Having grown up watching shows like Sanford & Son, Good Times, What’s Happening!!, Diff’rent Strokes, etc., I didn’t start to think hard about the typical representations of race on television until I heard Public Enemy’s “She Watch Channel Zero” (and their follow-up response aimed at movies, “Burn Hollywoood, Burn”).
In Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for Blackness (University of Minnesota Press), Herman Gray distinguishes blackness on TV as “a discursive category of representation and a contested or unstable constellation of meanings” from real-life blackness “as representing black people as the historical agents of their social world” (p. xvii). This is an important distinction as Reagan-era representations of blacks on television weren’t characterizations to which to aspire. In Revolution Televised: Primetime and the Struggle for Black Power (University of Minnesota Press), Christine Acham states that the television programming of the time “limited the number and types of roles for African Americans and purposefully reiterated caricatures and maintained a rigid system of exclusion” (p. 108). As far off as TV is from representing the real world, it’s interesting to see these issues played out there, season after season. Even in the twenty first century, ceilings in the entertainment industry still exist based on race and gender, shows featuring black characters are often pitted one against the other in prime time schedules (thereby limiting the audience of each), and many black roles are still not ones to which to aspire. These issues among others are explored in both of these books.
Acham’s book also serves as a history lesson regarding several preeminent black television personalities. Back stories of Flip Wilson, Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, and Esther Rolle (“Florida” of Good Times fame), among others. And, she mentions the many ways these entertainers used other forms of media (e.g., magazines and newspapers) to speak out about their dealings with the white-domination of television. This is especially interesting in the case of Richard Pryor’s bouts with censorship and Esther Rolle’s fight against J.J.’s idiocy becoming the focal point of Good Times.
Taken together, these two books provide a crash course in blackness on television: a brief but thorough content analysis of mass media representations of blackness, what those images imply to the larger audience, and the struggle for control of these perceptions.