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watching tv2 (10K)Blacks and Television: Past and Present
By Steven Malik Shelton

Television became widely available to the public shortly after World War II, and black soldiers, not long removed from the battle fields of Europe and Asia, felt empowered as men and less likely to accept the traditional norms of American life. Sadly, they soon discovered that the new medium of television thrived on many of the same negative stereotypes and caricatures that had dogged blacks for centuries.

The first TV program to showcase a black in a starring role was Beulah, which debuted in 1950 and revolved around the interplay between a black maid and the white family she worked for. Beulah embodied white fantasies and expectations of how a black domestic should behave and the characteristics she should exemplify.

Setting the trend of what was to follow, Beulah had no husband, and her own children were not a part of the script. She seemed not only content to perform her duties for her white employers but was happy, even ecstatic in doing so. "You make her so happy, and you make her so unaware of her own children, and so aware of somebody else's children," said actress Ester Rolle, who would later give her own rendition of a black woman in the sit-com, Good Times.

"That's a Hollywood maid. I knew a lot of people who worked as domestics. And I know people who had to educate their children from their earnings as a domestic, and they did it because they didn't want their children to have to go through what they were going through. That's noble, that's nobility."

Yet in early television there were other dynamics to be considered. Blacks were extremely limited in the types of roles they could play. It was an industry that basically told blacks to take it or leave it, and for most black actors the consequences of leaving it could be even direr; as Hattie McDaniel, who played the role of Beulah on the radio series, replied to her detractors. "Why should I complain about making seven hundred dollars a week for playing a maid? If I didn't I'd be making seven dollars a week actually being one."

The Amos 'N' Andy Show soon followed. One of the most successful programs on radio for 30 years, it made its television debut on CBS in 1951. Like Beulah, it was roundly criticized by black civil rights organizations for its portrayal of blacks as incompetents and buffoons. The show was cancelled after two seasons, not because of black outrage, but because of white consumer resistance to television's popular casting of blacks in any form or genre.

The scarcity of blacks on television during this era made it a special treat to see them on those rare occasions when they graced the screen "Someone would yell, or we would know from the grapevine that somebody black was going to be on television that night," recounts actor and producer Tim Reid. "The rest of it we didn't watch; I mean there was nothing on television that we could relate to. So we didn't watch it."

The first prime time variety show to star a black was The Nat King Cole Show. Cole was non-threatening, talented, and sophisticated and producers hoped he would be acceptable to a majority of white viewers. Blacks loved the show because Cole was the very embodiment of style and elegance; characteristics that had been intentionally scripted away from blacks on most of America's airways.

"Nat King Cole, I think appealed to a broad spectrum of people because he didn't seem threatening," said actress Daphne Maxwell Reid. "He didn't seem forceful or belligerent, or anything that would make white people uncomfortable."

Although the Nat King Cole Show was safely molded for assimilation, it could not assuage the temperament of southern whites, many of whom were outraged at the prospect of having a black in their living room (even if just on television) and to have this black man smoothly cavorting with white men and white women was just too much for them to bear. The sponsors bowed to the pressure and the Cole show was cancelled after its first season.

Television (for the most part) in the 50's and 60's was a medium that avoided controversy in its dramatic shows as well as in its situation comedies, yet with the advent of the civil rights era, television became a powerful and influential ally of blacks in their quest for equal rights; for it showed in the most graphic and realistic of tones the ugly face of racism, exploitation, and brutality.

Suddenly the ugly images of Birmingham, Selma, and Little Rock, and the stifling racism of northern cities like Detroit, New York and Chicago could be projected (in a matter of seconds) around the globe. And it was very difficult for America to stand up and proclaim itself as the leader of the free world and the harbinger of democracy or as a sanctuary for human rights, when the world had watched television images of blacks viciously attacked.

Moreover the noble spectacle of blacks standing up for justice against incredible odds, created an empathy with oppressed people across the globe. In short, television took the plight of blacks out of the fringes and placed it squarely before the consciousness of the world.

This new dynamic ushered in dramatic programs like, East Side, West Side which featured talented black actors like James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, and Diane Sands, and realistically portrayed the dilemma of black life in America, while seriously examining issues like racism, poverty, and urban degeneration. Yet, most whites were not desirous of such honest evaluation, and the program was cancelled after its first season.

julia (20K)In the late 1960's, Julia, starring Dianne Carroll, was produced as an improvement to the Beulah and Amos N Andy types of shows that had been so pervasive in depicting blacks for years.

"It felt like a step above the grinning domestic who had to be very stout, very dark, preferable with large eyes and a wide grin," said Rolle. "And I guess we were so tired of being inundated with that imagery, that we accepted Julia as a breath of fresh air."

In Julia, producers were attempting (in a sterile, one dimensional way) to prove to white audiences that blacks were normal. Julia nevertheless fed into stereotypes about black life by scripting Dianne Carroll's character as a single black woman with a child and no husband. She also was portrayed as oblivious to the concern of race (in an era turbulent with racial issues and conflicts). In short, Julia sought to correct the abuses of the Amos N Andy type, by presenting to the public an emotionally and mentally bleached out version of black life, and in so doing, divested it of its heart and of its searing reality.

On the heels of Julia came TV's acclaimed breakthrough drama, I Spy. Starring Bill Cosby and Robert Culp, it was the first time a black actor was teamed with a white actor on equal footing in a dramatic series. Yet it is interesting that the part Cosby played during the rebellious decade of the sixties (a time when many blacks were in a life or death struggle against the status quo) was that of a CIA agent-employed by the same agency responsible for thwarting black liberation movements in Africa and (to a lesser extent) in America. Moreover, Cosby's television protagonist was praised for being a Rhodes Scholar. The bitter irony is that Cecil Rhodes facilitated the mass-murder of hundreds of thousands of blacks in the Belgian Congo.

Shows like Julia and I Spy depicted an imaginary world where blacks and whites got along fine, and were presented with scarce racial problems or animosities; and which were completely juxtaposed to the reality that had began to appear on television's evening news.

The decade of the 70's brought a slew of black shows; and programs like The Jefferson's, Sanford and Son and Good Times were labeled as the new genre in ghetto sit-coms. What separated them from the black sit-coms of previous years were their skill at dissecting racial and social issues with wit, humor and biting sarcasm. There were even fleeting moments of intense drama in Good Times, accentuated by excellent actors John Amos and Ester Rolle.

"Good Times represented the greatest potential," said cultural critic, Henry Louis Gates. "But also its greatest failure. They would talk about world crisis and how blacks dealt with these issues. But what happened? They elevated J J's role."

amosandandy (12K)For many middle class blacks, J J's bulging eyes and slap-stick humor were a throw-back to the infamous days of vaudeville, black-face and Bert Williams. And many black critics were offended (not only by J J's antics but by the show itself). What, they asked, is 'good times' about being poor, and black and living in the ghetto?

Yet blacks have always used humor and laughter to buttress them through the difficulties of life in America, where others under the same conditions may have snapped, committed suicide or indiscriminately harmed others. And the show, despite the criticism leveled at it, showed genuine affection between black family and friends (blacks regularly hugged and kissed each other) a noticeable departure from other black programs.

Moreover, although shows like Amos N Andy are what many consider demeaning portrayals of blacks; they are in some ways accurate reflections of humor in black life. Out of a sort of brilliant-necessity, blacks have taken circumstances that would have psychologically traumatized or devastated a less resolute and creative people and turned it into fodder for not only laughter and amusement but to reveal profound truths about their environment, their adversaries, and about themselves.

This attribute to turn frowns into smiles or to make lemonade out of lemons is an integral part of the black spirit and of the black experience, and has carried blacks through many unbelievably tragic and oppressive times. And while so-called elite middle-class blacks who were attempting to assimilate into white mainstream society were appalled by these black shows; most black viewers identified with them, accepted them for what they were worth, and laughed out loud along the way.

Through the years there have been popular dramas that feature blacks in prominent roles; yet, as in shows, like Ironside, Walker: Texas Ranger, Arrest & Trial, In The Heat of the Night, Mattlock, NYPD Blues ect., blacks are usually depicted in subordinate, supportive or complimentary roles to white stars.

In 1976, the television mini-series, Roots premiered and would earn the prestige of having some of the most watched segments in television history. Based on the best selling book by Alex Haley, it poignantly depicted the torments and the triumphs of a black family from a small African village, through chattel slavery, to modern America.

The show although profound and unique in many ways, still failed to question the institutional and inequities and structural oppression that are a part of America. And which need to fundamentally change if the horrors of Roots (in one guise or another) are to cease to continuously perpetuate it self. The Cosby Show of the 1980's showcased a strong, prosperous black family, but like Julia before it, was oblivious to the stark reality of racism in America regardless of class, profession or income.

Today, portrayals of blacks on television are usually set in the realms of comedy or crime. And this trend is almost as true today as in previous decades. Thus black dramatic shows still tend to be cancelled after a few seasons (with most never to be broadcast again). And just as before, strong and loving black fathers and family men on television are almost an extinct species.

flavor (17K)Currently almost all of the black television programs are comedies. Some of the so-called reality shows like Flavor of Love harkens back to the American tradition of showcasing the black man as buffoon and sexual panderer. And in a new twist, these so-called reality shows consistently cater to the most base human desires, sex and violence.

"We are witnessing the McDonald's-zation of television with this newest wave of black reality shows," one concerned viewer said. "These shows are cheap, gobbled down and very successful, and you aren't sure what you ate until it is digested. Just as the effects of McDonalds are seen in the obesity of children, will these reality shows that are not real at all show their impact 20 years from now?"

There is some hope, however in a refreshing new HBO drama, "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency,' starring Jill Scott. In it she plays a South African private detective who solves crimes and problems with skill, compassion, and ingenuity. The show's scripts are artful and realistic. And they teach lessons about life without being preachy or dogmatic.

It is too early to tell, but the show has the potential to be one of the few quality black dramas broadcast on television in many years. And like the music of John Coltrane, or James Carter; or the singing of Diane Reed, or Aretha Franklin; it poignantly reveals some of the depth of the black spirit and of the human soul.

Steven Malik Shelton is a journalist and human rights advocate. He can be reached at:

"Blacks in Reality TV Perpetuate Stereotypes," by the Hilltop Editorial Board (October 2006) accessible online at:

"Top 25: Black TV Shows of All Time," by Bryan Monroe (October 2007) accessible online at:

© Apr. 2009 By Afromerica || [TOP]


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