The growing participation of African Americans in television, both in front of and behind the camera, has coincided with the radical restructuring of race relations in the United States from the end of World War II to the present day. Throughout this period, the specific characteristics of the television industry have complicated the ways in which these changing relations have been represented in television programming.
Television was conceived as a form of commercialized mass entertainment. Its standard fare—comedy, melodrama, and variety shows—favors simple plot structures, family situations, light treatment of social issues, and reassuring happy endings, all of which greatly delimit character and thematic developments. Perhaps more than any other group in American society, African Americans have suffered from the tendencies of these shows to depict onedimensional character stereotypes.
Because commercial networks are primarily concerned with the avoidance of controversy and the creation of shows with the greatest possible appeal, African Americans were rarely featured in network series during the early years of television. Since the 1960s, the growing recognition by network executives that African Americans are an important group of consumers has led to greater visibility; however, in most cases, fear of controversy has led programmers to promote an unrealistic view of African-American life. Black performers, writers, directors, and producers have had to struggle against the effects of persistent typecasting and enforced sanitization in exchange for acceptance in white households. Only when African Americans made headway into positions of power in the production of television programs were alternative modes of representing African Americans developed.
Although experiments with television technology date back to the 1880s, it was not until the 1930s that sufficient technical expertise and financial backing were secured for the establishment of viable television networks. The National Broadcasting Company (NBC), a subsidiary of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), wanted to begin commercial television broadcasting on a wide scale but was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II, and the television age did not commence in earnest until after peace was declared.
In 1948 the three major networks—the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), and the American Broadcasting Company (ABC)—began regularly scheduled primetime programming. That same year, the Democratic Party adopted
a strong civil rights platform at the Democratic convention, and the Truman administration issued a report entitled To Secure These Rights, the first statement made by the federal government in support of desegregation. Yet these two epochal revolutions—television and the civil rights movement—had little influence on one another for many years. While NBC, as early as 1951, stipulated that programs dealing with race and ethnicity should avoid ridiculing any social or racial group, most network programming rarely reflected the turbulence caused by the agitation for civil rights, nor did activists look to television as a medium for effecting social change. The effort to obtain fair and honest representation of African Americans and African-American issues on television remains a complex and protracted struggle.
In the early years of television, African Americans appeared most often as occasional guests on variety shows. Music entertainment artists, sports personalities, comedians, and political figures of the stature of Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Pearl Bailey, Eartha Kitt, the Harlem Globetrotters, Dewey "Pigmeat" Markham, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Ethel Waters, Joe Louis, Sammy Davis Jr., Ralph Bunche, and Paul Robeson appeared in such shows as Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater (1948–1953), Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town (1948–1955), the Steve Allen Show (1950–1952; 1956–1961), and Cavalcade of Stars (1949–1952). Quiz shows like Strike It Rich (1951–1958), amateur talent contests like Chance of a Lifetime (1950–1953; 1955–1956), and shows concentrating on sporting events (particularly boxing matches), like The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports (1948–1960), provided another venue in which prominent blacks occasionally took part.
Rarely did African Americans host their own shows. Short-run exceptions included The Bob Howard Show (1948–1950); Sugar Hill Times (1949), an all-black variety show featuring Willie Bryant and Harry Belafonte; the Hazel Scott Show (1950), the first show featuring a black female host; the Billy Daniels Show (1952); and the Nat "King" Cole Show (1956–1957). There were even fewer all-black shows designed to appeal to all-black audiences or shows directed and produced by blacks. Short-lived local productions constituted the bulk of the latter category. In the early 1950s, a black amateur show called Spotlight on Harlem was broadcast on WJZ-TV in New York City; in 1955, the religious Mahalia Jackson Show appeared on Chicago's WBBM-TV.
Comedy was the only fiction-oriented genre in which African Americans were visible participants. Comedy linked television with the deeply entrenched cultural tradition of minstrelsy and blackface practices dating back to the antebellum period. In this cultural tradition, the representation of African Americans was confined either to degrading stereotypes of questionable intelligence and integrity (such as coons, mammies, Uncle Toms, or Stepin Fetchits) or to characterizations of people in willingly subservient positions (maids, chauffeurs, elevator operators, train conductors, shoeshine boys, handypeople, and the like). Beginning in the 1920s, radio comedies had perpetuated this cultural tradition, tailored to the needs of the medium.
The dominant television genre, the situation comedy, was invented on the radio. Like its television successor, the radio comedy—self-contained fifteen-minute or half-hour episodes with a fixed set of characters, usually involving minor domestic or familial disputes, and painlessly resolved in the allotted time period—lent itself to caricature. Since all radio comedy was verbal, it relied for much of its humor on the misuse of language, such as malapropisms or syntax error; and jokes made at the expense of African Americans (and their supposed difficulties with the English language) were a staple of radio comedies.
The first successful radio comedy, and the series that in many ways defined the genre, was Amos 'n' Andy, (1929–1960), which employed white actors to depict unflattering black characters. Amos 'n' Andy featured two white comedians, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, working in the style of minstrelsy and vaudeville. Another radio show that was successfully transferred to television was Beulah (1950–1953). The character Beulah was originally created for a radio show called Fibber McGee and Molly (1935–1957), in which Beulah was played by Marlin Hurt, a white man. These two shows, which adopted an attitude of contempt and condescending sympathy toward the black persona, were re-created on television with few changes, except that the verisimilitude of the genre demanded the use of black actors rather than whites in blackface and "blackvoice." As with Amos 'n' Andy (1951–1953)—in its first season the thirteenth most-watched show on television—the creators of Beulah had no trouble securing commercial support; both television shows turned out to be as popular as their radio predecessors, though both were short-lived in their network television incarnations.
Beulah (played first by Ethel Waters, then by Louise Beavers) developed the story of the faithful, complacent Aunt Jemima who worked for a white suburban middle-class nuclear family. Her unquestioning devotion to solving familial problems in the household of her white employers, the Hendersons, validated a social structure that forced black domestic workers to profess unconditional fidelity to white families, while neglecting their personal relations to their own kin. When blacks were included in Beulah's personal world, they appeared only as stereotypes. For instance, the neighbor's maid, Oriole (played by Butterfly McQueen), was an even more pronounced Aunt Jemima character; and Beulah's boyfriend, Bill Jackson (played by Percy Harris and Dooley Wilson), the Henderson's handyperson, was a coon. The dynamics between the white world of the Hendersons and Beulah's black world were those of the perfect object with a defective mirror image. The Hendersons represented a well-adjusted family, supported by a strong yet loving working father whose sizable income made it possible for the mother to remain at home. In contrast, Beulah was condemned to chasing after an idealized version of the family because her boyfriend did not seem too interested in a stable relationship; she was destined to work forever because Bill Jackson did not seem capable of taking full financial responsibility in the event of a marriage. As the show could only exist as long as Beulah was a maid, it was evident that her desires were never to be fulfilled. If Beulah seemed to enjoy channeling all her energy toward the solution of a white family's conflicts, it was because her own problems deserved no solution.
Amos 'n' Andy, on the other hand, belonged to the category of folkish programs that focused on the daily life and family affairs of various ethnic groups. Several such programs, among them Mama (1949–1956), The Goldbergs (1949–1955), and Life with Luigi (1952–1953)—depicting the lives of Norwegians, Jews, and Italians, respectively—were popularized in the early 1950s. In Amos 'n' Andy, the main roles comprised an assortment of stereotypical black characters. Amos Jones (played by Alvin Childress) and his wife, Ruby (played by Jane Adams), were passive Uncle Toms, while Andrew "Andy" Hogg Brown (played by Spencer Williams) was gullible and half-witted. George "Kingfish" Stevens (played by Tim Moore) was a deceiving, unemployed coon, whose authority was constantly being undermined by his shrewd wife Sapphire (played by Ernestine Wade) and overbearing mother-in-law, "Mama" (played by Amanda Randolph). "Lightnin'" (played by Horace Stewart) was a janitor, and Algonquin J. Calhoun (played by Johnny Lee) was a fast-talking lawyer. These stereotypical characters were contrasted, in turn, with serious, level-headed black supporting characters, such as doctors, business people, judges, law enforcers, and so forth. The humorous situations created by the juxtapositions of these two types of characters—stereotypical and realistic—made Amos 'n' Andy an exceptionally intricate comedy and the first all-black television comedy that opened a window for white audiences on the everyday lives of African-American families in Harlem.
Having an all-black cast made it possible for Amos 'n' Andy to neglect relevant but controversial issues like race relations. The Harlem of this show was a world of separate but equal contentment, where happy losers, always ready to make fools of themselves, coexisted with regular people. Furthermore, the show's reliance on stereotypes precluded both the full-fledged development of its characters and the possibility of an authentic investigation into the pathos of black daily life. Even though the performers often showed themselves to be masters of comedy and vaudeville, it is unfortunate that someone like Spencer Williams, who was also a prolific maker of all-black films, would only be remembered by the general public as Andy.
While a number of African Americans were able to enjoy shows like Beulah and Amos 'n' Andy, many were offended by their portrayal of stereotypes, as well as by the marked absence of African Americans from other fictional genres. Black opposition had rallied without success to protest the airing of this kind of show on the radio in the 1930s. Before Amos 'n' Andy aired in 1951, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began suing CBS for the show's demeaning depiction of blacks, and the organization did not rest until the show was canceled in 1953. Yet the viewership of white and black audiences alike kept Amos 'n' Andy in syndication until 1966. The NAACP's victory in terminating Amos 'n' Andy and Beulah also proved somewhat pyrrhic, since during the subsequent decade the networks produced no dramatic series with African Americans as central characters, while stereotyped portrayals of minor characters continued.
Many secondary comic characters from the radio and cinema found a niche for themselves in television. In the Jack Benny Show (1950–1965), Rochester Van Jones (played by Eddie "Rochester" Anderson) appeared as Benny's valet and chauffeur. For Anderson, whose Rochester had amounted to a combination of the coon and the faithful servant in the radio show, the shift to television proved advantageous, as he was able to give his character greater depth on the television screen. Indeed, through their outlandish employer-employee relationship, Benny and Anderson established one of the first interracial onscreen partnerships in which the deployment of power alternated evenly from one character to the other. The same may not be said of Willie Best's characterizations in shows like The Stu Erwin Show (1950–1955) and My Little Margie (1952–1955). Best tended to confine his antics to the Stepin Fetchit style and thereby reinforced the worst aspects of the master-slave dynamic.
African-American participation in dramatic series was confined to supporting roles in specific episodes in which the color-line tradition was maintained, such as the Philco Television Playhouse (1948–1955), which featured a young Sidney Poitier in "A Man Is Ten Feet Tall" in 1955; the General Electric Theater (1953–1962), which featured Ethel Waters and Harry Belafonte in "Winner by Decision" in 1955; and The Hallmark Hall of Fame (1952–) productions in 1957 and 1959 of Marc Connelly's "Green Pastures," a biblical retelling performed by an all-black cast. African Americans also appeared as jungle savages in such shows as Ramar of the Jungle (1952–1953), Jungle Jim (1955), and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle (1955–1956). The television western, one of the most important dramatic genres of the time, almost entirely excluded African Americans, despite their importance to the real American West. In the case of those narratives set in contemporary cities, if African Americans were ever included, it was only as props signifying urban deviance and decay. A rare exception to this was Harlem Detective (1953–1954), an extremely low-budget, local program about an interracial pair of detectives (with William Marshall and William Harriston playing the roles of the black and white detectives, respectively) produced by New York's WOR-TV.
Despite the sporadic opening of white households to exceptional African Americans and the effectiveness of the NAACP's action in canceling Amos 'n' Andy, the networks succumbed to the growing political conservatism and racial antagonism of the mid-1950s. The cancellation of the Nat "King" Cole Show exemplifies the attitude that prevailed among programmers during that time. Nat "King" Cole had an impeccable record: his excellent musical and vocal training complemented his noncontroversial, delicate, and urbane delivery; he had a nationally successful radio show on NBC in the 1940s; and over forty of his recordings had been listed for their top sales by Billboard magazine between 1940 and 1955. Cole's great popularity was demonstrated in his frequent appearances as guest or host on the most important television variety shows. NBC first backed Cole completely, as is evidenced by the network's willingness to pour money into the show's budget, to increase the show's format from fifteen to thirty minutes, and to experiment with different time slots. Cole also had the support of reputable musicians and singers who were willing to perform for nominal fees. His guests included Count Basie, Mahalia Jackson, Pearl Bailey, and all-star musicians from "Jazz at the Philharmonic." Yet the Nat "King" Cole Show did not gain enough popularity among white audiences to survive the competition for top ratings; nor was it able to secure a stable national sponsor. After about fifty performances, the show was canceled.
African Americans exhibited great courage in these early years of television by supporting some shows and boycotting others. Organizations such as the Committee on Employment Opportunities for Negroes, the Coordinating Council for Negro Performers, and the Committee for the Negro in the Arts constantly fought for greater and fairer inclusion. During the height of the civil rights movement, the participation of African Americans in television intensified. Both Africans and African Americans became the object of scrutiny for daily news shows and network documentaries. The profound effects of the radical recomposition of race relations in the United States and the independence movement in Africa could not go unreported. "The Red and the Black" (January 1961), a segment of the Close Up! documentary series, analyzed the potential encroachment of the Soviet Union in Africa as European nations withdrew from the continent; "Robert Ruark's Africa" (May 1962), a documentary special shot on location in Kenya, defended the colonial presence in the continent. The series See It Now (1951–1958) started reporting on the civil rights movement as early as 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to desegregate public schools, and exposed the measures that had been taken to hinder desegregation in Norfolk high schools in an episode titled "The Lost Class of '59," aired in January 1959. CBS Reports (1959–) examined, among other matters, the living conditions of blacks in the rural South in specials such as "Harvest of Shame" (November 1960). In December 1960 NBC White Paper aired "Sit-In," a special report on desegregation conflicts in Nashville. "Crucial Summer" (which started airing in August 1963) was a five-part series of half-hour reports on discrimination practices in housing, education, and employment. It was followed by "The American Revolution of '63" (which started airing in September 1963), a three-hour documentary on discrimination in different areas of daily life across the nation.
However, the gains made by the airing of these programs were offset by the effects of poor scheduling, and they were often made to compete with popular series programs and variety and game shows from which blacks had been virtually erased. As the civil rights movement gained momentum, some southern local stations preempted programming that focused on racial issues, while other southern stations served as a means for the propagation of segregationist propaganda.
As black issues came to be scrutinized in news reports and documentaries, African Americans began to appear in the growing genre of socially relevant dramas, such as The Naked City (1958–1963), Dr. Kildare (1961–1966), Ben Casey (1961–1966), The Defenders (1961–1965), The Nurses (1962–1965), Channing (1963–1964), The Fugitive (1963–1967), and Slattery's People (1963–1965). These shows, which usually relied on news stories for their dramatic material, explored social problems from the perspective of white doctors, nurses, educators, social workers, or lawyers. Although social issues were seriously treated, their impact was much diminished by the easy and felicitous resolution with which each episode was brought to a close. Furthermore, the African Americans who appeared in these programs—Ruby Dee, Louis Gossett Jr., Ossie Davis, and others—were given roles in episodes where topics were racially defined, and the color line was strictly maintained.
The short-lived social drama East Side/West Side (1963–1964) proved an exception to this rule. It was the first noncomedy in the history of television to cast an African American (Cicely Tyson) as a regular character. The program portrayed the dreary realities of urban America without supplying artificial happy endings; on occasion, parts of the show were censored because of their liberal treatment of interracial relations. East Side/West Side ran into difficulties when programmers tried to obtain commercial sponsors for the hour during which it was aired; eventually, despite changes in format, it was canceled after little more than twenty episodes.
Unquestionably, the more realistic television genres that evolved as a result of the civil rights movement served as powerful mechanisms for sensitizing audiences to the predicaments of those affected by racism. But as television grew to occupy center stage in American popular entertainment, the gains of the civil rights movement came to be ambiguously manifested. By 1965, a profusion of toprated programs had begun casting African Americans both in leading and supporting roles. The networks and commercial sponsors became aware of the purchasing power of African-American audiences, and at the same time they discovered that products could be advertised to African-American consumers without necessarily offending white tastes. Arguably, the growing inclusion of African Americans in fiction-oriented genres was premised on a radical inversion of previous patterns. If blacks were to be freed from stereotypical and subservient representation, they were nevertheless portrayed in ways designed to please white audiences. Their emergence as a presence in television was to be facilitated by a thorough cleansing.
A sign of the changing times was the popular police comedy Car 54, Where Are You? (1961–1963). Set in a rundown part of the Bronx, this comedy featured black officers in secondary roles (played by Nipsey Russell and Frederick O'Neal). However, the real turning point in characterizations came with I Spy (1965–1968), a dramatic series featuring Bill Cosby and Robert Culp as Alexander Scott and Kelly Robinson, two secret agents whose adventures took them to the world's most sophisticated spots, where racial tensions did not exist. In this role, Cosby played an immaculate, disciplined, intelligent, highly educated, and cultured black man who engaged in occasional romances but did not appear sexually threatening and whose sense of humor was neither eccentric nor vulgar. While inverting stereotypical roles, I Spy also created a one-to-one harmonious interracial friendship between two men.
I Spy was followed by other top-rated programs. In Mission Impossible (1966–1973), Greg Morris played Barney Collier, a mechanic and electronics expert and member of the espionage team; in Mannix (1967–1975), a crime series about a private eye, Gail Fisher played Peggy Fair, Mannix's secretary; in Ironside (1967–1975), Don Mitchell played Mark Sanger, Ironside's personal assistant and bodyguard; and in the crime show Mod Squad (1968–1973), Clarence Williams III played Linc Hayes, one of the three undercover police officers working for the Los Angeles Police Department. This trend was manifested in other top-ranked shows: Peyton Place (1964–1969), the first prime-time soap opera, featured Ruby Dee, Percy Rodriguez, and Glynn Turman as the Miles Family; in Hogan's Heroes (1965–1971), a sitcom about American prisoners in a German POW camp during World War II, Ivan Dixon played Sergeant Kinchloe; in Daktari (1966–1969), Hari Rhodes played an African zoologist; in Batman (1966–1968), Eartha Kitt appeared as Catwoman; in Star Trek (1966–1969), Nichelle Nichols was Lieutenant Uhura; in the variety show Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In (1966–1973), Chelsea Brown, Johnny Brown, and Teresa Graves appeared regularly; and in the soap opera The Guiding Light (1952–), Cicely Tyson started appearing regularly after 1967.
Julia (1968–1971) was the first sitcom in over fifteen years to feature African Americans in the main roles. It placed seventh in its first season, thereby becoming as popular as Amos 'n' Andy had been in its time. Julia Baker (played by Diahann Carroll) was a middle-class, cultured widow who spoke standard English. Her occupation as a nurse suggested that she had attended college. She was economically and emotionally self-sufficient; a caring parent to her little son Corey (played by Marc Copage); and equipped with enough sophistication and wit to solve the typical comic dilemmas presented in the series. However, many African Americans criticized the show for neglecting the more pressing social issues of their day. In Julia's sub-urban world, it was not so much that racism did not matter, but that integration had been accomplished at the expense of black culture. Julia's cast of black friends and relatives (played by Virginia Capers, Diana Sands, Paul Winfield, and Fred Williamson) appeared equally sanitized. Ironically, Julia perpetuated some of the same misrepresentations of the black family as Beulah —for despite its elegant trappings, Julia's was yet another female-headed African-American household.
As successful as Julia was the Bill Cosby Show (1969–1971), which featured Bill Cosby as Chet Kincaid, a single, middle-class high school gym teacher. In contrast to Julia, however, this comedy series presented narrative conflicts that involved Cosby in the affairs of black relatives and innercity friends, as well as in those of white associates and suburban students. The Bill Cosby Show sought to integrate the elements of African-American culture through the use of sound, setting, and character: African-American music played in the background, props reminded one of contemporary political events, Jackie "Moms" Mabley and Mantan Moreland appeared frequently as Cosby's aunt and uncle, and Cosby's jokes often invested events from black everyday life with comic pathos. A less provocative but long-running sitcom, Room 222 (1969–1974), concerned an integrated school in Los Angeles. Pete Dixon (played by Lloyd Haynes), a black history teacher, combined the recounting of important events of black history with attempts to address his students' daily problems. Another comic series, Barefoot in the Park (1970–1971)—with Scoey Mitchell, Tracey Reed, Thelma Carpenter, and Nipsey Russell—was attempted, but failed after thirteen episodes; it was an adaptation of the film by the same name but with African Americans playing the leading roles.
By the end of the 1960s, many of the shows in which blacks could either demonstrate their decision-making abilities or investigate the complexities of their lives had been canceled. Two black variety shows failed due to poor scheduling and lack of white viewer support: The Sammy Davis Jr. Show, the first variety show hosted by a black person since the Nat "King" Cole Show (1966); and The Leslie Uggams Show (1969), the first variety show hosted by a black woman since Hazel Scott. A similar fate befell The Outcasts (1968–1969), an unusual western set in the period immediately following the Civil War. The show, which featured two bounty hunters, a former slave and a former slave owner, and addressed without qualms many of the same controversial themes associated with the civil rights movement, was canceled due to poor ratings. Equally short-lived was Hawk (1966), a police drama shot on location in New York City, which featured a full-blooded Native American detective (played by Burt Reynolds) and his black partner (played by Wayne Grice). An interracial friendship was also featured in the series Gentle Ben (1967–1969), which concerned the adventures of a white boy and his pet bear; Angelo Rutherford played Willie, the boy's close friend. While interracial friendships were cautiously permitted, the slightest indication of romance was instantly suppressed: The musical variety show Petula (1968) was canceled because it showed Harry Belafonte and Petula Clark touching hands.
Despite these limitations, the programs of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s represented a drastic departure from the racial landscape of early television. In the late 1940s, African Americans were typically confined to occasional guest roles; by the end of the 1980s, most top-rated shows featured at least one black person. It had become possible for television shows to violate racial taboos without completely losing commercial and viewer sponsorship. However, greater visibility in front of the camera did not necessarily translate into equal opportunity for all in all branches of television: the question remained as to whether discriminatory practices had in fact been curtailed, or had simply survived in more sophisticated ways. It was true that the presence of blacks had increased in many areas of television, including, for example, the national news: Bryant Gumbel co-anchored Today (1952–) from 1982 to 1997; Ed Bradley joined 60 Minutes (1968–) in 1981; Carole Simpson was a weekend anchor for ABC World News Tonight, where she had started as a correspondent in 1982, from 1988 to 2003.
Nevertheless, comedy remained the dominant form for expressing black lifestyles. Dramatic shows centering on the African-American experience have had to struggle to obtain high enough ratings to remain on the air—the majority of the successful dramas have been those where blacks share the leading roles with other white protagonists.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the number of social dramas, crime shows, or police stories centering on African Americans or featuring an African American in a major role steadily increased. Most of the series were canceled within a year. These included The Young Lawyers (1970–1971), The Young Rebels (1970–1971), The Interns (1970–1971), The Silent Force (1970–1971), Tenafly (1973–1974), Get Christie Love! (1974–1975), Shaft (1977), Paris (1979–1980), The Lazarus Syndrome (1979), Harris & Co. (1979), Palmerstown, USA (1980–1981), Double Dare (1985), Fortune Dane (1986), The Insiders (1986), Gideon Oliver (1989), A Man Called Hawk (1989), and Sonny Spoon (1988). The most popular dramatic series with African-American leads were Miami Vice (1984–1989), In the Heat of the Night (1988–1994), and The A-Team (1983–1987). On Miami Vice and In the Heat of the Night, Philip Michael Thomas and Howard Rollins, the black leads, were partnered with better-known white actors who became the most identifiable character for each series. Perhaps the most popular actor on a dramatic series was the somewhat cartoonish Mr. T, who played Sergeant Bosco "B.A." Baracus on The A-Team, an action-adventure series in which soldiers of fortune set out to eradicate crime. Although in the comedy Barney Miller (1975–1980) Ron Glass played an ambitious middle-class black detective, the guest spots or supporting roles in police series generally portrayed African Americans as sleazy informants, such as Rooster (Michael D. Roberts) on Baretta (1975–1978), or Huggy Bear (Antonio Fargas) on Starsky and Hutch (1975–1979).
In prime-time serials, African Americans appeared to have been unproblematically assimilated into a middle-class lifestyle. Dynasty (1981–1989) featured Diahann Carroll as one of the series' innumerable variations on the "rich bitch" persona; while Knots Landing (1979–1993), L.A. Law (1986–1994), China Beach (1988–1990), and The Trials of Rosie O'Neal (1991–1992) developed storylines with leading black roles as well as interracial romance themes. Later dramatic series featuring African Americans in regularly occurring roles included Homicide: Life on the Street (1993–1999), NYPD Blue (1993–2005), Oz (1997–2003), The Practice (1997–2004), Third Watch (1999–2005), Boston Public (2000–2004), and Six Feet Under (2001–2005), as well as ER (1994–), "24" (2001–), The Wire (2002–), Without a Trace (2002–), Law & Order (1990–) and its spin-offs Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (1999–) and Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2001–), and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000–) and its spinoffs CSI: Miami (2002–) and CSI: New York (2004–).
MTM Enterprises produced some of the most successful treatments of African Americans in the 1980s. In their programs, which often combined drama and satire, characters of different ethnic backgrounds were accorded full magnitude. Fame (1982–1983) was an important drama about teenagers of different ethnicities coping with the complexities of contemporary life. Frank's Place (1987–1988), an offbeat and imaginative show about a professor who inherits a restaurant in a black neighborhood in New Orleans, provided viewers with a realistic treatment of black family affairs. Though acclaimed by critics, Frank's Place did not manage to gain a large audience, and the show was canceled after having been assigned four different time slots in one year.
African Americans have been featured in relatively minor and secondary roles on science fiction series. Star Trek 's communications officer Lieutenant Uhura (played by Nichelle Nichols) was little more than a glorified telephone operator. Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987–1994) featured LeVar Burton as Leiutenant Geordi La Forge, a blind engineer who can see through a visor. A heavily made-up Michael Dorn was cast as Lieutenant Worf, a horny-headed Klingon officer, and Whoopi Goldberg appeared frequently as the supremely empathetic, long-lived bartender Guinan. In Deep Space 9 (1992–1999), the third Star Trek series, a major role was given to Avery Brooks as Commander Sisko, head of the space station on which much of the show's action takes place, while Star Trek: Voyager (1995–2001) featured Tim Russ as Vulcan security officer Tuvok. Enterprise (2001–2005), the fifth Star Trek series, featured Anthony Montgomery as Ensign Travis Mayweather.
Until recently, blacks played an extremely marginal role in daytime soap operas. In 1966, Another World became the first daytime soap opera to introduce a storyline about a black character, a nurse named Peggy Harris Nolan (played by Micki Grant). In 1968, the character of Carla Hall was introduced as the daughter of housekeeper Sadie Gray (played by Lillian Hayman). Embarrassed by her social and ethnic origins, Carla was passing for white in order to be engaged to a successful white doctor. Some network affiliates canceled the show after Carla appeared. Since then, many more African Americans have appeared in soap operas, including Al Freeman Jr., Darnell Williams, Phylicia Rashad, Jackée, Blair Underwood, Nell Carter, Billy Dee Williams, Cicely Tyson, and Ruby Dee. In most cases, character development has been minor, with blacks subsisting on the margins of activity, not at the centers of power. An exception was the interracial marriage between a black woman pediatrician and a white male psychiatrist on General Hospital in 1987. Generations, the only soap opera that focused exclusively on African-American family affairs, was canceled in 1990 after a year-long run. However, The Young and the Restless (1973–) has featured such African-American actors as Kristoff St. John, Victoria Rowell, Shemar Moore, and Tonya Lee Williams in long-running storylines. In addition, black actor James Reynolds joined the cast of Days of Our Lives (1965–) in 1982 as police commander Abe Carver, and continued in the role for more than twenty years, with a short break in the early 1990s to star in Generations. Reynold's Abe Carver has become one of television's longest-running black characters.
The dramatic miniseries Roots (1977) and Roots: The Next Generation (1979)—more commonly known as Roots II —were unusually successful. For the first time in the history of television, close to 130 million Americans dedicated almost twenty-four hours to following a 300-year saga chronicling the tribulations of African Americans in their sojourn from Africa to slavery and, finally, to emancipation. Yet Roots and Roots II were constrained by the requirements of linear narrative, and characters were seldom placed in situations where they could explore the full range of their historical involvement in the struggle against slavery. The miniseries Beulah Land (1980), a reconstruction of the southern experience during the Civil War, attempted to recapture the success of Roots, but ended up doing no more than reviving some of the worst aspects of Gone with the Wind. Other important but less commercially successful dramatic historical reconstructions include The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1973), King (1978), One in a Million: The Ron LeFlore Story (1978), A Woman Called Moses (1978), Backstairs at the White House (1979), Freedom Road (1979), Sadat (1983), and Mandela (1987). There are also a number of made-for-television movies based on the civil rights movement, including The Ernest Green Story (1993), Mr. & Mrs. Loving (1996), The Color of Courage (1998), Ruby Bridges (1998), Selma, Lord, Selma (1999), Freedom Song (2000), Boycott (2002), and The Rosa Parks Story (2002).
A number of miniseries and made-for-television movies about black family affairs and romance were broadcast in the 1980s. Crisis at Central High (1981) was based on the desegregation dispute in Little Rock, Arkansas, while Benny's Place (1982), Sister, Sister (1982), The Defiant Ones (1985), and The Women of Brewster Place (1989) were set in various African-American communities. Other more recent examples include The Josephine Baker Story (1990), The Temptations (1998), Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999), The Corner (2000), Carmen: A Hip Hopera (2001), The Old Settler (2001), Lackawanna Blues (2005), and Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005).
The 1970s witnessed the emergence of several television sitcoms featuring black family affairs. In these shows, grave issues such as poverty and upward mobility were embedded in racially centered jokes. A source of inspiration for these sitcoms may have been The Flip Wilson Show (1970–1974), the first successful variety show hosted by an
African American. The show, which featured celebrity guests like Lucille Ball, Johnny Cash, Muhammad Ali, Sammy Davis Jr., Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, and B. B. King, was perhaps best known for the skits Wilson performed. The skits were about black characters (Geraldine Jones, Reverend Leroy, Sonny the janitor, Freddy Johnson the playboy, and Charley the chef) who flaunted their outlandishness to such a degree that most viewers were unable to determine whether they were meant to be cruel reminders of minstrelsy or parodies of stereotypes.
A number of family comedies, mostly produced by Tandem Productions (Norman Lear and Bud Yoking), became popular around the same time as The Flip Wilson Show : these included All in the Family (1971–1983), Sanford and Son (1972–1977), Maude (1972–1978), That's My Mama (1974–1975), The Jeffersons (1975–1985), Good Times (1974–1979), and What's Happening (1976–1979). On Sanford and Son, Redd Foxx and Demond Wilson played father-and-son Los Angeles junk dealers. Good Times, set in a housing development on the South Side of Chicago, portrayed a working-class black family. Jimmie Walker, who played J.J., became an overnight celebrity with his "jive-talking" and use of catchphrases like "Dy-No-Mite." On The Jeffersons, Sherman Hemsley played George Jefferson, an obnoxious and upwardly mobile owner of a dry-cleaning business. As with Amos 'n' Andy, these comedies relied principally on stereotypes—the bigot, the screaming woman, the grinning idiot, and so on—for their humor. However, unlike their predecessor of the 1950s, the comedies of the 1970s integrated social commentary into the joke situations. Many of the situations reflected contemporary discussions in a country divided by, among other things, the Vietnam War. And because of the serialized form of the episodes, most characters were able to grow and learn from experience.
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, the focus of sitcoms had shifted from family affairs to nontraditional familial arrangements. The Cop and the Kid (1975–1976), Diff'rent Strokes (1978–1986), The Facts of Life (1979–1988), and Webster (1983–1987) were about white families and their adopted black children. Several comic formulas were also reworked, as a sassy maid (played by Nell Carter) raised several white children in Gimme a Break! (1981–1987), and a wise-cracking and strong-willed butler (played by Robert Guillaume) dominated the parody Soap (1977–1981). Guillaume later played an equally daring budget director for a state governor in Benson (1979–1986). Several less successful comedies were also developed during this time, including The Sanford Arms (1976), The New Odd Couple (1982–1983), One in a Million (1980), and The Red Foxx Show (1986).
The most significant comedies of the 1980s were those in which black culture was explored on its own terms. The extraordinarily successful The Cosby Show (1984–1992), the first African-American series to top the annual Nielsen ratings, featured Bill Cosby as Cliff Huxtable, a comfortable middle-class paterfamilias to his Brooklyn family, which included his successful lawyer wife Clair Huxtable (played by Phylicia Rashad) and their six children. The series 227 (1985–1990) starred Marla Gibbs, who had previously played a sassy maid on The Jeffersons, in a family comedy set in a black section of Washington, D.C. A Different World (1987–1993), a spin-off of The Cosby Show, was set in a black college in the South. Amen (1986–1991), featuring Sherman Hemsley as Deacon Ernest Frye, was centered on a black church in Philadelphia. In all of these series, the black-white confrontations that had been the staple of African-American television comedy were replaced by situations in which the humor was provided by the diversity and difference within the African-American community.
Some black comedies—Charlie & Company (1986), Family Matters (1989–1998), Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1990–1996), and True Colors (1990–1992)—followed the style set by The Cosby Show. Others like In Living Color (1990–1994) took the route of reworking a combination of variety show and skits in a manner reminiscent of The Flip Wilson Show. Other popular variety and sketch comedy series starring African-American comedians included HBO's The Chris Rock Show (1997–2000) and Dave Chappelle's Chappelle's Show (2003–2005) on Comedy Central. Much of the originality and freshness of these comedies is due to the fact that some of them were produced by African Americans (The Cosby Show, A Different World, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and In Living Color ). Carter Country (1977–1979), a sitcom that pitted a redneck police chief against his black deputy (played by Kene Holliday), inspired several programs with similar plot lines: Just Our Luck (1983), He's the Mayor (1986), The Powers of Matthew Star (1982–1983), Stir Crazy (1985), Tenspeed and Brown Shoe (1980), and Enos (1980–1981).
UPN, launched as the United Paramount Network in 1995, has made a staple of programming situation comedies featuring primarily African-American casts, including Moesha (1996–2001), The Parkers (1999–2004), Girlfriends (2000–), One on One (2001–), Half & Half (2002–), All of Us (2003–), Eve (2003–), and Second Time Around (2004–2005). The actor Taye Diggs produced and starred as a hotshot attorney in the UPN dramatic series Kevin Hill (2004–). The Fox network offered the comedy Living Single (1992–1998), starring Queen Latifah, and The Bernie Mac Show (2001–), while the WB had actors Jaime Foxx in The Jaime Foxx Show (1996–2001) and Steve Harvey in Steve Harvey's Big Time (2003–2005). ABC's comedies included The Hughleys (1998–2002), starring D. L. Hughley, and My Wife and Kids (2001–2005), starring Damon Wayans, while cable station Showtime offered a series adaptation of the movie Soul Food (2000–2004). Reality series such as Survivor (2000–), The Amazing Race (2001–), American Idol (2002–), and The Apprentice (2004–) featured African Americans among their participants. The UPN's popular reality show America's Next Top Model (2001–) also featured black participants, as well as an African-American host and producer, Tyra Banks.
Local stations, public television outlets, syndication, and cable networks have provided important alternatives for the production of authentic African-American programming. In the late 1960s, local television stations began opening their doors to the production of all-black shows and the training of African-American actors, commentators, and crews. Examples of these efforts include Black Journal —later known as Tony Brown's Journal —(1968–1976), a national public affairs program; Soul (1970–1975), a variety show produced by Ellis Haizlip at WNET in New York; Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant (1968–1973), a public affairs program serving the black communities in New York City; and Like It Is, a public affairs show featuring Gil Noble as the outspoken host.
At the national level, public television has also addressed African-American everyday life and culture in such series and special programs as History of the Negro People (1965), Black Omnibus (1973), The Righteous Apples (1979–1981), With Ossie and Ruby (1980–1981), Gotta Make This Journey: Sweet Honey and the Rock (1984), The Africans (1986), Eyes on the Prize (1987), and Eyes on the Prize II (1990). The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) documentary series American Masters (1986–) featured a number of episodes on African-American artists, including Louis Armstrong, James Baldwin, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Sidney Poitier, and others. The American Experience (1988–), another documentary series on PBS, included episodes on the careers of Ida B. Wells, Adam Clayton Powell, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, and other important African Americans, along with episodes on topics in black culture and history, including "Roots of Resistance: The Story of the Underground Railroad" (1995), "Scottsboro: An American Tragedy" (2000), and "The Murder of Emmett Till" (2003). In addition, black journalist Gwen Ifill became the moderator of Washington Week (1967–) and senior correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer (1995–) on PBS in 1999. Ifill also moderated the first televised debate between the candidates for vice president during the 2004 presidential campaign.
Syndication, the system of selling programming to individual stations on a one-to-one basis, has been crucial for the distribution of shows such as Soul Train (1971–), Solid Gold (1980–1988), The Arsenio Hall Show (1989–1994), The Oprah Winfrey Show (1986–), and The Montel Williams Show (1991–). A wider range of programming has also been made possible by the growth and proliferation of cable services. Robert Johnson took a personal loan for $15,000 in the early 1980s to start a cable business—Black Entertainment Television (BET)—catering to the African Americans living in the Washington, D.C., area. At that time BET consisted of a few hours a day of music videos. By the early 1990s, the network had expanded across the country, servicing about 25 million subscribers, and had a net worth of more than $150 million. (Its programming had expanded to include black collegiate sports, music videos, public affairs programs, and reruns of, among others, The Cosby Show and Frank's Place.) The Black Family Channel, founded in 1999 as MBC Network, is a black-owned and operated cable network for African-American families with children's programs, sports, news, talk shows, and religious programming.
As late as 1969, children's programming did not include African Americans. The first exceptions were Sesame Street (1969–) and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (1972–1989). These two shows were groundbreaking in content and format; they emphasized altruistic themes, the solution of everyday problems, and the development of reading skills and basic arithmetic. Other children's shows that focused on or incorporated African Americans include The Jackson Five (1971), ABC After-School Specials (1972–), The Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine (1974–1976), Rebop (1976–1979), 30 Minutes (1978–1982); Reading Rainbow (1983–2004), Pee-Wee's Playhouse (1986–1991); Saved by the Bell (1989–1993), Saved by the Bell: The New Class (1993–2000), and Where in the World Is Carmen San Diego (1991–1996).
Although African Americans have had to struggle against both racial tension and the inherent limitations of television, they have become prominent in all aspects of the television industry. As we enter the twenty-first century, the format and impact of television programming will undergo some radical changes, and the potential to provoke and inform audiences will grow. Television programs are thus likely to become more controversial than ever, but they will also become an even richer medium for effecting social change. Perhaps African Americans will be able to use these technical changes to allay the racial discord and prejudice that persists off-camera in America.
This article primarily explores the racial issues that impacted on television in its golden years right up to the current century. The arrival of digital delivery systems that have enhanced satellite, cable, DVD and even the internet has reduced the power and reach of broadcast television. Nevertheless, African Americans continue to be short-changed by the medium even with the huge success of Oprah Winfrey, Chris Rock, and a few other Black super stars. The more the technology changes the more it stays the same.
See also Black Entertainment Television (BET); Carroll, Diahann; Cosby, Bill; Davis, Ossie; Dee, Ruby; Film in the United States; Gossett, Louis, Jr.; Minstrels/Minstrelsy; Poitier, Sidney; Radio; Tyson, Cicely; Wilson, Flip
Allen, Robert C., ed. Channels of Discourse, Reassembled: Television and Contemporary Criticism, 2d ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.
Bogle, Donald. Blacks in American Films and Television: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1988.
Bogle, Donald. Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television. New York: Farrar, Strauss Giroux, 2001.
Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh, eds. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946–Present. 8th ed. New York: Ballantine, 2003.
Dates, Jannette L., and William Barlow, eds. Split Image: African Americans in the Mass Media, 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1993.
Gray, Herman S. Cultural Moves: African Americans and the Politics of Representation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
Hunt, Darnell M., ed. Channeling Blackness: Studies on Television and Race in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Lommel, Cookie. African Americans in Film and Television. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.
MacDonald, J. Fred. Blacks and White TV: Afro-Americans in Television Since 1948, 2d ed. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1992.
McNeil, Alex. Total Television: A Comprehensive Guide to Programming from 1948 to the Present, 4th ed. New York: Penguin, 1996.
Means Coleman, Robin R. African American Viewers and the Black Situation Comedy: Situating Racial Humor. New York: Garland, 1998.
Neale, Stephen, and Frank Krutnik. Popular Film and Television Comedy. London and New York: Routledge, 1990.
Pulley, Brett. The Billion Dollar BET: Robert Johnson and the Inside Story of Black Entertainment Television. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2004.
Torres, Sasha, ed. Living Color: Race and Television in the United States. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998.
Torres, Sasha. Black, White, and in Color: Television and Black Civil Rights. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003.
White, Mimi. "What's the Difference? 'Frank's Place' in Television." Wide Angle 13 (1990): 82–93.
Zook, Kristal Brent. Color by Fox: The Fox Network and the Revolution in Black Television. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
charles hobson (1996)
chris tomassini (2005)
"Television." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/television
"Television." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Retrieved August 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/television