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Research Paper

Stepping Stones: Early TV With Prominent Black Actors

When someone is faced with something they are uncomfortable with, the one solid way to deal with it is through ridicule. Laughter is the best medicine so to speak. When one is upset about something, the best way to deal with the emotional pain is laughter. Any joke is a good joke as long as you get a chuckle out of it. Ignorance is a powerful tool. Television; one of the most popular mediums of our time is a large contributor to this disease. Although if done correctly, a jab in the direction of a particular group can be humorous, still can retain its prejudice undertones. If a person truly understood how a particular group worked, then they would find no reason to make fun of it. They would understand the situation and feelings entirely, and would be able to argue any particular joshing on their behalf. Because some (lets be blunt and use race as an example) races may not be able to relate, or understand how one particular culture works, the only way for them to relate as an opposite is to make FUN of it. If group A makes fun of group A, then group a has that on trait in common. “…thus, an anecdote which is highly amusing to a person with one cultural background may be meaningless or even repugnant to a person who has internalized different cultural values (Middleton, 175).”

Race has always been a sensitive topic. Prejudice is another form of fear, and the only way to keep fear at bay is to undermine it. If you can keep minority groups down by ridicule on a medium such as television -something nearly every family had- then its easier to spread the prejudice to people who don’t belong in that group, and subconsciously plant of seed of hate between the group that is being held down. For example, when a child is told that Santa Claus is real on multiple occasions, the child believes he’s real. Well, if the same child is perhaps told that “Asians are all smart” from something like television ( which the average child watches more than two hours a day), and the kid struggles in school, when there they just might ask to look at the Asian’s homework to copy. Not intentionally persay, but the seed has been planted.

African Americans make up the largest racial minority in television, on and off the screen. Although this is true, this doesn’t; by any means, mean that its in some way an accurate portrayal. “In variety programming, Blacks appeared frequently as guest performers almost from the inception of network commercial television ( Wilson, 99 ).” When television became a household product, it was a catch-22 for minorities. Perform on television as nothing but a living satire, or not at all. Touching issues such as racism was unthought of in the early 50′s. Shows like ‘I Love Lucy,’ and ‘Amos and Andy‘ were the norm. As long as they didn’t rattle the cage of race identity, TV could still be enjoyed by everyone-everyone being the average suburban Caucasian family.

Characterizations of Africans were particularly demeaning in early exotic jungle documentaries. These were often filmed in primitive African tribes, and showed the race as being “savage” and “uncivilized.” “The African documentaries of filmmakers like Martin and Osa Johnson, focusing on women with ornamented lips and elongated earlobes or men with tribal scars on their faces…(Wilson, 99).” You can often see these depictions in early animated films too, such as Betty Boop or Popeye. Africans were nothing more than simple animals at a zoo. Not real people to be respected, but to be gawked at and judged. Jungle depictions of Africans falls nothing short of the depictions of slaves, black entertainers with pitch black skin and white lips half the size of their faces.

Behind the mask of radio, depictions of black lifestyles were prominent. Amos n’ Andy, originally a radio play performed by two white males, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. When confronted with plans for a television adaptation, they suggested against blackface, and put forth to find actors who could accurately fit the radio play characters.

Blacks were still a large market for producers. Actually, it showed promise for everyone. “Many felt that TV promised a new and prejudice-free era in popular entertainment. Ebony magazine epitomized this sentiment, when it was reported in 1950 that television offered better roles for blacks than any other medium (Wilson, 3).”

Yet had anything truly changed? In the early 1940′s, a frequent question was how to successfully portray blacks. Certain parts of society suggested equal treatment, but as we all know, the nation was deeply rooted and comfortable in its rut of racism. How could studios bring in new numbers and revenue, and not scare America off? Simply ignore all implications of racial upheaval in society? Television’s counterpart; the radio had depicted minorities in crude and stereotypical manners, so was it only natural to do the same for TV?

“No matter how intermittently black singers, dancers, and musicians were used in early television, the employment of these talents was a definite breakthrough for black entertainers.  Never had network radio-even in the late 1940s and early 1950′s- utilized so many African-Amercian stars so consistently (Wilson, 11).”

Of course, blacks were shown on television, but it only strayed as far as traditional forms on entertainment; singing and dancing. There was a sore spot with having black entertainers on television in the first place, but was the least harmful. It was a fresh market, having obvious talent right at their disposal, a race desperate to be known. However, was this to give blacks an equal chance to perform on television? Or was it simply another marketing scheme meant to make profit in the end? Whereas most network producers. Times were changing. For a medium that was quickly and ever changing much like society itself, it had to keep up with the direction the nation was going.

“Ed Sullivan featured Blacks as early as 1948 on his CBS Toast Of The Town variety show (later called The Tonight Show from 1954 to 1957. In 1950, three networks went on the air featuring Blacks as cast regulars. They were Beulah, The Jack Benny Show, and the Stu Erwin Show. Each portrayed Blacks in subservient, domestic roles (Wilson, 100).”

Ed Sullivan was born in September 1901. He started out as a boxer, but eventually found his place among early media greats when he started off as a newspaper sportswriter. Eventually, he reviewed other entertainment mediums like Broadway. He was offered a job at CBS in 1948 to host a weekly Sunday night show. It was called; Toast Of The Town. Although his delivery took some getting used to, to be a guest on his show became quite the honor. He had helped performers such as The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Elvis Presley, become famous.

Sullivan was an advocate for up and coming Black entertainers. Although this often met backlash, Sullivan could almost ironically be seen as a pioneer. Even though he had backlash from doing so, in an interview with  the NEA ( a large editorial/comic strip newspaper syndication service based in America ) Sullivan stated:

“The most important thing [during the first ten years of the program] is that we’ve put on everything but bigotry. When the show first started in ’48, I had a meeting with the sponsors. There were some Southern dealers present and they asked if I intended to put on Negroes. I said yes. They said I shouldn’t, but I convinced them I wasn’t going to change my mind. And you know something? We’ve gone over very well in the South. Never had a bit of trouble.”

Sullivan was a fan of “jungle music” and often featured musical artists. These artists included: The Supremes, Marian Anderson, Louis Armstrong, James Brown, Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, Bill Cosby, Sammy Davis, Jr., Bo Diddley, Duke Ellington, The 5th Dimension, Ella Fitzgerald, The Four Tops, Aretha Franklin, Lena Horne, The Jackson 5, Mahalia Jackson, Eartha Kitt, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Little Anthony & The Imperials, Johnny Mathis, The Miracles, Richard Pryor, Lou Rawls, Della Reese, Nina Simone, Sly & the Family Stone, The Temptations, Tina Turner, Dionne Warwick, Jackie Wilson, and Stevie Wonder. These artists are immediately recognizable by anyone who is a fan of Motown.

Without him, blacks on television might have still been pushed off for years to come. Although still, this didn’t mean blacks being featured on television didn’t come without its price. Fats Domino, an African-American ‘rock-and-roll’ artist played on the Sullivan show (at the end of the show mind you, in case he had to cancel a guest), Fats was cutoff mid-song. His band was hidden behind a curtain, as to limit the number of blacks that could be seen. When Bo Diddley appeared on his show, Sullivan infuriated him by saying; “You are the first black boy – quote – that ever double crossed me!” in response to him singing a different song instead of the one Sullivan had picked out for him. “I was ready to fight, because I was a little young dude off the streets of Chicago, an’ him callin’ me ‘black’ in them days was as bad as sayin’ ‘nigger’.”

Jack Benny, perhaps one of true “Kings Of Comedy” was the protagonist on the show The Jack Benny Program. Every weekend night when I was young –perhaps the precursory to my film interests– I would listen to a broadcast of radio programs put on by KIRO. I was naive as a child, so I never paid much mind to Rochester’s role on the show. I just knew he remind me of depictions I had seen on television cartoons and Nick at Night. An overly eccentric, loud black man. Rochester was Benny’s valet, having been given him a job when Benny accidentally got Rochester fired from his position as a Redcap on a train.

Edmund Lincoln Anderson, born in September 1905 was made famous by his portrayal of Rochester on The Jack Benny Show. Originally, Anderson was a performer. At 14, he started his career doing a song and dance routine with his brother. Rochester’s famous raspy voice was due to Anderson permanently damaging his vocal cords as a child (he sold newspapers).

Rochester, the popular character on The Jack Benny Show, at start was like any other black on television in the 1950′s. He played slave to Benny’s equally eccentric whims. Rochester didn’t mean to make no trouble for his ‘boss’ and even spoke with an articulation that could be compared to Uncle Remus ( Song of the South). Even though the issue of racial stereotypes were one-sided on Anderson’s behalf, the element of race was still there, and didn’t do much to deter depictions of Blacks. Even though its to be assumed that with the times, there would naturally be stereotypical, it was written so that the ‘punchline’ was delivered by Anderson himself, not Benny. The joke could be seen as offensive, but cushioned the blow, so to speak. Eventually, the relationship between Rochester and Benny changed on the show, Rochester becoming more on equal terms as Benny and less stereotypical.

Anderson’s and Benny’s off-stage relationship was along brothers, and Benny often backed Anderson when he was faced with obvious discrimination. Rochester at one point was denied a room at a hotel, yet the rest of the Benny Show cast was okayed. Benny stated that he would not stay there himself if Anderson was not allowed to. Eventually, the hotel owners were convinced and Anderson was allowed to stay. In World War II, Anderson didn’t tour with the show because he would have been required to stay in a separate quarters due to the discrimination in the armed forces at the time. Compared to many black entertainers at the time, Anderson saw himself as lucky and in an interview about Benny’s death in 1974, showed nothing but deep admiration and respect. Even though his role started out that of a form of stereotypical racial depiction, was far from it.

Not nearly the same could be said for Ethel Waters in her role as Beulah. Ethel Waters was born as a result of a rape attack against her mother at age thirteen. Waters herself later married at the age of thirteen, but left him due to abuse. She then started working as a maid, but was discovered as a singer at a costume party. After her singing and acting career took off slightly, she was offered a role as the ‘mammy’ character in the television show Beulah. This went on for two years before she was replaced with Hattie McDaniel; the first Black actress to win an Academy Award, then in the same year by Louise Beavers; an actress in the 1920′s and 30′s who played traditional roles such as a maid or slave.

Beulah, although starring an African-American woman, met much backlash from groups such as the NAACP. They accused the show of perpetuating the overly used stereotypes, such as the ‘mammy’ character; an often crude depiction and term for a black woman who is the maid/mother figure for a white family. Beulah emitted a motherly warmth, that slightly contrasted her somewhat independent nature. Even is she was slightly acerbic with her neighbor and best friend Oriole (also a black maid for the family next door), she always showed great respect for her bosses, calling them “Mister Harry” or “Miss Alice”.

If someone were to describe what Beulah looked like, they would get the point across by just saying “Aunt Jemima. Its not hard to figure out just why Beulah was short-lived. Its also why its not hard to figure out why the original episodes have been destroyed, with only seven to survive. There were eighty-seven episodes in total.

The next widely successful ( in terms of “black television”)  how to star a Black woman didn’t come until years later with Julia in 1968 starring Diahann Carroll. This could be seen as the groundbreaking show for blacks on television. This was the first weekly show to star an African American woman in a non-stereotypical form. Although the show tended to stray away from dealing with racial issues, Julia still had friends, white friends, and dealt with problems that most young mothers did.

Although Julia’s premise; a single mother, working and taking care of a child said a lot about urban culture. Its known as a common statistic, for black mothers to be taking of a family single-handedly. The show had potential, to surface many opinions that the African American community had been wanting to get out for so long, but was derided because it wasn’t doing just that.

The real reason this was a problem was because it was a major contrast between what was being seen on Television, pipe dreams of a happy life without discrimination, and its contrast of vicious beatings of the African race. This life depicted on television was beautiful and misrepresenting that actual problem. America, with the aid of television could remain comfortable with its blinders on. If life could be easy for these actors on television, then surely Africans weren’t just working hard enough.

“White viewers saw in Amos n’ Andy a deceptive picture of ghetto life…this was a patronizing picture of black society. It depicted black maturity, rendering most of the adult characters as harmless children filled with pranks and pretensions, but ultimately unthreatening (MacDonald, 35).”

Julia was considered a white negro, Oreo, whatever you want to call it. The show didn’t reflect well on the accurately portraying the black population. Julia by all means was a widely popular show, but there was still the underlining, almost demeaning subplot; Julia simply didn’t deal with black issues. She didn’t act black. In fact, there were no problems at all. Julia was respected, treated well by her white counterparts, and lived fairly well off. The show still won various awards however: a Golden Globe in 1969 for Best TV Star – Female, and then in 2003 from the TV Land Awards for being a “Groundbreaking Show.” The show ended in 1971 after being canceled. Both Carroll and the producer Hal Kanter wanted to work on other projects. Carroll since has been in an exuberant amount of movies and television.

Black television was slowly but surely progressing. Rowan And Martin’s Laugh-In, was an American made sketch comedy program that started in 1968 and went to 1973. The show was crude enough for its time. Its blunt sexual humor and references to hippie culture angered some, but made it all the more influential in terms of set design, technical skills, and writing.  Even though the show made fun of race in the same manner they handled sexism, the putting in of tokens was still getting black people seen and heard. As offensive as it might have been, really, the show poked at many groups, which in a sense balanced it out.

Black characters were becoming more frequent, which created for more dynamic shows. I Spy, a show starring Bill Cosby and Robert Culp. It was clearly intended to capitalize on the popular interest in espionage dramas created by Sean Connery’s success in several James Bond features… (Wilson, 119). I Spy was the first dramatic series to co-star a black man. “Not since the demise of Harlem Detective in 1954 had television attempted to feature a black detective hero (Wilson 119).”

Bill Cosby had only acted minimally before, but even before he was given the job, he had high expectations. This was the first drama/action series to star a black man. The role as Alexander Scott could have very well been played by anyone; but there was refusal of using another white male actor. The issue of race never came up in the series. Scott was simply a partner to Robert Culp’s Kelly Robinson. Cosby was perfect for the role, winning three Emmy awards for his performances. NBC kept the show going, even though it was the twenty-ninth place in seasonal rankings. It wasn’t popular. Old-fashioned prejudices still ran rampant. It may have been groundbreaking, but that wouldn’t be realized till long after the show ended.

Since it was a show about spies, the two characters often traveled to exotic places such as Hong Kong, Kyoto, and Italy. Now, not only blacks were being shown more often, but racial minorities in general. Cosby even kissed an Asian Woman. Interracial relationships, let alone a kiss were still frowned upon, something you used to be lynched for.  Cosby eventually stopped I Spy and had his own show starring him as a wealthy doctor, but undoubtedly wouldn’t have been given such an opportunity had NBC not originally cast him in I Spy.

Series Featuring Blacks as Stars or Co-Stars Series with Continuing Support. Black Char.

I Spy ( 1965-1968) Sing Along With Mitch ( 1961 – 1966 )

Sammy Davis Jr. Show ( 1966-1973 ) Lawrence Welk Show ( 1964 – 1971)

Mission Impossible ( 1996 – 1973 ) Rawhide ( 1965 )

NYPD. ( 1967 – 1969) Hogan’s Heroes ( 1965 – 1970 )

Julia ( 1068 – 1971 ) Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In ( 1968 – 1973 )

The Mod Squad ( 1968- 1973) Star Trek ( 1966 – 1969 )

The Cosby Show was nearly a mainstream version of Julia, an unrealistic look at black families, but comforting in the fact that it was uplifting, genuine, and harmless. Black families could be seen and socially accepted as upper class citizens, without backlash. Bill Cosby was proud of his African Heritage on the show, and often was vocal about it. Cosby didn’t act ‘black,’ but was far from being seen as an Oreo.

The idea of an accurate portrayal is almost absurd, or rather become something impossible to do. From a child we are told we are unique, to be identified by our personalities and choices, rather than gender or color. Yet, we still feel as if we have to live up to idealized standards for ourselves. Having to be more masculine and not have feelings, to be more girly and long for the domestic life. How can anyone portray a race accurately without it being ironically stereotypical?

Admittedly, it was difficult writing this paper without personal bias. In fact, I’m sure its fairly obvious. Black entertainment had been an iffy thing with me for a while now. What is black? What is it acting black? I was often teased as a child for acting too “white.” How was I even acting white? Using big, fancy words that should be of recognition to the average person? I’m bitter that there is no fine medium in portrayal, only dire contrasts. Either trying to hard to make a character a non-token, or making a character that is so extreme, as to target to the character to the race that they are trying to portray. “Television portrayals of African-Americans and other minorities have been shown to influence whites perceptions of those groups. (Greenberg, 1972).”

Where does that make me? I am far from the “traditional” black, and I’m not Caucasian. I don’t think I act white, I am simply myself. I don’t fit a typecast. Hell if I know how to play basketball or cook fried chicken. I don’t drink grape soda (actually, I don’t drink soda at all).  Often, I’ve been typecast to just play “the black person.” I’ve tried to BE that “black person” and find that even in satire, I cannot pretend to do it. Its unrealistic and fake. I can’t be a stigma. Even if I tried. “According to Nielsen and a National Urban League study, African Americans watch more television than other ethnic groups. However, the studies also say TV is the only arena where solid, broad news representation of the black community has not been achieved in any meaningful way ( Reed, 4).” For a medium of which the largest watcher is black, its ironic that its the primary medium holding us back. Yet, we complain about it, but it doesn’t change, and we accept it.

I’m not a black film student out to prove anything. Although I would very much like to see a ‘normal’ black character on television; not an extreme token or stereotype, I simply do what I do because I love it. Television is a medium from which you do not turn your back on, and regardless of color or gender should you be hindered from being passionate about it.

Black depictions haven’t changed much over the years. As a culture not as blatant about it, but continue stereotypes that distract from the real problem of prejudice. Music and film reflects stigmas that are just mature versions of the minstrels that existed in the Golden Age. Because as a culture, we are still comfortable. I hope to write the first blockbuster indie film to star an eccentric struggling filmmaker with bad taste in relationships…who just happens to be black.

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