As Black History Month comes to an end, I wanted to look at the early years of television featuring African American characters. I don’t know if young people today realize how much culture has changed in the past fifty years. While there are a lot of negative changes that have occurred in the movie and television industry, there have been a lot of positive changes as well.
It’s hard for young adults to realize today how different things are. When I was growing up in the sixties, married couples on television had twin beds; you could not say “pregnant” on the air; black people and white people were not friends, and certainly did not date or marry; the “jobs wanted” ads in the newspaper were divided into jobs for men and jobs for women; and if a married woman wanted to join the armed forces, her husband or father had to sign a letter giving his approval.
Sometimes we get so caught up in how far we are from the journey’s end, we forget to appreciate how far we have traveled. Looking at the current television schedule we see a variety of shows about capable women. While certainly racism and gender discrimination exist, most people don’t think twice about whether a lead character is a man or a woman; is black, white, or Asian; or single or married.
Just a quick review of shows on the air reveal complex, intelligent characters who are African American. We see this in Black-ish, This Is Us, Empire, Scandal, House of Lies, Last Man Standing, and Gray’s Anatomy, just to name a few. This was far from the reality of early television.
We often think of that era as the golden age of television, but honestly, it was the white age of television.
In 1950, two shows debuted with main characters who were black: Amos ‘N Andy and Beulah. A radio transplant, Amos ‘N Andy dealt mostly with Kingfish’s schemes to gain wealth, often at the expense of his friends. Beulah also got its start on radio where she was a character in Fibber McGee and Molly. She worked for a well-to-do middle class white couple with one son. Both of these shows were demeaning and stereotypical. In 1953, they were both yanked from the air due to NAACP protests.
Unfortunately, it would take almost 20 years before another show would feature a black character as a star. In 1968, Julia debuted. Julia, played by Diahann Carroll, was a black woman with a young son Corey (Marc Copage). Her husband is killed in Vietnam and she moves to LA to start a new life in her nursing career. Like Tom Corbett on The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, she is raising a son; like Doris Day she is a working mother; and like Ann Marie on That Girl, she has a fabulous wardrobe. She is hired at Astrospace Industries, an industrial-health office where she works with Dr. Chegley (Lloyd Nolan). Her life is normal. She goes to work, takes care of her son, and goes on a few dates, but the concept of an African American, or a woman, starring in a show as the sole breadwinner, intelligent and fashionable, was not normal for the times. The show was on for three seasons until 1971.
Julia was a controversial show at the time, but it scored high in the ratings and became a popular series. I think it gets a lot of unfair criticism today. The show gets complaints because during the time of the Watts riots, sit-ins, and so much racial unrest, it portrayed Julia living a fairly normal life. I think people forget how groundbreaking it was to have a working woman or a black character star in a show. I think the fact that she was able to live a “normal” life gives even more credit to not bowing to stereotypes of the late sixties. It’s like criticizing someone who is just learning to walk for not running and doing handstands. They might be small steps, but they are steps going forward. I am one of those people who actually prefer not to see too much “real life” in sitcoms. Honestly, I watch them to escape real life.
I also wanted to mention a few other shows that were featuring black characters in their cast during the time Julia was on the air: Hogan’s Heroes, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Barney Miller.
Hogan’s Heroes had a diverse cast, including Ivan Dixon as Sgt. James Kinchloe, striving to stay one step ahead of the Nazis. The Mary Tyler Moore Show included a quirky news staff including weatherman Gordy Howard played by John Amos. Barney Miller centered around a police department made up of personnel who each had their own dysfunctions. One of those members was Lt. Ron Harris played by Ron Glass. Each of these shows quietly featured black characters. The races of any of the characters could easily have been switched during an episode and the character would not change. It was just real people living real lives and some of them happened to be white and some black. After these creative and well-written shows, I prefer to ignore the Norman Lear era of shows. They may have their merits, but I couldn’t stand All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Maude, or Good Times. The Jeffersons was tolerable, but I would not choose to watch it either. In the mid-1980s, television began to get more diverse.
Don’t get me wrong. Things are far from perfect in the world of television and movies, but we have made a lot of progress. We have a lot of work to do, but just think how many choices Diahann Carroll would have today if she wanted to develop a television series. She could pick any career she wanted, including the military without anyone’s else’s approval; she could marry a white man and not sleep in twin beds; she could announce on the air she was pregnant—small steps but 5280 small steps turn into a mile. So, let’s devote one day to appreciate the hundreds of miles we have come before getting too caught up despairing about the hundred we still have to go.