I’m still feeling nostaglic now that Black History month is over. I had serious writers block in February and now I can’t stop writing so some of these posts might seem reflective of that lost time. I wanna take a look at some black shows that paved and are currently paving a way for positive black representations and hopefully motivation for future and current scriptwriters.
Let’s be honest! In the past Hollywood rarely jumped at the opportunity to produce television shows that are positive and genuine representations of what it means to be black in America. Since the emergence of the first black situation comedy, The Amos ‘n Andy Show (1951) which aired during the minstrel era. Which is another word for racist black roles for black actors. Now the 1970’s is where we start to get bit more comfortable with the idea of successful blacks with The Jefferson’s in 1975 and The Cosby Show almost a decade later in 1984 and finally the most recent family black comedy Black-ish in (2015). (I know some of you out there are disappointed that I included Bill Cosby but regardless of who he is today to us I was and many others were very much influenced by his work)
The Amos ‘n Andy Show was one of America’s most famous and controversial television/radio shows at the time.( I mean shit it was the 50’s-things still weren’t quite right to be black) During its airing it was essentially the only place blacks could be seen on American television. The show’s title is a bit misleading in that Andy and Kingfish played by Spencer Williams and Tim Moore are the two central characters while Amos has essentially become a supporting character in the series.
You’d think that the black community would have been on board with this but there was actually a lot of controversy surrounding this show that mostly stemmed from the shows inspiration-a radio show. Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden, two white men are the creators of the show. On their radio show, they often performed different voices that were based on popular types from minstrel shows in order to fill shows like Amos ‘n Andy with characters that created a kind of “aural blackface.” (Ihat) Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly the harmful stereotypes that plagued the minstrel era carried over into the characters that make up the show. The show’s reliance on stereotypes is precisely what separates Amos ‘n Andy from the more progressive shows of the 70’s into more progressive times seen today.
Andy is a dumb, shiftless layabout, Kingfish is a greedy, two-bit hustler who’ll rig up any scheme to keep his money and Sapphire played by Ernestine Wade is an overbearing black woman who constantly berates Kingfish as a failure. In season 2 episode 31 called “Mama Getting Married” Kingfish plays cupid to try and get his mother-in-law married so she can move out of his and Sapphires house. Take the scene where Kingfish drives up to Niagara Falls to stop Mama from marrying Mr. Hubert instead of telling Sapphire he lied about the whole thing. Many black organizations such as the NAACP and the Urban League fault against this show for reproducing these harmful stereotypes, however, today comedians seem much more accepting and understanding towards the black actors.
In the Why We Laugh documentary the Wayans brothers describe Amos ‘n Andy as paving a way for people like themselves so they weren’t forced to work with degrading material in order to work at all. Choice and variety are two of the biggest difference between the minstrel television era and every other era that followed.
In 1975 The Jefferson’s was the first longest running American black sitcom. This show was quite progressive in that it was the first to prominently feature an interracial couple and it also showed a black family that was self-employed that became successful enough to move from Queens to Manhattans elite. There are many differences between this show and Amos ‘n Andy the first being the writing on the show. Although, the writers of the show were white there was a conscious effort to present The Jefferson’s as socially and economically conscious. The central characters are Louise and George played by Isabel Sanford and Sherman Hemsley. Louise often argues with George because she feels he allows money to make him act entitled while George feels he is special because he has earned his own money. He desperately wants his wife to just enjoy the ‘good life’ as a housewife. The characters themselves are also quite diverse for instance this show features and upstanding black family that interacts and are friendly and often rude to their white neighbors. They also have an outspoken black maid (Florence) which is a really interesting juxtaposition given that in the past black actors could only get roles as the help.
Marla Gibbs as Florence Johnston The Jefferson’s
I watched the pilot of this show and the entire episode dealt with the central question of if it’s right to have a maid, especially after Louise, used to work as one. The idea of how one’s life becomes gentrified is a central theme of The Jefferson’s and the writers do a pretty good job at being as genuine as possible with the ups and downs blacks in particular face when they come up and their friends and family remain stagnant.
The Cosby Show (1984) completely eliminated the stereotypes from the 1950’s and on. The Cosby showwas truly the first of its kind in that this was the first time we saw black elites on television. The show centers on the Huxtables: the father Cliff an Obstetrician and his lawyer wife Claire, their daughters Sondra, Denise, Vanessa and Rudy, and son Theo. The show was based on Bill Cosby’s comedy specifically his observations of family life. One of the biggest differences between this show and previous ones besides the family’s wealth is Cosby’s conscious effort to include aspects of the black culture such as historically black colleges, African art and the show covered serious issues such as drugs, teen pregnancy, and learning disabilities. Cosby was anxious to bring a sense of blackness to television that had never been seen before and probably never would’ve happened had it not been him.
In season 1 episode 17 Cosby tackles drugs in this episode someone puts a marijuana blunt in Theo’s book, unfortunately, his parents find it and question him about it. Although compared with other episodes this is much milder than othersbecause it addresses the serious issue of drug consumption, especially during the 1980’s NY.Part of what made this show so successful was the ability to be just as serious and moving as it was comedic and lighthearted. The barriers that The Cosby showbroke down made it possible for many other black sitcoms to emerge in the 90’s such as Living Single, Martin, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Moesha, Sister Sister etc.
Today it seems television has taken a step back and a step forward. Although there are more roles that put women of color in leading roles television has become much more segregated than it ever was and black children in America aren’t as connected to their black history as they once were in the 80’s and 90’s. Black-ish (2015) starring Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross is the latest of black sitcoms to successfully portray sophisticated blacks that despite their efforts to connect with their ‘African side’ they realize that they’re just blacks trying to raise a family in LA.
In the pilot episode, Andre (Anderson) is trying to connect his biracial son with his black side by throwing him an ‘African bash’ instead of a Bar Mitzvah like he wanted. Similar to the Huxtables; Black-ishalso features educated blacks Andre is the Senior Vice President at an influential advertising agency and his wife Rainbow is a doctor and they have two boys and two girls. The first episode is similar to the pilot episode on The Jefferson’sbecause it deals with the effects that money or gentrification has on one’s family. In Black-ish Andre worries that because his kids are growing up privileged in a post-Obama era they are not familiar or in touch with their ‘real’ black side. Now the punch-line in all this is that black is too broad to be defined by one central concept of ‘realness’ but it is important to be in touch with what it once meant to be black and where/how those same limitations and stigmas stand today.
The progression of blacks on American television is everchanging. Although all of the shows discussed in this here may not appear to be relatable for everyone there is undoubtedly something that can be pulled from each of these that black people especially can relate to. Whether it’s raising a family or dealing with prejudices within one’s job there is something or was something for everyone at one point and time and I think black progression on television and in reality should always be celebrated.