I’m not old, but I am mature. I’m still in the coveted demographic that advertisers like. I’m old enough to remember when vampires were scary—not “hot.” And I have memories of boxy television consoles as pieces of furniture, only three major networks and local stations with really bad programming. Color television shows were such a major big deal that announcers would actually tell you—“The F.B.I.— in color!”
Color TV. That held a different meaning for me. I’m on the cusp of being called “colored” right before we sequed into being called “black.” Back then, it was so rare to see a black person on TV that when we did, we’d get on the phone and call relatives. “Aunt Shirley, quick, there’s a colored woman on channel 2!” In the late 60s I loved watching Diahann Carroll in Julia, a show about a widowed single nurse and her young son Corey. That was a first— to have a black female lead. Bill Cosby had a self-titled show that came on Sunday nights. He was a gym teacher. There was Room 222, where there were several positive black characters in the fictional Walt Whitman High School, like Mr. Dixon the teacher, Ms. McIntyre the guidance counselor, and Richie, whom all the girls had a crush on. Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) graced the small screen weekly informing Captain Kirk “the communication channels are open.
In the mid 70s, things took a stupid turn. Gone were the positive images. We had to endure the likes of Good Times, Sanford and Son and The Jeffersons. It still was slim pickings for us, so we laughed at JJ and his endless “dynomite” rantings, and Fred Sanford always calling Lamont a big dummy. George Jefferson may have lived on the east side, but his worldview was Ghetto Ave. I guess TV was reflective of the movies, which at the time was the “blaxploitation” era. The shows were funny then, but as many back-in-the-day reruns that I now watch, those three are and will NEVER be on my TV.
The 70s did bring us arguably the most spectacular mini-series of all time, Roots. Anybody who was anybody in black Hollywood was in it, and the show was grand to see. There were no VCRs or DVRs, so everybody made sure they were in front of the television to not miss a second. (And woe to the person who dared call while Roots was on…) Roots dominated conversations for days afterward in school. And in classes where there was a black teacher, we’d spend the whole class period discussing it.
Bill Cosby was our TV liberator in the 80s. The Cosby Show was loved by all. There were those in the beginning who felt that such a show with black leads was “unrealistic”—we simply did not have two-parent households where the couple was loving towards each other, had professional careers, normal kids and lived in a nice house. ABC passed on Cosby. NBC flourished because of the show. In my frame of reference, Cosby, not Good Times, was the reality. I also loved A Different World, the Cosby Show spin-off. It was fun seeing young black adults in college, and their shenanigans were my life.
The 90s had some decent comedies. At least they portrayed us positively, like Roc, Living Single, and Family Matters. (Urkel was pushing it!)
My beef with programming is there are very few black dramas. Black people are in dramas, but they are not the cast majority. Black-cast shows always had a one-way ticket to Cancelville, hence Under One Roof (1995), City of Angels (2000) Lincoln Heights (2007–2009) and Undercovers (2010).
Scandal, starring Kerry Washington, is doing very well and now in its fourth season. I absolutely love How to Get Away With Murder, and there are not enough superlatives to describe Viola Davis. But why aren’t there more of us in those casts? The jury is still out for me about Empire. Yes, it’s a black drama. But why, in our shows, is it always Profanity as a Second Language? I like Terrance and Taraji, and the dynamic their characters have. I like the Lucious Lyon storyline and the comic relief. But I have yet to develop an affinity for any of the characters, and I hate that youngest son the most. I watch it if I have nothing else to do, and I’m always busy. It doesn’t have the exalted series recording on my DVR, and it gets watched in real time. I not apologizing that I’m in the minority of black folks who doesn’t watch this show. I feel a little guilty, but that’s how it is.
I have resigned myself to accept that there is always going to be a small number of black folks on television. We may not be the stars in most, but there are excellent black actors on the small screen now and in really good roles. We are savvy newswomen, hospital chiefs of staff, forensics experts, fire chiefs and ghost busters. I tell my friends about the shows I like and call relatives.
Even now, I still get excited about watching “me” on TV.