Black TV: What's Wrong With This Picture?

black television timeline

My roommate and I were watching "Blind Date" the other day (we don’t have cable). They set up a young French man with a black woman. His only exposure to black people had been through American television shows broadcast in France. He truly believed that all black women had sex on the first date. He said that he liked the fact that black women were so "sassy with big attitude". He proceeded to insult this woman on all kinds of fronts, completely unaware that he was doing it. She was much more polite than I would have been—she just rolled her eyes when he said that he liked that black girls have "a lot of back."

Suffice it to say I was enraged. I was ranting and raving, asking: How this could have happened? How could he have such a skewed view of black people? My roommate pointed out that his only exposure to black culture had been through TV. He had never encountered anyone before this girl who challenged his view. I was still angry but she had a point.

I talk a lot about the negative imagery of black people and other minorities on television. The stereotypical portrayals are prolific and the effects on the minds of those watching remain largely un-gauged. Yet, it wasn’t that long ago that black television was a staple of American society.

"The Cosby Show" brought a truly positive image of a black family to television for the first time. Unfortunately no show since then, other than "A Different World," which was conceived by the same director, has ever portrayed blacks in such a positive light. Initially rejected by ABC and picked up tentatively by NBC, the first episode of "The Cosby Show" outdistanced every other show on television. Its 10-season run and successful spin off promoted racial equality by showing the rest of America that African-Americans are people who face the same problems that everyone else faces.

Everyone remembers the episode where Theo got an earring, and the one where the kids performed for the grandparent’s anniversary. These shows so easily crossed racial boundaries to get universal theme of parenting, relationships, etc. across to the audience. Claire Huxtable’s persona as an extremely loving and capable working mother also did a lot for feminism. And as a wealthy black family, the Cosby children also dealt with issues of class. I remember in one episode, when Vanessa tried to impress the girls on the cheerleading team by saying how much her parents paid for a painting she was promptly chastised by her parents for her gaudy display of material. Though "The Cosby Show" tackled these issues so well it seemed unable to directly confront racism. It only showed people of all races and ages getting a long, forming and maintaining friendships, and embracing diversity.

Many other shows have tried to live up to the Cosby show in the years since the Huxtables went of the air, but with less authentic black input and more corporate support, the plot lines and characters have become more stereotypical. Even the shows that can claim black writers still seem to reinforce the idea that black people are lazy and uneducated at worst, comedians at best. "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" probably did the best job of providing a balanced look at African-Americans on the whole, in the post-Cosby years. "Family Matters" also brought something to the table but the somewhat disguised "coonish" antics of Steve Urkel and his Gilligan and Skipper-like rapport with Carl did take away some of the show’s credibility (and the fact that their daughter Judy just disappeared).

Now as networks struggle to represent the black demographic, a new slew of black shows and black characters appeared last fall.

New Fox shows included "The Bernie Mac Show" and "Undeclared." The former has a predominately black cast and the later has a single black character. Taye Diggs’ absence from "Ally McBeal" left an opening for Regina Hall, a new token character, but ratings for that show had been declining since before then. "Boston Public" has a strong black cast and the teachers don’t lend themselves to stereotypes because of the dramatic nature of the series. UPN has more black shows than any other network but they are full of stereotypes. Some argue that the current shows really do exemplify black life and culture. But I think they provide a myopic view of what is to be black today and make sweeping generalizations about all black people.

"The Parkers," on UPN, is probably the best example of this. Here we have a mother and daughter duo with tight clothes and sassy attitudes who are forever searching for men. Material possessions are key to their existence and the mother’s pursuit of a teacher at the college she and her daughter attend is dramatized as a sex crazed quest for a man who rejects her repeatedly.

The "Steve Harvey Show" on the WB includes a character named Lovita who is also supposed to personify the loud, flashy black woman. She stands by her man and provides the comic relief with her "ghetto fabulous" attitude. The problem is not that these shows are on TV but that they are the only representations of black people on TV today.
UPN has more black shows than any other network but they are full of stereotypes. Some argue that the current shows really do exemplify black life and culture. But I think they provide a myopic view of what is to be black today and make sweeping generalizations about all black people.

One cannot talk about negative imagery of African-Americans on TV and not mention music videos. Mainstream rap videos are all about money and material worship, women as accessories, and sex that’s as casual as popping a bottle of Crys.’ Videos provide the worst portrayal of the black female. Slutty, money hungry, and disposable are the standards by which all these appropriately-titled "video ho’s" are measured. These offenses are so obvious that people often dismiss their unmeasured effect on popular culture.

So what’s the solution? We need shows that reflect "real" black families and counter the imagery on the screen today. Television should reflect diversity within the black population in this country.

But how easy is it to write a TV pilot, and have it developed by the corporate television industry ? Not very. The Entertainment world is small and incestuous. If you have no history in the business, getting a foot in the door is nearly impossible. That’s why many people are tuning to alternative ways to get their messages across. When Tavis Smiley was forced off BET, he brought his messages to the radio and the Internet. His voice wasn’t silenced and his work is still affecting the community.

We all know writers, friends, etc. who like to create their own worlds or alter the one they’re in through writing. By supporting these individuals in efforts to bring more black voices to the television world, we can show the corporations that they can’t get away with one-dimensional depictions of people. (One helpful website is It provides viewers with all kinds of information about producing your own films and shows and provides an outlet for youth media.) There is a large demand for this kind of programming, a whole generation of us who would tune in to see black people portrayed in respectful and realistic ways.

Until then, we should start dialogues with our friends, parents, etc. and boycott the shows and stations that are marketed towards us (UPN and BET). The black community can effectively combat this issue by producing alternative media and refusing to support the program we are not satisfied with. Simply turning the TV off is an effective way to start.

Moya Bailey is a first-year student at Spellman University and a WireTap contributor.


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