If this were the 1950s, a buzz would be going through the African American community right about now because, come Tuesday, another small milestone would be reached in our progression from involuntary to voluntary servitude. The milestone? A black man is going to appear on television.
Sightings of black people on the tube back then were rare. Hence, there was always some excitement when it occurred. You had Beulah and Amos and Andy on regularly – singer Hazel Scott once had her own show as did singer Billy Daniels. Nat King Cole had a very popular show for a while but lack of national sponsorship and the fact that they didn’t give him any money to pay his guests forced him to fold it. But you’ll notice these people were all entertainers. Real black people, those who couldn’t sing, dance, play an instrument or tell jokes, were never seen on television.
Just as importantly, they were never seen in TV commercials. It seemed at the time we had a surfeit of bumbling white husbands and clueless white wives. But somehow sponsors were reluctant to associate their products with similarly deficient blacks.
Blacks were also seldom seen in television dramas. Whole towns, let alone neighborhoods, were portrayed as devoid of dark-skinned residents. No one had a black friend in those towns. Workmen, sure. Servants, yes. But not friends.
Simply put, black people were systematically and summarily excluded from the popular culture. And not just from television. It was radio too, where small skirmishes were fought over whose version of "I’m Walkin’" was to be played: Ricky Nelson’s or Fats Domino’s. Naturally, Ricky usually won. It was also true in movies where Super Sidney and Calypso Harry were our only stars. And even they better watch their step lest they offend with too strident a tone or too familiar a manner. And, of course, the newspapers simply did not cover the black community at all unless to report crime statistics.
To black children of the time, it meant that except for the people in their immediate geographical area, other blacks did not exist. They could turn on the television and enter a world where they saw no one who looked like them. No one they could look up to; no black role models save the Kingfish.
This situation gradually changed over time. As we moved into the Sixties, the days of “Civil Rights,” blacks emerged out of their real and virtual ghettos. The panoply of blacks expanded to include new types: protesters, militants and eventually, that curious group known as “tokens.” Those were black people used to dress a set like a table or lamp. Nothing was really expected of them but to stand there and be seen – to prove someone knew about them. The “token” was always a “good” black person, meant to represent and asked to speak for all black people. They were not angry like militant H. “Rap” Brown, or civil rights protesters like that troublesome Martin Luther King, Jr.
Their pop culture numbers ranged from one-twelfth of the Dirty Dozen to a full 30% of the Mod Squad. These were fully-integrated, completely-assimilated, likeable, sympathetic blacks you could work with and invite to your home for dinner. What more could black people want?
As it turned out, quite a bit more. Black people wanted to be part of things they had helped create. They wanted to be included in a country where inclusion was guaranteed by the Constitution. And, later, as the Eighties dawned in America, they also wanted to be on MTV.
The pathways to those goals generally excluded politics. Politicians could never be counted on to improve our lot. It became a kind of game to parse the words of the white candidates to see how much they were on our side. There was always just enough there to get the black vote but not enough to turn away the still racially-averse white vote. And after they were elected, all the courtship promises were forgotten. After all, shouldn’t our Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall be enough? Shouldn’t our UN Ambassador Ralph Bunche suffice for a while? Didn’t Adam Clayton Powell prove you couldn’t trust these people with real political power – and power over white people?
So the preferred pathway lay elsewhere. Sports and entertainment became the ticket. The pop culture route was most efficient because entry couldn’t be denied. A 400-hitter or hundred-yard rusher was a crowd pleaser, white or black, and therefore an economic winner too. Singers, composers and musicians could set a toe tapping before the race of the performer was noticed. Albums of music could be distributed with no photos of the artists to offend the racially biased.
In time, the economics of black consumerism was enough to move product – considerable product. By the Seventies, the purveyors of what became known as “blaxploitation” movies figured out that filling a movie cast with black faces might lead to filling movie theaters with black faces. And, once it was realized that blacks bought the same products and services that whites did, even television commercials began to feature one or two in the same inane scripts that once were reserved for whites. Later, new generations of whites weren’t as choosy about who made the music they liked. Thus the MTV barrier was broken. What more could black people want?
And now, politics has been put back on the front burner. The playing field has changed. Not completely, of course. Regardless of what you hear, we are still far from being a post-racial society, not for another couple of generations, at least.
But now there is a widening array of black images out there. There is something at last for young black people to shoot for and be proud of. There is another way to go besides being running back or gangsta rapper. There is being part of the making of the future – and not only for ourselves. There is being included in the calculation. There is greater belief in the sincerity of the politician. There is more balance in the popular culture.
Is that the “more” that blacks wanted? Not really. The truth is blacks never wanted “more” in the first place. All we really wanted was the same.
So when Tuesday rolls around, that buzz will still permeate the black community. Old, young, and in-between we will all gather around our LCDs, some of us wistful, some of us hopeful, to celebrate our past and watch history being made – as a black man appears on television.
Bob Carr is a free-lance writer, editor and webmaster living in Los Angeles. He has been an Associate Editor and Senior Staff Writer for Playboy magazine and was born in Charleston, South Carolina shortly after VJ Day.