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The Black Box | The Nation

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The Black Box

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OK, no Lifelines, no 50-50s, no Audience Participation if you want to be a millionaire: Name the first great African-American sitcom of the New Millennium... Correct! The 2000 presidential election, as perpetrated in Palm Beach and Duval counties.

Imagine, black people actually thinking they could vote. Cue the laugh track. Go to commercial.

If you're already nostalgic for the kind of pure entertainment value offered by the perversely fascinating Florida (bamboozled, indeed), don't fret. There's always the WB (as opposed to the GWB) or the United Plantation Network, to sustain your sense of cultural (dis)equilibrium--as well as a Lester Maddoxian sense of race separation. Ever watch The Steve Harvey Show? Yes? Well, don't be shocked but you may be black: The number-one rated show among African-Americans, it's been all but unknown among the rest of the population.

If the accession of George W. Bush illustrated anything--other than the awesome power of television to stand by and do nothing--it was the cyclical nature of black access to power in this country, on TV or off. In 1876--as we all know now--a rigged election signaled the end of Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow, the establishment of the hangman's noose as symbol of Southern recreation and, until the Scottsboro Boys case in 1931, a national coma as regards racial mending.

But only eight years after Scottsboro broke, Ethel Waters was asked to develop a show for a medium that was itself still in development. By the late 1960s, The Brady Bunch had taken the one institutionalized black figure on mainstream TV--the maid--and made her white. By 2001, Jerry Springer was refereeing an on-air fiasco that could only be described as a racist's dream, showcasing, as it does, the dregs of the population, black and white.

That so much of television's black content is currently in syndication--good or bad--is telling. Plenty could argue that Jim Crow is still alive and well on network TV, but it is hard to say that matters aren't better than they were: Many major programs have a major black character; Oprah Winfrey rules the waves. But it's also better than arguable that ever since lynch mobs became more or less unfashionable (except in Texas), television has exercised the kind of social/racial control over our culture that race laws once maintained, and via the same mechanism: Create an artificial universe, with artificial rules; give people little enough to keep them near-starved, but make enough noise about every crumb you do toss their way that the public will think you're a bomb-lobbing revolutionary.

The culture critic Donald Bogle doesn't ascribe so much power, or so much intelligence, to the medium he critiques in Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television. But he's certainly cognizant of the power of entertainment to skew one's perception. And oneself. Growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, Bogle writes, he seldom saw black people he recognized on TV. Or situations, comedic or otherwise, that weren't filtered through a white consciousness. But he watched. And watched.

Early on, it was Beulah, with Waters--and Louise Beavers and Hattie McDaniel--refashioning for an all-new medium the near-mythic character of the wise and/or sardonic black servant. He watched the minstrelized antics of Amos 'n' Andy--which, to its credit, barely acknowledged the white world--as well as the caustic modernism of Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. Later, there were the "events" of Roots and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, programs reeking of network noblesse oblige. But it wasn't until The Cosby Show, he says, that he realized two things: a previously unknown familiarity with people he was watching, via a seemingly benign, but hugely influential--and successful--NBC sitcom. And an accompanying epiphany about the magnitude of network TV's failure to its black audience.

To no one's surprise, Bill Cosby emerges in Bogle's book as one of the three or four most influential black performers/entrepreneurs in the history of black television (along with Waters, the comedian Flip Wilson and the Wayans brothers, because In Living Color helped put Fox TV "on the map"). But Cosby also ties Bogle up. As a performer, Cosby has been averse to playing the race card for either laughs or points, and his silence has been eloquent. Bogle recognizes this, just as he recognizes that Amos 'n' Andy assumed an existential grandeur by existing in its own black world.

But in Primetime Blues--a companion to Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks (Continuum), his study of blacks in film--Bogle is torn: There's the sense that every opportunity given, majestically, African-Americans on TV (itself a repugnantly patriarchal concept) should be used to promote a positive image or political message. Conversely, there's the Realpolitik of mass entertainment. It's rather unclear whether he thinks Julia, the landmark series that debuted in turbulent 1968, starring Diahann Carroll as a widowed mother and nurse (working for the crusty-but-benevolent Lloyd Nolan), was rightfully criticized for not having more truthfully represented black people, whatever that means, or was a landmark nonetheless. When he says that the characters in a show like Sanford & Son might have portrayed real anger about their status and thus taken the show in a different and provocative direction, he doesn't say whether he thinks very many viewers would have bothered to follow along.

In this, Bogle skirts the two basic aspects of television's nature: First, that it is craven, soulless and bottom-line fixated. And second, that it is aimed at morons. Sure, Bogle can cite hundreds of examples of African-Americans being portrayed in a patronizing or demeaning fashion, but how many real white people ever show up on the tube? Shows like The Jeffersons and Good Times were cartoons, the latter perpetrating what Bogle dubs neo-"coonery" via comedian Jimmie Walker. But between The Honeymooners and Roseanne, how many regular series represented white America as other than upper-middle-class, Wonder Bread-eating humanoids? Television, in its democratic largesse, has smeared us all.

Some worse than others. If the only place you saw white people was on the evening news--the one slot where blacks were always assured better-than-equal representation--you'd have a pretty warped idea of white people, too. Which is why, Bogle makes plain, it's always been so important to get respectable blacks on network TV.

The history itself is fascinating. Waters, who acquires a quasi-Zelig-like presence in Bogle's account of TV's early age, personified the medium's ability to diminish whatever talent it sucked into its orbit. The original Ethel Waters Show included scenes from Waters's hit play Mamba's Daughters; eleven years later, she'd be back as Beulah. By 1957, she was destitute, dunned by the IRS and had offered herself up as poignant fodder for Edward R. Murrow's Person to Person, talking about Christian faith and a need for money. Finally, television, never sated, asked one more sacrifice and got it, when Waters tried to quiz-show her way out of debt via a show called Break the $250,000 Bank.

Waters remains a towering figure in twentieth-century American culture; after the fanfares of both Bogle and jazz critic Gary Giddins (whose Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams ranks her alongside Crosby and Louis Armstrong in her importance to American pop singing), she may be due for a full-fledged resurrection, replete with boxed sets and beatification by Ken Burns. But she isn't the only one the author resuscitates. In trying to achieve as complete as possible a history of the medium-in-black, Bogle also tells the unsung stories of other pioneering African-American performers--such people as Tim Moore, Ernestine Wade, Juano Hernandez, James Edwards--who more often than not had one hit show then went on hiatus, and from there to oblivion.

Among the encores given by Bogle (author of a first-rate biography of the actress Dorothy Dandridge) are Bob Howard, star of The Bob Howard Show, a fifteen-minute weeknight program of songs that went on the air in 1948 and was the first to feature a black man as host. It lasted only thirteen months. Howard doesn't seem to have stretched his material beyond renditions of "As Time Goes By" or "The Darktown Strutters' Ball." But the most interesting thing, besides his race, was that the network didn't seem to notice it--didn't seem to have a problem with bringing an African-American into white homes. Of course, the networks had yet to hear the five little words that have echoed down through the annals of black TV (and any other progressive programming, for that matter):

What about the Southern affiliates?

Hazel Scott was hardly the 1950s version of Lil' Kim: The elegant, educated and worldly host of the DuMont Network's Hazel Scott Show had already come under fire from both James Agee and Amiri Baraka for allegedly putting phony white airs on earthy black music--so, if anything, she should have been the darling of the powers of early television. But no. Allegations in the communist-watchdog publication Red Channels dried up sponsorship for her show. And even though Scott demanded and got a chance to plead her patriotism before the House Un-American Activities Committee, her show was canceled after just three months. Scott's fate indicated even at this early stage that television would flee from any sign of controversy, especially political controversy, writes Bogle, who is correct--except when money is involved.

Primetime Blues stands as a history of African-American television, but there's more than enough subject matter to fill two books--a sequel could deal solely with the current ghettoization of the evening airwaves--so Bogle steers mostly clear of analyzing white television (you wish he'd at least dug deeper into the influence of black TV on white TV). But he can't ignore All in the Family. Not only did it spin off one of the most successful black sitcoms ever--The Jeffersons--it had a stronger kinship, albeit an ironic one, to black sitcoms than it did to white. It might even have been a black sitcom, sort of the way Bill Clinton was a black President, by the nature and limits of its experience.

Bogle places himself in the rather illustrious camp (Laura Hobson, author of Gentleman's Agreement, was one critic of the show's "dishonesty") contending that Carroll O'Connor's bigoted Archie Bunker, who brought "hebe," "coon" and "spade" into prime time--and ended up one of TV Guide's Fifty Greatest Characters Ever--did nothing to break down racial barriers but in fact reinforced the very racist attitudes the buffoonish Bunker was supposed to make look ridiculous. Cosby hated it; Lucille Ball (who, it is left unsaid, had one of the top-rated Nielsen shows before AITF premiered) weighed in too, comparing Norman Lear's groundbreaking comedy to the days when "the Romans let human beings be eaten by lions, while they laughed and drank."

CBS pooh-bah William Paley, who originally thought the show offensive, became a big supporter once it became a smash--to the point of ordering that a study he'd commissioned, one that confirmed what critics of the show were saying, be destroyed: What can we do with it? Paley asked. If we release it, we'll have to cancel the show.

Bogle is good at comparing Amos 'n' Andy to In Living Color--shows whose humor would never be viewed the same way by black and white audiences. And he appreciates that while early performers like the Randolph sisters--Lillian (It's a Wonderful Life, Amos 'n' Andy, The Great Gildersleeve) and Amanda (The Laytons, Amos 'n' Andy, Make Room for Daddy)--could add nuance and dimension to otherwise cardboard domestic characters, their roles were mostly nonexistent outside the sphere of their white employers. But he misses what I think is the lasting point of All in the Family: Archie Bunker, a furious, frustrated vessel of negative energy, was defined solely by his hate, solely by his proximity to the people he considered inferior or worse. He existed in a parallel zone to the one that had been created as a ghetto for black performers for decades past--a zone that defined him not by what he was, but what he wasn't. America didn't get it, of course, and CBS didn't intend it, but what All in the Family turned out to be was a perverted version of Amos 'n' Andy.

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