I was there at the beginningWith a fresh television season now going, I feel it's incumbent on me to provide a little background for those who complain about how some blacks are "representing us" in TV's current offerings. I do understand our penchant for being easily annoyed because we have had and still do have many things to complain about.
My concern is that we've created such a comfy home in the Complaint Department that we forget the things we could be grateful for. What you focus on E X P A N D S, so I want to focus on and expand a few things I'm grateful for regarding black folk on television.
First of all, we are on television! and it's now gone beyond the stage of our being occasional "tokens."
There was a long exchange on Face Book some days ago about "loud, fat, sassy black women" on daytime talk shows. I don't watch these shows, so I can only go by the lamentations in the discussion, to which I added this.
"I think the producers (as always) are doing what they believe will bring eyeballs to their shows. There is a desperate competition for viewers these days. Tyler Perry has demonstrated that his brand brings viewers; that's why Oprah snatched him up. If you can't get TP, you can at least hire TP-type characters and hope that will do the trick. And apparently, it has. The Real Housewives of Atlanta pulls the viewers and NeNe's career is blowing up. On the other hand, Shonda's women aren't doing too bad, either."
Viola Davis, Regina King and Uzo Aduba had just won Emmy Awards, and not a one of them played a "loud, fat, sassy black woman." Nobody in the discussion thread bothered to mention this.
I am not a fan of Tyler Perry's shows, and I have recoiled every time I've seen an episode of Real Housewives/Basketball Wives; HOWEVER, I am thrilled to see all these black folks getting paid in the entertainment industry. I know you youngsters believe there have always been blacks on television, except they were often not representing us in the way we wanted to see ourselves. Not so.
I remember when there weren't any blacks on television. NONE!
In fact, I remember when there was NO TELEVISION!
Commercial television appeared in the late 1940s. By 1955 half of all U.S. homes had television. My family got our first in 1952. I was fifteen.
The first black I remember seeing on television was Eddie Anderson in The Jack Benny Show which first aired in 1950. His character was named Rochester. He was a wise-cracking, eye-rolling servant who called Benny "Boss." Back in those days, we preferred the classy Nat King Cole Show, but NBC struggled mightily to get sponsors for that show in the mid-fifties so it didn't last long. There was no shortage of commercial support for the other shows of that period with black actors, Amos and Andy and Beulah (a maid). Push-back from the black community got Amos and Andy cancelled, but it continued to run for many years in syndication.
Our whole family gathered (along with thousands of others around the country) on Sunday evenings to watch The Ed Sullivan Show that ran from 1948-1971. Sullivan periodically included black performers and we couldn't wait to see them. I first saw Richard Pryor doing a Rumpelstiltskin bit on Sullivan and have been a Pryor fan ever since. Motown artists like Stevie Wonder, the Jackson Five and the Supremes were popular Sullivan guests and we were thrilled to see them.
In the late sixties we welcomed a break from the stereotypical roles with Bill Cosby in I Spy, and the much-praised Julia, starring Diahann Carroll. In the 1970s, Norman Lear ramped up the number of blacks on television producing sitcoms like Good Times and The Jeffersons, and adapting Sanford and Son (originally a British show) for American TV. Aside from Roots, Alex Haley's history-making series about slavery, dramatic programming about black lives was avoided. When a few were aired in the eighties, they didn't last long. I was crushed when my favorites, Frank's Place with Tim and Daphne Reid and A Man Called Hawk starring Avery Brooks were quickly cancelled.
Despite the fact that really good black shows can still be cancelled too soon (my son's show Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell for example), there has never been anything on television like what's going on now.
Not only are there black actors in all types of roles in "white" shows, but there are shows with predominantly black casts on the major networks like Blackish and Empire, not to mention the black women who are the leads in Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder. And since TV is an imitative industry, the success of these shows guarantees there will be more of them.
On cable, I can hardly keep track. Larry Wilmore is hosting Comedy Central's The Nightly Show and Trevor Noah The Daily Show, and W. Kamau Bell will soon debut United Shades of America on CNN. "Unscripted" programs showcasing blacks are on a variety of cable networks, and there are three cable channels programming mostly black shows: BET, TV ONE, and OWN (Tyler Perry's home).
I remember when I (and most blacks) watched every television show that had a black actor. No matter how buffoonish the character, we were happy to see somebody on the little screen that looked like us. Today (and for possibly a couple of decades now), there have been too many of us for me to watch every appearance of a black person on television, even if I wanted to.
We can see black folk on television (or streaming) anytime we want. I will not watch the "reality" shows, but I won't miss Being Mary Jane and How to Get Away With Murder.
So instead of being disgruntled when we see a black person who doesn't fit the image we prefer seeing, switch channels! We have choices now.