Prime Time Blues: African Americans on Network Television
by Donald Bogle
Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
512 pages, 2001
Buy it online
Prime Time Blues is the first comprehensive history of African Americans on the network series. Donald Bogle traces the changing roles of African Americans on prime time -- from the blatant stereotypes of television's early years to the more subtle stereotypes of recent eras. Bogle also reveals another equally important aspect of TV history: namely, that television has been invigorated by extraordinary Black performers -- from Ethel Waters and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson to Cicely Tyson, Flip Wilson, Redd Foxx and those mighty power brokers Cosby and Oprah -- who frequently use the medium to make personal and cultural statements and whose presence on the tube has been of enormous significance to the African American community.
Bogle moves from the postwar era of Beulah and Amos 'n' Andy to the politically restless sixties reflected in I Spy and the edgy, ultra-hip characters of The Mod Squad. Bogle comments on the short-lived East Side, West Side, the controversial Julia, and the television of the seventies, when a nation still caught up in Vietnam and Watergate retreated to the ethnic humor of Sanford and Son and Good Times; and on the politically conservative eighties, marked by the unexpected success of The Cosby Show. He explores die-hard Bonded Buddies on such series as Spenser: For Hire, and those teen dream heroes of Miami Vice. Finally, Bogle turns a critical eye to the television landscape of the nineties -- when Black and white viewers often watched entirely different programs -- with shows such as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, ER, and The Steve Harvey Show. He also examines TV movies and miniseries such as The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and Roots.
Ultimately Prime Time Blues gives us a history rich in personalities and tensions as well as paradoxes and achievements.
Growing up in a quiet suburb of Philadelphia, where everything closed at nine in the evening and where life in the early 1960s moved at a fairly leisurely pace, I spent most of my spare time at the movies -- and the rest of it plopped in front of the TV set. I saw just about everything that came on the tube, whether it was the variety shows, the nightly news shows, or the sports shows. But mainly I watched with sometimes rapt, sometimes casual attention the new primetime series, or even the old series, mostly sitcoms, that were already rerun in syndication, often five days a week.
From the first, I was struck whenever I saw an African American performer. It might be the exuberant and much maligned cast of Amos 'n' Andy, led by Tim Moore, Spencer Williams, and Ernestine Wade. Or it might be Eddie Anderson as the clever and confident Rochester on The Jack Benny Show. Or Ethel Waters, who had played the loyal maid on Beulah, in some of her guest appearances on programs like Route 66 and Daniel Boone. Or later Bill Cosby on I Spy.
Even as a kid, I often found myself asking all sorts of questions about what I was seeing and enjoying. The friendly maid Beulah never appeared fazed by the fact that she was a servant in a household that clearly took her for granted. Didn't she ever grow tired of always smiling and pleasing the white Henderson family? As witty and resourceful and independent as Rochester was, wouldn't it have been delirious fun to see his life dramatized away from his boss, Jack Benny.? Even the progressive Scotty on I Spy chummed it up with his white buddy Kelly without the subject of race -- or the cultural distinctions that had to exist between the two men -- entering into their friendship. Before I could consciously express it, I think I was aware, as was most of Black America, of a fundamental racism or a misinterpretation of African American life that underlay much of what appeared on the tube.
Yet I kept watching television. Because Black performers in series were still relatively rare, they always meant much to me, as they did to the rest of the African American audience. Usually, I liked the people I was seeing. Something about the warmed-over tones of Ethel Waters's voice or the cockiness of Anderson's Rochester or the shrewd intelligence of Scotty always intrigued and drew me to them. I already felt that way about many of the African American actors and actresses I had seen in old films, some of whom now appeared on television. Beneath the characters they played, there often appeared to be another person, one the actual text didn't seem to know much about.
Later, in the 1970s, like most of the nation, I was caught up in such television specials as The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and Roots. Cicely Tyson, John Amos, Madge Sinclair, Ben Vereen, Leslie Uggams, and Olivia Cole gave masterly, thought-out performances that were often searing, poetic, and, rare for the tube, larger than life with movie screen-size emotions and passions. But, frankly, during the era of shows like Good Times and The Jeffersons, I lost some of my interest in the tube. After all the social/political momentum of the late 1960s, the new primetime series seemed like dated throwbacks to the past. Too much clowning. Too many exaggerations.
Yet I was surprised by the people I knew who watched these shows and discussed the characters and story lines in such detail that it was obvious that they were connecting with the programs in a more personal way than they may have realized. Often, too, I noticed that even among those people who professed to hate television, except perhaps for some of the programming on PBS, there was a moment when they might mention some network primetime series with a surprising note of familiarity. Just about everyone seemed to have at least one show that they indulged in weekly, their guilty pleasure, a program they watched so intently that, during its broadcast, they did not want to be interrupted by phone calls or visitors. When I took another look at a show like Sanford and Son or The Jeffersons, I could understand why. I had to admit that while I grew weary of all the hootin' and hollerin', it was pretty hard to resist people like Redd Foxx, Sherman Hemsley, and Marla Gibbs.
In the 1980s, I found myself going back to television, relaxing in the rhythms of certain primetime series in a way I hadn't done since I was a kid. Programs as different as Miami Vice and Dynasty caught my attention, especially when their African American characters were on full view. But it was really The Cosby Show that reawakened something in me. At first I thought the series seemed too soft and agreeable for its own good without any social bite or political consciousness. Then, gradually, as I got to know its characters -- their quirks, enthusiasms, follies, and passions -- and its situations; even as I grew accustomed to the look of the series with its living-room sofa always facing the viewer, with the swinging door that led to the kitchen, with the refrigerator that Cliff loved rummaging through; as I came to anticipate the exchanges between Cliff and Clair and between them and their children, I found myself enjoying the series and actually missing it on those weeks when I had not been able to watch it.
What struck me most about The Cosby Show was that I had seen, during my suburban childhood, African American families similar to the Huxtables. But I had never seen such a family on television. Many critics might complain that the series was too idealized and too removed from the lives of most African American families. But there was a reason why it was popular with Black America as well as with white America; why, within the African American community itself, its appeal crossed lines of class and gender. The Cosby Show demonstrated the unique perspective that could be brought to the primetime series when an African American artist was in control of the material.
Afterward I thought more about the way the primetime series recorded or failed to record African American life. I began thinking again about my early childhood viewing experiences, what attracted me to tube characters, what disappointed me. I started making notes to myself on the way television's view of African Americans had changed over the decades, in large part because of the primetime network series, but also on the way in which some fixed images of African Americans had not progressed very far at all.
I became fully aware that, for better or worse, the weekly primetime series had a greater effect on viewer perceptions of African American experiences than almost any other form of television. That had probably been most apparent in the mid-1960s. In the early years of that politically restless era, there had been no new series starring African Americans. But throughout the era, as the nightly news recorded the boycotts, marches, and demonstrations of the civil rights movement, shocking the nation with images of fire hoses and billy clubs turned on African American protesters, mainstream America was jolted into a new awareness of a disenfranchised Black America determined to have full and equal rights. Yet much of mainstream America still thought of the new Negro as someone out there protesting, not as someone who might be a part of his or her community, someone he or she might actually know. With the absence of programs about African Americans, Black viewers felt that television was not fully and fairly representing them, not saying who they were and what their lives were like.
Those feelings -- among Black and white viewers -- changed during the mid and late 1960s when primetime television began to depict African Americans, more often than not, as Social Symbols in guest spots on general white series and in starring roles on such new series as I Spy, Julia, and Room 222. These new characters were signs of social progress, of a supposedly free and integrated America. Only as characters like Scotty, Julia, and Pete Dixon (on Room 222) arrived on the tube did African American viewers believe they were seeing some recognizable form of representation of themselves, no matter how idealized or evasive some of those representations ultimately might prove to be. Only then, too, did mainstream viewers feel they were coming to know the Negro as a person.
The primetime network series altered perceptions and attitudes by making African Americans a familiar weekly presence in American living rooms. With the primetime series, viewers could see the same Black characters in the same place with the same expected tangle of relationships at the same time week in, week out. Scotty, Julia, and Pete Dixon and his girlfriend, the high school counselor Liz McIntyre, as well as Linc on The Mod Squad, became neighbors of sorts. Of course, any threat or menace or dissent that actual African Americans might represent politically, especially in the 1960s, had to be simplified or nullified. Nonetheless, they helped lead the way for other tube neighbors, all tied into the social/political atmosphere of their times: the Jeffersons and the Evanses in the 1970s; the Huxtables, Deacon Frye and his daughter Thelma, and the women residing at 227 in the 1980s; the Banks family and their Fresh Prince in Bel Air, Martin in Detroit, as well as Moesha and those young women living single, all in the 1990s.
Throughout these eras, televisions images of African Americans continued to be criticized. Criticism came not only from the intellectual community and organizations like the NAACP (which -- from the early 1950s to the late 1990s -- protested against television's treatment of Black Americans) but also from individual African American viewers. Even in the 1990s, with all the new channels, Black viewers still felt there wasn't a diversity of African American TV characters and situations.
Yet Black viewers kept watching. And more often than not, most still seemed to have a show they were devoted to. As in the past, what usually drew viewers in were the people on those programs. In many respects, television has always been a medium for writers rather than directors. What you hear can still be as important as what you see. Characters are created much as they once were in the theater: through dialogue and carefully crafted story lines rather than through strong visuals. But television, from the days of Uncle Miltie and Lucy and Desi or Gleason's Ralph Kramden, has also always been a medium of per- formers or personalities.
For African Americans, especially because writers rarely wrote with them in mind, the performers -- their individual star personas or sometimes (as was the case with Ethel Waters) their personal stories -- took on a greater significance. Black viewers might reject the nonsense of the scripts for some episodes of Sanford and Son or The Jeffersons or Martin. Or the evasions of an otherwise moving series like I'll Fly Away. But they never really rejected a Redd Foxx or a Sherman Hemsley or Martin Lawrence or Regina Taylor's Lily. What remained consistent throughout television history was that a group of dynamic or complicated or intriguing personalities managed to send personal messages to the viewers. From the days of Ethel Waters in the 1950s to the present, actors found themselves cast in parts that were shameless, dishonest travesties of African American life and culture. Yet often enough some of these actors also managed -- ironically and paradoxically -- to strike a nerve with viewers by turning the roles inside out. They offered personal visions and stories that proved affecting, occasionally powerful, and sometimes deliriously entertaining and enlightening. Sometimes, too, the viewers' knowledge of a performer's personal tensions or conflicts affected their responses to the character the performer played on television. Regardless, as Waters herself might have been the first to say, being colored, Negro, Black, or African American on the tube would never be a casual affair. Nor would it be without its complications, contradictions, and oddball achievements.
With all of that in mind, I added more notes. Then I began to look formally at the primetime weekly series: its images, its performers, its messages, its history. Thus came Primetime Blues. My focus here has been only on the networks, which include such new networks of the 1990s as UPN and WB, both of which built their power bases through African American programs.
Aside from the weekly primetime series, I decided it was important to comment on the rise -- in the 1970s -- of the primetime TV movie and the miniseries, both of which offered surprising counterpoints to the weekly series. There had been some indelible images in some of those TV films. Jane Pittman taking her walk to the fountain. Or Kunta Kinte fighting to preserve his sanity and sense of personal and cultural identity. Or Gale Sayers stoically remaining by his friend Brian Piccolo's side in Brian's Song. Or later Maya Angelou's sisters in Sister, Sister or Melvin Van Peebles's brothers in Sophisticated Gents or the women of Brewster Place. But again my focus has been on network programs with some occasional comments on cable movies and PBS.
In many respects, working on Primetime Blues has taken me back to my earliest days of television viewing. On the one hand, I think all of us still experience a sense of wonder at the rich talents inside that box. On the other hand, we still question much of what we see and remain disturbed by the way in which the more television changes, the more it also remains the same. Some fixed images never seemed to go away entirely. Television progresses only with the smallest steps. Yet even at that, we'll stick around the house on a Tuesday or Thursday night, watching in rapt attention, hoping the tube will take us to a place we know but which we've never before seen on that little screen in our living rooms. | February 2001
Copyright © 2001 Donald Bogle
Donald Bogle, one of the country's foremost authorities on African Americans in film, is the author of three prize-winning books. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films is considered a classic study of Black movie images. Brown Sugar: Eighty Years of America's Black Female Superstars was adapted into a four-part PBS series. Dorothy Dandridge: A Biography won wide critical acclaim. Bogle teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. He lives in Manhattan.