Small Screen Success
It's relatively easy to find Black faces on TV today. That was not always the case, of course. As in every other field, Black presence and acceptance on TV has been a long slow process. Today's biggest challenge for Blacks in TV is securing positions of power: network executives, producers, wrtiers, and directors. BET, Oprah, and Sonda Rhimes have made big strides, and have accomplished some firsts in the industry. Today we acknowledge a few other major firsts for Black people in television.
Day 20 - T is for the TV Moments
Nichelle Nichols was the first African-American woman to play a lead role on television, Communication Officer Lieutenant Uhura on the Star Trek. She planned to leave the show for Broadway, but Martin Luther King, Jr., the self-described "biggest Trekkie on the planet," convinded her to stay, saying, “Do you not understand what God has given you? … You have the first important non-traditional role, non-stereotypical role. … You cannot abdicate your position. You are changing the minds of people across the world, because for the first time, through you, we see ourselves and what can be.” She stayed with the show until it ended its 3 year run in 1969.
The Nat King Cole Show, 1956-57. "For 13 months, I was the Jackie Robinson of television. I was the pioneer, the test case, the Negro first. I didn't plan it that way, but it was obvious to anyone with eyes to see that I was the only Negro on network television with his own show. On my show rode the hopes and fears and dreams of millions of people. After a trail-blazing year that shattered all the old bug-a-boos about Negroes on TV, I found myself standing there with the bat on my shoulder. The men who dictate what Americans see and hear didn't want to play ball." -Nat King Cole, 1958
The Amon 'N Andy Show, 1951-53. The series lasted for two years and featured the first all-black TV cast. It was also the first television comedy series to be broadcast with a canned-laughter soundtrack. Protests, however, from civil rights groups – and accusations that the show presented caricatured portrayals that offended many blacks – led to the series’ cancellation, and, in 1966, to its withdrawal from syndication.
The Beulah Show, 1950-53. The first TV show to prominently feature a Black character. While the premise of Beulah – about a black maid serving a white suburban family – probably didn’t thrill many civil rights activists, millions of viewers (many of them presumably black) enjoyed Beulah as she dispensed wisdom to the ever-bumbling Henderson family and to her friend Oriole. Three actresses played the title role: first, Ethel Waters, whom the network replaced with Academy Award winner Hattie McDaniel, and then Louise Beavers who replaced McDaniel when she fell ill.
Cosby & Carroll
I Spy (1965-68) was the first TV drama to feature a Black leading actor, Bill Cosby. The show was a massive success for the three years it ran. It focused on a pair of US intelligence agents posing as tennis bums as they try to catch villains across the world. NBC aired the show despite hate mail and death threats. The show was groundbreaking in its portrayal of a Black man whose smart, suave character defied all stereotypes. It started Cosby's highly successful TV career and made him one of the most popular figures in America, until...
Julia (1968-70) was about a young, well-dressed widow raising an adorable 5-year-old son in a nice apartment while working as a nurse. However, using that middle-class premise for the first comedy to showcase a black family in 1968 turned Julia into a battlefield in the still-ongoing war about how African-Americans are represented on TV. Carroll herself said, At the moment, we are presenting the white Negro. And he has very little Negro-ness.” The constant criticism of the show's perceived failure to reflect realistically the lives of Black people in the 1960's took its toll on the star who quit the show in 1970.
The Super 70's Sitcoms
Black people began to appear in significant numbers on TV in the 1970's, which produced some of the most memorable moments in TV history, and shows that are still popular in syndication today.
Good Times, The Jeffersons, Sanford & Son, What's Happening!
The 70s Faves: Did You Know?
- John Amos was fired from Good Times for complaining too loudly about Jimmie "JJ" Walker's buffoonery.
- Esther Rolle left Good Times for hte same reason, once saying about Walker's character: "He's 18, doesn't work, can't read or write, and doesn't think."
- Roxie Roker, who played Helen Willis on The Jeffersons, is the mother of singer Lenny Kravitz.
- Isabel Sanford ("Weezy" Jefferson) was the first Black woman to win a lead actress Emmy Award.
- Mike Evans (Lionel Jefferson) was one of the creators of Good Times.
- Ja'Net DuBois (Willona from Good Times) wrote and sang The Jeffersons theme song.
- The key to Fred Sanford's distinctive walk was weighted shoes worn by Redd Foxx.
Roots was a TV miniseries that aired across eight consecutive nights in January 1977. Based on the book by Alex Haley (which has since been challenged for its authenticity), it was the most watched television program in TV hisotry. The miniseries "indicts white viewers in a meticulous, unrelenting way, showing that the entire nation was complicit in this horror, which ripped indigenous people from one continent and transplanted them in another, taking away language and religion and ritual and replacing it with the practices of oppressors, then insisting that they graciously accept servitude as a fact of life, or worse, as the manifestation of an alien Christian god’s will." The intent of Roots was to affirm the shared trauma of generations of blacks and make whites who had never really contemplated the visceral reality of it feel at least some small part of its sting. In that respect, Roots was remarkably effective.
Oprah: The Original Influencer
The Oprah Winfrey Show ran from 1986 to 2011, reigniing as the top rated talk show on television for many of those years. In 1988, her company Harpo Productions, Inc. acquired ownership and all production responsibilities for The Oprah Winfrey, making Oprah Winfrey the first woman in history to own and produce her own talk show. A 1993 interview with Michael Jackson drew 100 million viewers, making it the most watched interview in television history. Her influence over the publishing industry exploded when she began her on-air book club in 1996. “Oprah Book Club” selections became instant bestsellers. The business press measures her wealth in numerous superlatives: the highest-paid performer on television, the richest self-made woman in America, and the richest African American of the 20th century. More difficult to calculate is her profound influence over the way people everywhere read, eat, exercise, feel and think about themselves and the world around them.
More On TV
- The History of Black Television
- With More Black Stars on TV Than Ever, Where Do BET, OWN, and Other Black Networks Fit In?
- (Argue about it.) The Greatest Black Sitcoms of All Time
Click Here for Day 21 - U is for Unsung Heroes & Heroines
(Links updated at Midnight daily.)