CULTURE: What’s So Black About Black TV?
Black Television has moved far from its racist beginnings. But is it reaching its full potential?
On Boxing Day, after packaging various leftovers and saying goodbye to family friends and neighbours, I sat down to watch the finale of “Insecure.” The TV show, created by media superstar Issa Rae, ran for five total seasons that explored the lives and times of millennial Black Americans. I couldn’t help but smile as I watched the characters’ arcs come to an end. Out of all that I’ve seen on television recently, “Insecure” felt the most like something that belonged to me.
“Insecure” wasn’t like anything I had ever seen before. I grew up watching seasons of “Fresh Prince” and “Moesha” on bootleg CDs that we purchased from the side of the road: to avoid copyright infringement, the CDs were printed with nothing more than “Frsh prnce szn 3” scribbled in black permanent marker. Still too young to understand the complex plotlines of life in America — a life very distant from mine in Nairobi, Kenya — it was the small details that came to matter the most. Brazen with the kind of self-confidence only pre-adolescent youth can afford, I would mimic Will Smith’s American accent while playing with friends in the neighbourhood or beg my mother to try out the hairstyles Brandy wore on “Moesha.” Eating soggy Weetabix with bananas on a Monday morning, I would imagine myself in a suburban American home, gulping down my breakfast before running out of the door, brown paper lunch bag in my hand.
Locally, we tuned in every Thursday night to watch television shows like “Tahidi High” — a less drug-addled, more dark-skinned version of “Euphoria” — or “Inspekta Mwala,” Kenya’s response to police-themed television that told the story of a neighbourhood watchman. The plotlines were safe and family-friendly: in what was deemed the most scandalous plotline on television at that time, a student at “Tahidi High” discovered she was pregnant with her teacher’s baby. Those whose parents paid for it also watched satellite television, where they kept up with Disney Channel and Nickelodeon.
At home, television was about watching Americans move around the screen like mannequins, romanticising Black lives despite observing these lives every day: on the street, in church, at school. It wasn’t until I grew older and moved continents from Africa to North America that I began to listen closely to the nuances of Black TV. In a country where I was “thrown against a white background” as Zora Neale Hurston via Glen Ligon put it, Black Television came to represent much more than just entertainment: it became the very backbone of my being and the lens through which I allowed myself to exist in the world.
Growing up in what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo in the late ’70s and ’80s, television was Black by default for renowned choreographer and artist Faustin Linyekula. Watching television meant selecting between a small list of shows and music videos vetted by the government of Zaire. He remembers watching the Michael Jackson music videos and learning how to dance to them, not fully realising that there was more to offer than four or five television shows until he left the country. In our interview, I asked him about his consumption of Black media during his emigration outside of his hometown of Kisangani, Democratic Republic of Congo and his eventual relocation to Europe. “Listen,” he replied, “No one would ever dare to call it white Television, or white art or white music. It’s just television. Why do I have to give it a separate name?”
It would be foolish to say that such a cultural situation could ever exist in the United States, but it’s worth examining the ways in which having a Black majority allows so much freedom of expression. Black Television on the continent has neither had to defend nor define itself against misrepresentation because it has always been made for and by Black people. Black Television in America, however, has no roots in Blackness: its creative and executive history features and centres whiteness all the way down. To truly make TV for and by Black people, we have to sever ourselves from the idea of “Black Television” altogether.
One of the biggest issues with Black Television in America today is that it’s not very Black at all. Early Black Television in America revolved mostly around caricatures of Black people: “Amos n’ Andy” (1928-53), one of the earliest examples of the Black sitcom, was steeped in racial stereotypes. Before being replaced by a Black ensemble for its TV debut, it was a radio show voiced by two white actors. Refreshing the television show could not save it, however, and it was canceled after a two-year run and heavy protesting from the NAACP.
Even as television began to develop to feature more Black characters on screen, their identities remained still largely influenced and typecast by white executives. They often featured a well to do family navigating the hijinks of everyday life, while occasionally touching on racial topics like Black History Month, and the policing of Black communities — think “Fresh Prince,” “Diffrn’t Strokes,” “Sister Sister,” “Proud Family,” “That’s so Raven,” etc. In an article for The Atlantic exploring “the unwritten rules of Black TV,” Hanna Giorgis remembers an episode from the ABC sitcom “Family Matters,” in which the protagonist’s son Eddie has a run-in with the police. The protagonist Carl, who is a police officer himself, insists that his son is somewhat responsible for his being targeted: “That’s unusual procedure — unless you provoked it.” Hanna writes that the tension created by this statement is barely addressed, and the show opts instead for “the kind of safe conclusion that wraps up a ‘very special episode’”: Eddie was right to be upset because some police officers really are racists: Carl is able to get away with reconciling with his son and staying within the boundaries of what’s acceptable to say about law enforcement on cable television.
The problem evidenced in “Family Matters” reveals itself: Giorgis reports that while there were Black people in the writer’s room that disagreed with this choice, the ultimate decision fell to senior writers and showrunners, who are almost always white. Research conducted by consulting firm McKinsey and Company revealed that Black talent is severely underrepresented in the entertainment industry, especially off screen. An analysis of the racial mix of on and off screen talent in film leadership found that the proportion of Black directors and producers was a mere 6 percent. Black writers, 4 percent. As of 2020, 92 percent of senior executives in the film and entertainment industry were white. If the industry is majority white, then it can only concern itself with whiteness. Narratives that truly represent Black populations become watered down in the interest of making it easier to write, easier to direct, easier to sell.
However, the dawn of modern television shows like “Insecure” mandates a new direction for Black Television — one that distinguishes itself from stereotypical family sitcoms. In these new television shows, space has been made for Black characters to exist on a much larger emotional, social, and political spectrum than they ever had before. Issa Rae has said about creating “Insecure” that “we’re just trying to convey that people of colour are relatable … this is not a hood story. This is about regular people living life.” Issa’s eponymous character on “Insecure” makes several mistakes: quite far from the stereotypical sitcom woman. She cheats on her boyfriend, lies to her friends and makes bad decisions at her place of employment. The people around her make several mistakes too: the show is written not to inform, but to showcase Blackness in all of its nuances. “Amos n’ Andy,” though groundbreaking, still had its “roots planted firmly within the tradition of blackface minstrelsy,” as Aisha Harris writes in Slate.
Semilore Ola ’24 spoke about her issues with how Black Television represents itself these days. “In a world where very few Black people get to tell their stories, individualism is disguised as a collective Black experience. Television is so hyper-focused on telling us about Blackness, but isn’t honest about what that actually is,” she said. “Shows like ‘Black-ish’ are expected to tell the story of every Black person in America, but crumble under that burden because really, it’s just the story of the writer’s life.”
“Black-ish,” an ABC sitcom by Kenya Barris that ran for eight seasons, was notorious for trivialising Black life in the name of educating white audiences. In one “Family Matters”-esque episode, the youngest, dark-skinned daughter accuses her light-skinned family of perpetuating colorist stereotypes, only to apologise at the end of the episode for her insecurity. In another plotline, the family explores their “African” heritage, which involved donning dashikis and practising “African” accents. When trying to represent the story of Black life in America, “Black-ish” fell into the trap of trying to universalize the Black experience, which meant that the story could never be anything more than a surface-level portrayal of a particular kind of Black life.
This portrayal has no intention of serving Black, audiences. A 2017 Nielsen study found that 79 percent of the “Black-ish” audience is non-black. When you combine little Black input with audiences and executives that don’t understand the need for diverse Black storylines, you get tokenism. As Ola put it, “Black Television stops being an honest artistic endeavour and more of shows that talk about race to virtue signal for the cause.”
But the issue of Black TV isn’t just an issue of Black people representing themselves fully. The very definition of “Black Television,” like Faustin said, predicates itself in the idea of mainstream whiteness. In order for a “represented Black’’ to exist, there must be the onlooking White — hundreds of years of media and entertainment that has trimmed and shaped the Black character into something that is palatable to the majority audience. The dawn of modern Black Television, while carrying the torch miles ahead, is still in many ways restricted by its inability to stop itself from catering to white audiences. It’s easier to applaud depictions of “The Black Experience,” for example, than talk about how colourism factors into conversations about race today. In an interview with Teen Vogue, Issa Rae talks about how one of her aims with “Insecure” was to break those boundaries. “I want the portrayal of dark-skinned women to evolve in such a way that you see us as multi-faceted … We are more than just the sassy friend or the maid,” she said.
The future of Black Television is to selfishly concern itself with Blackness. At the very basic level, the entertainment industry needs more Black executives making decisions about how television shows present themselves — more radically, perhaps, it is time for Black Television to turn inwards and abandon mainstream media completely. Whatever we call it, the perfect Black Television is concerned with Black people in their multitudes. It is a work of art that gives itself to a people that will celebrate it and that will treasure it, that will take care of it as their own. It frees itself from stereotypes, from being shaped into a box for public capitalistic consumption. It presents narratives that young me was excited to talk about with friends and family, because I saw myself there — because any Black character could be me. It requires a severance from Blackness only in relation to majority whiteness, and a recentering of diverse narratives and creative ideas. The responsibility of Black TV is not to be Black in any way that we can think of it. It is to be Black in every way Black people know how to be.
Additional Reporting Contributed by Caleb Dunson.