African Americans In Television

African Americans have always struggled to be represented properly within mainstream media.

Photo by Strobridge & Co. Lith
An advertisement for a show which features an actor wearing blackface.

Racial stereotyping of African Americans can be traced as far back as the Jim Crow laws. The namesake of these oppressive laws came from a white actor wearing black face. The actor who went by the name Daddy Rice was inspired by an elderly African American and based his comedy routine around this persona. Being from the deep South where racism was still prevalent, the actor made fun of blacks, for their appearance, traditions, and speech.  This is clearly evident in minstrel shows. Minstrel shows were an extension of the character Jim Crow. They featured many actors wearing blackface in full length plays wear the primary focus was to degrade black culture.

As time passed television was forced to became more politically correct. Channels were no longer allowed to get away with clearly racist depictions of African Americans without being punished. This still didn’t stop stereotypical views of African Americans from surfacing in more subtle ways however. Television viewers grew accustomed to seeing African Americans as criminals, gangsters, homeless, or servants on mainstream media during the time of Civil Rights. This was partly done to counter the growing Civil Rights movement and partly because there weren’t many recognized successful African Americans yet. Since television was still a largely white dominated occupation at the time there was little African Americans could do to change this unfair portrayal.

Photo from IMDB
The Huxtable family

The Post Civil Rights period is when we finally start to see more equality within television families. The Cosby show was one the first shows to have an all-black family in a sitcom. The show was revolutionary in that it wasn’t reflecting on slavery or dealt with racism and depicted a normal black family dealing with everyday problems that any family could face. Even though it was ground breaking it wasn’t totally true. The Huxtable were within the upper middle class and had a large amount of money to spare. Many African Americans weren’t afforded the same opportunity’s that the Crosby’s were offered. While groundbreaking The Cosby Show still didn’t accurately represent what it was like for an African American family.

It wasn’t until recently do we start to see real portrayals of African American families. It isn’t until shows such as Everybody Hates Chris that real African American families started to be represented in a more realistic and fair manner. Everybody Hates Chris focus on a lower middle class family living in 1980’s Brooklyn. The Rock family doesn’t fear for food or clothing but does struggle to pay the bills. While not true for every black family, many African Americans did face similar problems during the 80’s. Each character feels relatable as well. Each character was written with the intent of being an exaggerated version of their real-life counterparts. While sometimes a risky move in television, Everybody Hates Chris succeeds in making each character feel relatable which many past shows featuring African Americans lacked. The show also deals with racism in a unique and interesting way. Acts of violence are not shoved in viewer’s faces as is very common with civil rights movies but racism is still within the show. Rather than deal with the negative aspects of racism, the show uses humor to deal with the otherwise grim issue.