Black representation on television: characters with tokens


During my quarantine in the summer of 2020, I turned to binge eating as a central form of escape. Many mornings started with lying on my couch and watching at least a few hours of television. I’ve indulged in all of my favorite sitcoms, from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” to “Everybody Hates Chris”. The humor of those shows was a perfect distraction from the uncertain realities of a peak pandemic world.

My favorite sitcom to watch is “Living Single,” which describes the lives of six friends exploring their 20s in Brooklyn, NY. What I really love about this show is how multifaceted each character is. While they all pursue their own careers in the professional world, none of the characters fall into the “symbolic black character” trope as they still have their own flaws and areas of growth and there is no central white character. in the show that their stories revolve around, which makes them very fleshed out characters. For a 30-minute sitcom, each of the central characters had a fully completed story arc and the show had a lot of drama, making it the perfect series to binge on throughout my summer. Watching these shows, I couldn’t help but wonder why today’s black television lacked the same kind of effortless authenticity as some of my favorite shows from the late 90s and early 2000s. There seems to be a disconnect between older and more recent representations of the black American way of life; Many of the more recent black TV shows, especially those premiered in recent years, appear to be aimed more at white audiences.

Considering contemporary black television shows with questionable levels of authenticity, shows like “BlackAF” or “Black-ish” come to mind. Although I enjoy shows like “Black-ish” to some extent many of these shows seem to be aimed largely at white audiences, as they take the time to explain aspects of the experience of black Americans that would otherwise be involved in a show that was simply only black in America. . Most episodes of “Blackish” Begin with the main character and patriarch of the Johnson family, Andre Johnson (Anthony Anderson), explaining some aspects of the “typical” black American way of life. The audiences for these monologues are apparently non-black viewers, and more particularly white. This is a testament to the greater commercial success that is seen when black narratives are watered down to be made acceptable to white audiences. However, this comes at the cost of sacrificing more elaborate representations of the dark. A wider audience outside of the black community may not understand the implicit facets of the black American way of life and its niche cultural references, so they generally need to be stated for a broader understanding. While this may seem like insignificant sacrifices to make, it ultimately diminishes some of the tasteful charm of Black TV and somewhat lowers the standards at which black stories can be told on TV.

Generally, the show is able to have a light script filled with popular Gen-Z slang and (sometimes misused) African American vernacular English buzzwords, appeasing white audiences due to the incorporation of the AAVE in popular culture while bypassing political topics. In an interview on the infamous ‘Black-ish’ episode of police brutality, creator and writer Kenya Barris admits, “My fear is this: I don’t want to piss anyone off. I don’t want to politicize the show. In the episode, he goes out of his way to prevent the Black Lives Matter movement from being explicitly mentioned throughout the episode, claiming that this does not apply to the family’s conversation about police brutality. I find this rather confusing, since Black Lives Matter, as a movement, is one of the central movements directly associated with police brutality in the 2010s. It is also difficult to discuss police brutality without involving politics because even while it should only be a matter of basic human rights, black discrimination in America has always been an inherently social and political problem. Perhaps the exclusion of the mention of Black Lives Matter was Barris’ attempt to avoid any particularly harsh backlash from either side of the political spectrum. Nonetheless, it simplifies the nuances of police brutality and doesn’t delve into the conversation of its ramifications beyond the surface level.

Characterizations in “Black-ish” are similar to those in “The Cosby Show” in the late ’90s, as they both represent affluent black American families, led by comedic patriarch figures. The “Cosby” spin-off, “A Different World,” initially followed Claire Huxtable (Lisa Bonet) and then later Whitley Gilbert (Jasmine Guy) throughout her years at a historically black college. The show touched on more political topics than its predecessor, with episodes on homelessness, sexual assault and AIDS, a very controversial issue at the time. “A Different World” has never seen nearly the same amount of widespread consumption as “The Cosby Show,” but it has managed to push the boundaries in terms of topics that black television writers can explore. That’s not to say that every black TV show should cover political topics in depth. It is necessary to have black TV shows that exist to entertain audiences with humor and feelings of well-being. However, contemporary black shows like “Black-ish”, with such a large audience of white viewers, should not be used as a source of holistic discourse on social and institutional issues like racism.

Shows like HBO’s “Insecure” and ABC’s “How To Get Away With Murder” give me hope for Black TV’s future; both shows follow black women and describe their experiences with a sense of honesty and rawness as they navigate discrimination, relationships and intimacy in their professional and personal lives. Both of these shows gained great popularity, with “How to Get Away With Murder” ending as one of ABC’s most popular shows after six seasons. It is also no coincidence that they were also created and made by black women. Issa Rae both directed and starred in “Insecure,” making her the first black woman to create and star in a premium cable TV show while Shonda Rhimes produced “How To Get Away With Murder,” marking her third hit TV show on ABC behind “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal”. These shows have incredibly well-written story arcs and tackle racial issues with honesty and complexity. These are the same qualities that made me fall in love with shows like ” To live alone. With that in mind, I hope there is a future for Black TV where black stories can still be portrayed with integrity without having to be watered down for mainstream consumption.

MiC columnist Udoka Nwansi can be contacted at [email protected]


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