March 1–8, 2001
We all watch TV, but who thinks critically about it? Donald Bogle, for one. This University of Pennsylvania and NYU professor has authored five books about representations of blacks in popular media. Bogle’s most recent book, Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 512 p., $30), is a comprehensive history of blacks on the small screen, delivered with a cultural and socio-political context and analysis. Bogle will speak this week at Robin’s Book Store.
How has the portrayal of blacks on prime time television changed since television’s inception, and how has it stayed the same?
It’s remained the same, in the respect that we still find, if it’s a show about African Americans, it’s going to be a sitcom. This goes back to the early years of television, with shows in the 1950s like Beulah and Amos ’n’ Andy. Later, in the ’70s, we got The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son and Good Times. [The sitcom] seems to be the acceptable format for any show rooted in the African-American community. This is problematic because we still don’t have a large enough diversity of images of African Americans.
The way in which TV has changed: We do get to see professional African Americans on TV now, and we get to see some comments on tensions and conflicts in the African-American community. This comes across in shows like ER or Law & Order and NYPD Blue. But we still don’t have a dramatic weekly black series, and that’s what we really need.
In Primetime Blues, you write, "The more things change, the more they stay the same," in regards to blacks on television. Can you elaborate?
From the very beginnings of television, they didn’t want to show us adult mature African-American males; they didn’t want to show us adult relationships. They relied on the old stereotypes; Beulah was the same old mammy figure. We can look through TV history and see how certain trends and attitudes do remain the same. You can look at Gimme A Break and you have, again, this larger brown or black woman whose life is caught up in the white family she works for. We still get that on sitcoms, whether it be The PJs or The Jamie Foxx Show, we still don’t see adult black male characters we can connect to. The exception is The Cosby Show, where Cliff was an adult, he was funny but he wasn’t a caricature.
How do shows like Martin compare to Amos ’n’ Andy and Sanford and Son?
Martin was a farce, and it was caricature and everything was pushed to the extreme… Did you like Martin?
When I was younger…
See, I tell my students at UPenn, who deal with these images, I tell them not to deny what they like. If you like Martin, you like it. See it for what it is, and examine what you like, and sometimes we’re surprised at what we like. Martin had a lot of energy, and a sense of friendship and bonds, and an audience can want that kind of thing. A TV show, instead of answering the needs of the audience, it can exploit it.
What’s next for black people on prime time?
I just saw the [TNMedia] list of what black households are watching, and number nine is a tie between ER and The Practice. These are basically white workplace shows with strong black characters, so that really indicates that black audiences do want to see something else.
If the networks would just take the point that audiences don’t want the black characters on ER and The Practice to be deracialized, and they’re also not asking for racial problems every week, but for more of a cultural context when they leave the workplace.
And the networks should realize that even though City of Angels failed, they need to take a chance and do another serious weekly black drama.
Donald Bogle will speak at 7 p.m., Thu., Mar. 1 at Robin’s Book Store, 108 S. 13th St., 215-735-9600.