"It is easier to build a strong child than to repair a broken man." - Frederick Douglass

African-Americans on Television


People tend to look at African-Americans on television as a big win for the race. I take the opposite approach, as I believe we have taken giant steps backward in representation on network television. From the days of the “Nat King Cole Show,” on NBC, I applaud each network for putting an effort toward inclusion, but have we, as a race, come any closer to having starring roles? Have we looked at the equality in comedic representation? As Spike Lee said in the movie “Do the Right Thing,” “Why aren’t there any black people on the wall?”

It made me wonder, how many African-American sitcoms there are with scenarios that we can identify with? Let me help you, of the 17 sitcoms currently on ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX and The CW, there is only one African-American sitcom on network television “Black-ish,” which features a predominately African-American cast. Of the countless number of sitcoms on cable, there are only five that have a minority representation, “Atlanta,” “Survivors Remorse,” “Insecure,” “Love Thy Neighbor,” and “Grown-ish.” I fail to see how we have grown from the days of Nat King Cole. Maybe I am missing it and should be appreciating the fact that we even have a presence, however bleak that presence may be. I should look at the number of dramatic shows on network and cable television instead. Maybe the outlook is a little better, and will give us, as a people, some pride of ownership, so to speak.

Among the 47 dramas currently running on network television, only two, “Empire” and “Black Lightning,” have a majority African-American cast. I know what you are thinking; What about “Scandal,” and “How To Get away With Murder?” Nope. Black actresses, white cast. So much for having pride in ownership. I am sure if I dug deeper, I could find even more depressing numbers, as it relates to cable television and streaming sites, but I will stop here before I want to call a suicide prevention hotline.

How did we get here? What happened to the presence we had with these shows: of “The Cosby Show,” “Living Single,” “A Different World,” “The Bernie Mac Show,” “The Steve Harvey Show,” “The Jamie Foxx Show,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Family Matters,” “Everybody Hates Chris,” “My Wife and Kids,” “Girlfriends,” “In Living Color,” “Moesha,” “Amen,” and “227?”

We went from watching the struggles of life through “Good Times,” in 1974, then progressed to having a slice of that all-inclusive “piece of the pie” “The Jeffersons” had in 1975. I will tell you what happened, we have seen the handwriting on the wall. Our ideas, as glorious as they may be, eventually were copied and presented to television executives minus all of the melanin. When “Living Single” made its debut, on FOX in 1993, a story of six black friends who lived relatively close together in Brooklyn, it certainly caught the eyes of Hollywood, especially the eyes of NBC executive Warren Littlefield. The question was asked to Littlefield: Of all the shows currently on the air at that time, what show would he, as an executive, not mind having in his stable of powerhouse programs. Without hesitation, he answers “Living Single.” One year later, he created a sitcom of six white friends who lived relatively close together in Manhattan called “Friends.” The rest, is television history.

Recently, NBC tried their hand at a program from the perspective of a black family. “The Carmichael Show” made a rare summer debut, in 2015, tackling subjects like police brutality, the stigma of going to a Bill Cosby stand up show, to voting for Donald Trump. When Norman Lear did the very same thing with “All in The Family,” it was Lear exercising his comedic genius. When Jerrod Carmichael, one of the show’s creators, did the same thing, it was controversial, put in hiatus, and eventually cancelled three seasons later.

Have we come far in television since the days of Nat King Cole? Yes. Will we go further in television to have better representation? I would surely hope so, but the jury is out on that one. In the ‘70s if it wasn’t for Flip Wilson or Sammy Davis Jr., I don’t think we would have any bragging of any kind. If it wasn’t for the “Variety Show,” maybe we would still be known for a different type of singing and dancing reminiscent to the days of the minstrel show. We’ve proven dramatic prowess, but it went unrecognized seeing that there are not any African-American dramatic series, but at least we have an actor or two here and the networks keep showing their face as is the carrot dangling on a stick and the African-American television watchers are the proverbial “donkey” chasing after it.

Every network has a target audience, even if it has to appeal to vampire enthusiasts, comic book lovers, those who reminisce on the long-gone days of high school, the spoiled celebrity wannabe, reality television watchers, and even soccer moms all across America. Where by chance are the shows for the African-American? Where is OUR target audience? Is it that we don’t watch television enough to move the meter in our direction? I’m proud for the shows that came by way of Nat King Cole, but as it relates to demographic audiences, we have a very long way to go.

Written by Delvin Randle
Edited by Jeanette Smith

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