Like it or not, television is the crude but accurate measure of the American character. The ultimate simplifier, it takes the puzzling questions of just who and what Americans are and gives them answers which must be true because they are large, broad, and often come complete with a laugh track. It distills the complications of public policy into ten-second sound bites; transforms political debate into Sunday morning shouting matches; forces all sports to dance to its own commercial rhythms; and, in its most impressive display of mastery, packages reality into thirty- and sixty-minute segments that achieve a finality and closure of which Sophocles and William Shakespeare could only dream, Anton Chekhov merely aspire. With television, viewers have become what they behold.
What do they behold when television shows African Americans? What are the images that filled the half century from television’s rise in the early 1950’s to the first days of the new millennium? Those are some of the questions Donald Bogle asked in writing Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television; the answers he uncovered are by turns fascinating, appalling, encouraging and—after all, this is television—in many ways entirely predictable. What is not predictable, and one of the many features which makes Primetime Blues so fascinating and valuable, is the story of how African American actors, writers, and directors have helped push the medium of television beyond easy, self-indulgent stereotypes.
In the beginning, there was Amos ’n’ Andy (1951-1953), which premiered on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) network on June 28, 1951 at 8:30 in the evening. Actually, there were earlier shows with African Americans with even more prominent roles (the legendary performer Ethel Waters appeared on an experimental broadcast as early as 1939) but Amos ’n’ Andy was the first show that brought what might very loosely be called “the black experience” to the general American audience. Amos ’n’ Andy had begun as a radio show (with the title characters played by white actors) and reached amazing popularity during the Great Depression—Huey Long, the near-dictatorial governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1931, took his nickname of “The Kingfish” from one of the show’s characters. For a new medium seeking to establish itself, Amos ’n’ Andy offered what television has always sought: proven success, a built-in audience, and sponsors ready to pay top-of-the-line rates for commercials.
It also offered a view of African Americans that many found highly offensive. Avaricious but lazy, pompous yet illiterate, the characters in Amos ’n’ Andy were completely separated from the white culture around them, trapped in a fantasy black world as imagined by white writers and viewers. These were not people to take seriously (after all, they hardly seemed to take themselves seriously); therefore, they could simply be laughed at and dismissed, since they were the latest act in the long-running minstrel show that helped white America keep black America, if not out of sight, then definitely out of mind. Responding to the popular new show, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) issued a detailed list of reasons why Amos ’n’ Andy should be taken off the air; among them
It tends to strengthen the conclusion among uninformed and prejudiced people that Negroes are inferior, lazy, dumb, and dishonest.
Every character in this one and only television show with an all-Negro cast is either a clown or a crook.
Negro doctors are shown as quacks and thieves.
Negro lawyers are shown as slippery cowards, ignorant of their profession, and without ethics.
Negro women are shown as cackling, screaming shrews, in big-mouth close-ups, using street slang, just short of vulgarity.
All Negroes are shown as dodging work of any kind.
So network television welcomed African Americans to the nation’s living rooms. As Primetime Blues chronicles, the relationship that has developed since then has echoed—and sometimes foreshadowed—the connections and conflicts between black and white America at large.
For a time, even early on, the relationship could be one of surprising equality. Bogle points out that Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and Jack Benny formed what was, in essence,...
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