, but grew weary of hearing about Black Lives Matter and all these other things that are related to an emphasis on Blackness. And decided that: Okay, well, I did that. That was trendy for a minute. But I think that the ad, as Mark says, it doubles down on this idea: We're not going anywhere. We're still going to be talking about Black Lives Matter.  We're still going to be talking about police brutality and defunding the police and all these things that you don't want to hear about.

On "A Most Beautiful Thing":

Brown: It's kind of a remarkable thing to think about these young Black men from a neighborhood that is riddled with violence to be out on the water rowing, doing something that is typically seen as very elite. And so I think on the one hand that it's a really beautiful image … But I also think that the way that the film sets up these young men and talks about this transformation that happens on the water is almost like "music tames the savage beast." That is what I felt was being presented ... I think that there's a lot going on. I'm not sure that it all comes together in a way that really pays homage to the city or the young men.

Neal: I think one of the important stories of this narrative is how do we begin to think outside the box in the way that we want young Black folks to channel their energies, because it'd be all too easy just get onto the track, just to get out on the football field, just get out on the basketball court. And it takes a lot of commitment to think about rowing as this option. … And one of the most heartbreaking moments for me was that: How many of their families, their mothers, their brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, fathers never actually got to see them compete? Because in some ways, they couldn't even take them seriously in that endeavor.

Amanda Magnus is the executive producer of Embodied, a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships and health. She has also worked on other WUNC shows including Tested and CREEP.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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