Blacks in Television in the Early 1970s

As American television abandoned relevancy and its concomitant themes, there were noticeable shifts in programs involving blacks. Dramatic series featuring solid black characters vanished. The mature comedic series which typified the late 1960s gave way to bolder situation comedies purporting to be racial satires but actually reviving chronic racist stereotypes. Such changes in programming tastes and in attitudes toward minorities were apparent in the earliest years of the new decade.

In the fall of 1970, there were nineteen primetime network series employing blacks in prominent roles. Excluding motion picture showcases such as the CBS Friday Night Movie, this figure represented 26 percent of primetime programs. Among the total were several series from the previous decade, including Julia, Mission: Impossible, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-in, the Bill Cosby Show, The Mod Squad, Room 222, Ironside, Mannix, and The Lawrence Welk Show. Among the new shows with blacks in recurrent, supporting roles were Make Room for Granddaddy (Roosevelt Grier), The Storefront Lawyers (Royce Wallace), Matt Lincoln (Chelsea Brown), and the Mary Tyler Moore Show (John Amos).

Significantly, other new series that season cast blacks as stars or co-stars. As well as in comedies like Barefoot in the Park and The Flip Wilson Show, African Americans were featured in a variety of dramatic series. On The Silent Force, Percy Rodrigues played federal agent Jason Hart who, with two other investigators, formed a secret undercover force fighting organized crime. In the Revolutionary War series, The Young Rebels, Louis Gossett, Jr. was Isak Poole, a member of the Yankee Doodle Society fighting in 1777 for freedom and against the British "system."

In a more modern vein, on The Young Lawyers Judy Pace played a law student who, with other young legal idealists, formed a neighborhood law office in Boston. Blacks even entered the medical-drama genre as Hal Frederick appeared as one of five young interns featured on The Interns.

What is striking about these series, however, is that only one lasted longer than its premiere season. With the exception of The Flip Wilson Show, all the new programs featuring blacks—plus Julia and The Bill Cosby Show from the previous decade—were canceled by the fall of 1971. Add to that figure the termination after thirteen weeks of The Pearl Bailey Show, a musical variety series which appeared on ABC's second season in January 1971. By the fall of that year, there were only ten primetime network series with African Americans as regulars—only three of them new shows. Indicative of the future direction for blacks in American TV, these new series were comedies: The Funny Side which included John Amos and Teresa Graves, The Partners which co-starred Rupert Crosse, and All in the Family, a show which had actually premiered the previous January on the CBS second season.

Along with relevancy, black actors and social issues left television by the end of 1971. As the nation slipped easily into a mood of self-delusion, encouraged by the politics of the time, soul-searching disappeared from network video. Tired of demonstrations and confrontation, viewers preferred seeing "the good things" about America. Ratings figures told the networks that most citizens wanted escape instead of education, support in place of questioning.

An example of the series that could not survive the change in popular mood was The Storefront Lawyers. It concerned the adventures in the ghetto of three young white liberals, a sort of legal Mod Squad, who abandoned lucrative law practices in order to help oppressed minorities. A typical case developed in an episode entitled "The Emancipation of Bessie Gray," broadcast on October 14, 1970. Here the trio of youthful idealists came to the rescue of an elderly black woman, played by Claudia McNeil, who was being swindled by an unscrupulous job trainer.

McNeil's character, Bessie Gray, had spent her hard-earned money—earned scrubbing floors—in a training program that promised her a career in nursing when she graduated. Having completed the course, however, Gray received no nursing job, and found her complaints ignored by the man in charge of the training school. Reminiscent of the human-interest dramas of the 1960s, The Storefront Lawyers suffered a quick demise. Most American TV watchers seemed disgusted, indifferent, or bored with stories about underprivileged blacks being rescued by do-good white liberals. The series was clearly a product of the civil rights era. In this new decade it was not the type of programming enough viewers wanted.

As sensitive social melodramas dwindled, so too did the liberal views which exemplified much of the Golden Age. Hopeful, egalitarian, and often naive, such rhetoric reiterated the goals of the civil rights movement and expressed the notion of social assimilation as well as racial pride. One of the last statements of this kind was encountered in an episode of The Young Rebels entitled "Unbroken Chains" that aired December 27, 1970. The story concerned the moral and physical courage of a runaway slave (played by Paul Winfield), who helped the young Revolutionary War heroes of the series to destroy a British munitions supply. Not only did the program feature Winfield as the slave, Pompey, but with Louis Gossett, Jr. as Isak Poole, a series regular, and with its obvious emphasis upon youth and rebellion, the program was clearly tied to the political attitudes of the previous decade.

In its closing scene, this show made its moral statement. Pleased that Pompey had helped them blow up the enemy arsenal, the three young heroes and their mentor, the Marquis de Lafayette, offered Pompey his legal freedom and the right to a last name. The following conversation ensued.

Pompey: Thank you, General, But if it's all the same to you, I think I'll keep my one name. Just to remind me that no men are free unless all men are free.
Poole: Pompey, can you read?
Pompey: Can I read? What you want me to read, boy?
Poole: A poem. Henry gave it to me when I was feeling kinda like you do right now.
Pompey: (reading)
    Oh, come the time
    And haste the day,
    When man shall man no longer crush;
    When reason shall enforce her sway,
    Nor these fair...
Poole: (completing poem)
    Nor these fair regions raise our blush,
    Where still the African complains,
    And mourns his yet unbroken chains.
Pompey: Yeah. You write this, Henry?
Henry: No. A poet of the Revolution, Philip Freneau.
Lafayette: I thought it sounded French.
Pompey: Sounded black to me. (laughs)
Rebel: Sounds like maybe someday it won't matter. (music swells)
Announcer: In 1977 a slave named Pompey was instrumental in capturing the key British fort at Stoney Point, New York, giving the Americans control of the Hudson River. He was only one of over 10,000 black men who served gallantly in the Revolutionary Army.

Not only did this type of optimism perish in the 1970s, but one week after "Unbroken Chains" was broadcast, The Young Rebels was seen for the last time—canceled after thirteen poorly- viewed weeks. It is interesting, however, that while African-American roles in primetime dramatic series were diminishing or becoming stereotyped in network comedies, black actors were making mature dramatic contributions in two distinct types of TV programming. On daytime soap operas African Americans made important, if limited, advances into a chronically segregated genre. In made-for-television motion pictures, too, African-American actors demonstrated powerful acting skills, often in remarkably mature charac­terizations and plots.

Despite the human and familiar quality of daytime serials—the so-called soap operas—these series had never been hospitable to black actors. During the three decades in which the soaps thrived on radio, few minority members appeared as regulars. During World War II, black characters were written temporarily into at least two series, Our Gal Sunday and The Romance of Helen Trent.

But since listeners were unaware of the race of those providing the voices, most black roles were enacted by white actors.

The record of soap operas in TV had a similar record. During the mid-1960s, however, as producers, networks, and sponsors encountered criticism from civil rights groups, there were attempts introduce minority parts in established series. Blacks were used, for example, as background walk-ons, or were seen seated in restaurants or passing through hospital corridors. By the end of the decade, moreover, full-fledged African-American roles were being written into several soaps.

When it premiered in October 1968, Agnes Nixon's series, One Life to Live, focused on the problems facing a first-generation American family trying to achieve social success. This orientation allowed the program to be concerned with relevant issues. On occasion this focus involved black characters. But there were limitations to soap-opera involvement with African Americans. When the light-skinned actress Ellen Holly played Carla Gray—a black secretary in love with her white boss—viewer dis­tress was strongly registered with the producers and the network. Although the writers caused Carla's mother (played by Lillian Hayman) to condemn the interracial romance, one Texas station canceled the series, and several southern stations threatened similar action. Carla eventually recognized the "error of her ways"—and the importance of viewer protests—and married a black police lieutenant, Ed Hall (played by Al Freeman, Jr.). Into the 1980s, moreover, the Halls remained the only black family in Llanview, the mythical Philadelphia suburb in which One Life to Live was set.

The nature of the soap opera mitigated against any kind of meaningful black participation. Concerned as they became in the 1970s with romance, love affairs, and great amounts of personal remorse—what Time magazine concisely termed, "sex and suffering in the afternoon"—soap writers and producers were sensitive to viewers protesting scenes of black intimacy, especially when such romance was interracial and led to marriage. Although mindful of the result when One Life to Live treated love between a black woman and a white man, the writers introduced a similar theme in the mid-1970s on Days of Our Lives. Here Valerie Grant (played by Tina Andrews), daughter of the only black family in town, almost married a white character. Before the engagement was dissolved, the plot caused considerable torment for the families involved, especially to Valerie's father (played by Lawrence Cook), mother (Ketty Lester), and brother (Hassan Shaheed).

The romance lasted a year and involved four on-screen kisses between the couple. Fan mail hotly protested the arrangement, however, and four days before wedding vows were to have been exchanged, the engagement was broken. In mid-1977, Valerie ended the love affair, left her former fiancé, and moved to Washington, D.C. to accept a medical scholarship at Howard University. She also left Days of Our Lives.

Despite such limitations, several important black actors had short-lived roles in soap operas. In the late 1960s, for example, James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson (and later Ruby Dee) played Dr. Jim Frazier and his wife, Martha, on The Guiding Light. Jones also portrayed Dr. Jerry Turner on As the World Turns. Billy Dee Williams appeared as another soap opera professional, an assistant district attorney, in the late 1960s on Another World.

There were other blacks in significant roles in soap operas. During the 1970s Palmer Deane played Dr. Hank Iverson on The Doctors. His romantic interest was portrayed by Marie Thomas. John Danelle appeared as Dr. Franklin Grant, with Lisa Wilkin­son cast as his wife, Nancy, on All My Children. Herb Davis was a regular on One Life to Live and The Edge of Night. In the latter series he played a police lieutenant, Luke Chandler. Laurence Fishburne on One Life to Live portrayed Joshua West, the foster son of Ed and Carla Hall. Before he joined the cast of The Jeffersons, Damon Evans appeared on Love of Life. The same was true for Ja'net DuBois who played Loretta Allen on Love of Life before becoming Willona Woods on the primetime situation comedy, Good Times.

These actors notwithstanding, the use of blacks in soap operas was minuscule. The genre had been popular in television for more than thirty years. There were scores of soaps, usually broadcast five days a week, with no repeats, and some running as long as ninety minutes. In the process, thousands of actors appeared in major and secondary parts. Yet no more than a few dozen were African American. Practically, television soap operas were lily-white dramatic vehicles intended to sell household products to an audience that was primarily female. No matter that about one-quarter of the viewers was black, the complaints of bigoted fans and the reluctance of local stations to carry a regular diet of strong black characterization helped to keep the soaps virtually segregated.

There was no attempt, moreover, to deny the obvious. According to one student of the genre, "Inattention to poverty sub­cultures and to black Americans may be explained by the fact that the soaps are, and claim to be, a reflection of white middle-class America." As such, racial issues were rarely discussed or integrated into story lines. In fact, soap opera blacks were usually so middle class and assimilated, their problems were not those of average African Americans. This was a situation which in part caused Ellen Holly to complain bitterly to an interviewer in 1972:

Media are like mirrors.... You look in a mirror and you see what you are. And for generations the black man has looked into the mirror of this society, and been thrown back an image so absolutely grotesque that it's a wonder he could even get together even the minimum ego necessary to survive.

Network television responded slowly and inadequately to racial segregation in daytime serial drama. One remedy suggested, but continually rejected, was the black soap opera. As early as 1964, executives at ABC turned down such a project intended primarily for African-American audiences. Throughout that decade and into the 1970s, black soaps with titles like A Day in the Life and Between Horizons were proposed to the networks, but were never accepted and put into production.

The closest network TV came to airing a black soap opera occurred with Bird of an Iron Feather, a daily primetime serial which appeared on National Educational Television (NET) in early 1970. The program was funded by the Ford Foundation and was written by Richard Durham, the same writer whose radio series Destination Freedom two decades earlier was a milestone in the history of African Americans in broadcasting. Bird of an Iron Feather, however, received neither critical praise or sizable viewership before being canceled quickly.

More than a decade later, network TV remained adverse to black soap opera. Except for two series focusing on African-American life—Righteous Apples and Up and Coming, both on PBS in the 1980s—television continued to produce serialized dramas that were dominated by white actors and offered few opportunities for black participation.

Similar to their treatment in dramatic series and soap operas, blacks had limited involvement in made-for-TV movies. Yet on many occasions African-American performance and characterization were significant in such films. In fact, from 1970 to 1983, some of the most memorable depictions of racial minorities occurred in such video productions.

In the 1970s the Hollywood motion picture industry itself discovered the black consumer market. Much of the energy of the film studios went into making so-called "blaxploitation" films. These were usually low-budget, action features having a strong emphasis on violence, sex, anti-white hostility, and hatred of the police. They bore such flamboyant titles as Willie Dynamite, Boss Nigger, Black Caesar, Hell Up in Harlem, Super Spook, Soul Soldier, Blacula, and Blackenstein. By 1975 Variety counted almost two hundred such black-oriented feature films—more than half released in 1973.

Blaxploitation films were filled with images of evil whites being bested, beaten, or blown away by cool blacks. Romantic escapades abounded with women of all nationalities, helping to earn the macho heroes of such movies the label "superstud."

These were theatrical movies of revenge and catharsis. They allowed audiences to strike vicarious blows against their white oppressors. They also exploited for profit the legitimate anger and frustration of African Americans trapped in the inner city by prejudice, poverty, ignorance, police power, and fear. And they did this with handsome, muscular, clever black champions whose taste for the good life was enticingly displayed.

Further, this was not a pattern that was exclusively masculine. Many blaxploitation films—with titles like Savage Sisters, Coffy, Foxy Brown, Cleopatra Jones, and Sheba, Baby—proffered sexy female versions of this emergent "super-spade" stereotype as enacted by the likes of Pam Grier, Tamara Dobson, and Gloria Hendry.

Importantly, in most cases these movies were the product of white producers and writers, white film studios, and white-controlled distribution companies. Although African-American actors were seen on the screen, from concept to realization blacks usually had little to do with the development of the vast majority of blaxploitation films.

Only on occasion did Hollywood abandon the sex-and‑violence motif and produce serious, non-stereotyped motion pictures with black themes. When they did so, in movies like Sounder, The Learning Tree, Five on the Black Hand Side, Black Girl, Lady Sings the Blues, and The River Niger, the studios proved that sensitive insight could be gained into the African-American social experience. Few of these more sophisticated motion pictures, however, fared as well at the box office as the blaxploitation films.

As far as television was concerned, there was little place for these explosive black movies. With its traditional aversion to profanity, brutal violence, and sexual explicitness, TV did not present a ready market for such films. If black-oriented films were to be shown on television, they would have to be the more serious theatrical releases or those made especially for the medium. Out of these circumstances would come several powerful films. Furthermore, because of the small pool of black actors available for such productions, the talent in these made-for-TV movies became as recognizable as it was skilled. Two of the most effective actors were Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield.

Tyson appeared in several movies based on black history. In A Woman Called Moses, broadcast on NBC on December 11 and 12, 1978, she portrayed Harriet Tubman, the nineteenth-century organizer who helped liberate hundreds of runaway slaves. In February 1978, Tyson was featured as Loretta Scott King—opposite Winfield as Martin Luther King, Jr.—in the NBC miniseries, King. And in Wilma, telecast December 19, 1977 on NBC, she portrayed the renowned college and Olympic track star, Wilma Rudolph.

Tyson's most acclaimed role, however, was in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, an Emmy-winning film broadcast January 31, 1974 on CBS. Here she played at all ages—from a young woman of 19 years to a 110-year-old—highlights in the life of an ex-slave who lived to see in 1962 the first modern steps toward racial equality and social dignity. Although her final gesture, to drink from a water fountain reserved for whites, was a small action, the power Tyson brought to the role made Miss Jane Pittman's act a symbol of racial victory over Jim Crow laws and chronic prejudice.

Winfield also appeared in several substantial made-for-TV motion pictures. As well as the leading role in the miniseries, King, he played Roy Campanella in It's Good to Be Alive. The film, broadcast on CBS on February 22, 1974, dealt with Campanella's physical and emotional adjustment to paralysis following an automobile accident that ended his baseball career. In another introspective role, Green Eyes, aired January 3, 1977, Winfield portrayed an ex-soldier returning to Vietnam to find the child he fathered while stationed there.

While biographical movies focused widely on historical blacks—from political achievers to criminals—the favorite theme was black sports figures. In addition to Wilma and It's Good to Be Alive, there were other significant sports motion pic­tures made for television in the 1970s. In Brian's Song (aired November 30, 1971 on ABC), Billy Dee Williams portrayed Gale Sayers, the Chicago Bears halfback who agonized as his white friend and teammate, Brian Piccolo, died young of cancer. In Ring of Passion (February 4, 1978 on NBC), Bernie Casey played boxer Joe Louis in a drama about Louis' two heavyweight bouts in the 1930s with the German champion, Max Schmeling. And in One in a Million: The Ron LeFlore Story (September 26, 1978 on CBS), LeVar Burton portrayed a young street punk who rose from a life of petty crime to become a star of major league baseball.

Several notable made-for-TV movies also placed blacks in fictional human and romantic predicaments in the 1970s. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, which aired in June 1978, was an ABC miniseries dealing with a closely knit black family facing ra­cial animosity in Mississippi during the Great Depression. It featured Janet MacLachlan and Robert Christian, but its principal player was Claudia McNeil, who portrayed a strong-willed grandmother whose personality and sacrifices helped maintain her family in a time of great stress.

This theme of love within a black family was found also in Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, an ABC presentation on January 6, 1975. Starring Douglas Turner Ward, Robert Hooks, and Godfrey Cambridge, the play focused on a Harlem family striving to achieve success and social freedom.

In Just an Old Sweet Song, the noted black writer and director Melvin Van Peebles wrote of the differences for African Americans between life in the South and North. The film was broadcast September 14, 1976 on CBS, and featured Cicely Tyson and Robert Hooks as the heads of a black family which left its urban Northern existence to return to its Southern roots. Through his script, Van Peebles argued that for contemporary blacks life in the South was preferable to the indignity of ghetto life in the North. Just an Old Sweet Song, as a racial drama and a human story concerning the search for purpose and self-definition, was epitomized in Robert Hooks' statement at the end of the film:

This New South probably ain't what it's cracked up to be, but it's better than it used to be. Everything we wanted up there is down here. I still hate the South. The South is up North in them ghettos, but the program is still the same—ripping off the black man.

In the mature world created occasionally by made-for-TV films, on more than one occasion interracial love was treated. One of the most controversial films of the decade was My Sweet Charlie, seen on NBC on January 20, 1970. The story concerned Patty Duke as a Southern white woman who fell in love with a black intellectual from the North played by Al Freeman, Jr. Before it was aired, the film precipitated a national debate over its propriety. More than anything else, this controversy created viewer interest. The film was the top program in the weekly Nielsen ratings, as nearly half the national TV audience tuned in to see in this unique motion picture a depiction of something seen daily in real life.

Less sensational in its reception, but equally sensitive, was Wedding Band on ABC on April 24, 1974. The interracial love in this feature was between an older couple. Ruby Dee and J.D. Cannon played the principals in a ten-year love affair in rural South Carolina in 1918. Written as a theatrical drama by Alice Childress, Wedding Band was produced as a play in the ABC Theater showcase. Despite its preemption by several affiliates, the drama was one of the more memorable programs of the season, Variety terming it, "an unusual combination of courage and taste in the welter of the primetime pulp grind."

Compared to its predecessors, A Killing Affair made the theme of interracial love more passionate and explicit. Aired on CBS on September 21, 1977, it starred O.J. Simpson and Elizabeth Montgomery as police officers who fell in love while working together on an investigation. The plot was complicated by Simpson's wife, played by Rosalind Cash. Included in the movie were embracing, kissing, and several bedroom scenes. According to one writer for Jet magazine, "Black skin lovingly pressed against white skin on television screens is a delicacy rarely seen."

Despite their popularity, serious dramas starring blacks remained rare in the 1970s. Certainly in made-for-TV features there were quality stories and performances. But these films represented a minute proportion of the movies—either theatrical releases or made-for-TV films—shown on television. Counting reruns, for example, during the 1976-1977 season there were 398 feature films shown on TV. This figure included 168 made-for-TV films. While some of those movies provided secondary roles for black actors, only a small percentage placed African Americans in starring roles.

With the demise, moreover, of series featuring blacks, access to video was evaporating for serious minority actors. It is interesting, however, that at exactly the time African Americans were disappearing from dramatic programming, they were gaining unprecedented exposure in primetime situation comedy. It was a curious synthesis allowing blacks more visibility, but channeling them into more frivolous and traditionally acceptable molds.

As the civil rights movement collapsed and mature black representation on TV dwindled, African-American comedians experienced overwhelming success. To a degree, this can be explained as a reflection of the general switch by viewers in the early 1970s from dramas to situation comedies. Eschewing relevancy, violence, and dramatic confrontation, Americans through the ratings showed that they wanted more fun and diversion in their TV shows. This preference for comedy, further­more, eventually became dominant in primetime video. For example, the top seven programs of the 1974-1975 season were half-hour sit­coms.

As far as black characterization was concerned, however, there was a striking difference in this new wave of hilarity. No longer were black stars cast as assimilated, middle-class achievers offering as many moral lessons as laughs. With Diahann Carroll and Bill Cosby in decline, the black comedians of the 1970s were much more brassy and sassy, much less brainy and realistic.

The new black TV comics were self-deprecating, continually joking about being black and bringing to bear on themselves many of the stereotyped prejudices long considered racist. It now became riotously funny to joke about skin color, hair texture, race riots, poverty, welfare checks, and minority social customs. Inhibitions disap­peared, and writers and comedians seemed to empowered to ignore racial sensitivities. It now became a mark of fashionable outspokenness to deliver jokes based on old slurs.

In bringing this new type of humor to popular video acceptance, the transitional series was The Flip Wilson Show. Where Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Leslie Uggams had failed, Flip Wilson triumphed. He was the first black to host a successful variety program. In its four years on NBC, 1970-1974, his program was highly popular and critically well-received. During its first two seasons, the program was rated second only to All in the Family. The following year it was rated twelfth. In 1971, moreover, the show won an Emmy as the outstanding variety series of the year.

The freshness of The Flip Wilson Show lay in its unique blending of the traditional and the new. It contained many qualities found in the popular comedy-variety series hosted by white entertainers. The program was headed by Flip Wilson, a versatile and engaging talent whose comic delivery was accompanied by great likability. In his story-telling humor, Wilson was described by one critic as "effervescent, contagiously irreverent—and funny." He also played host to many of the leading white entertainers of the day, among them Lucille Ball, Carol Charming, Johnny Cash, Roy Clark, and George Gobel.

Importantly, too, as well as welcoming leading black personalities like Bill Cosby, Muhammad Ali, Lena Horne, and Sammy Davis, Jr., Wilson gave TV exposure to many black stars unfamiliar to most American viewers. Included in this latter group were B. B. King, Slappy White, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Melba Moore, The Staples Singers, Mahalia Jackson, and Willie Tyler and Lester.

The strength of the program, however, was Wilson's own comedy. He was most celebrated for the bold black characters he developed. Unlike the bourgeois images offered in situation comedies in the late 1960s, his Geraldine Jones, Reverend Leroy, Sonny the janitor, Freddy Johnson the playboy, and Charley the chef were drawn from inner-city stereotypes. In his own assertive way, Wilson reached back to an earlier era and revived many of the pejorative clichés associated with a less sensitive time in American history. Not since Amos 'n' Andy had television por­trayed blacks in such stereotypic ways.

Wilson's characters were not timid. His female personality, Geraldine Jones, could shriek: "The devil made me do it," as well as Sapphire Stevens, Beulah, or any of the other video mammies of the past. The exaggerated, rhythmic roll of his Reverend Le­roy, the effusive gospel-shouting pastor of the Church of What's Happening Now, was a solid reminder of Johnny Lee's nefarious and loquacious character on Amos 'n' Andy, the lawyer Algonquin J. Calhoun. And his other slick personalities were throw­backs to those demeaning models of black insecurity, incompetence, and libido.

At the time, Wilson's supporters argued that his humor was drawn from black culture. Unlike earlier prejudicial series, it was felt this brand of comedy was not the product of whites interpreting the black experience in minstrelsy types. That Wilson was "authentic" seemed to fit the mood of the time when black pride was swelling, and patterns of equal opportunity appeared to be opening the American economy to black would-be achievers.

Drawn from the African-American life or not, The Flip Wilson Show helped reinstate the racist joke in television. When delivered to a black audience in a night club or inner city theater, perhaps the exaggerated traits of his black characters and the themes of his humorous stories might well be appreciated as sat­ire and not racial derision. But on national TV, with a predominately white audience in a time of changing social priorities, Wilson's humor looked and sounded antiblack. Like the endmen and coon comedians of the minstrel show, Wilson always brought the humor to bear upon himself, making himself the butt of the joke, and that joke was frequently about his blackness. He jested about his gaudy sport coat—"my riot jacket, you saw my riot jacket, the one I got in Buffalo out of the window." Or he spoke of a black man he met in Detroit during that city's race riot: "In fact, he walked up to me and said, 'Take a television, they ain't gonna miss it.'"

Dressed in women's clothing and speaking in a falsetto voice, Wilson played Geraldine as pushy and impulsive, a black female without tact or willpower. Part hussy and part wheeler-dealer, Geraldine seemed to confirm for many bigots long-held prejudices about black women.

What Geraldine did to black femininity, Reverend Leroy did to African-American religion, its practitioners, and leaders. Leroy delivered verbose, self-serving sermons on topics such as "On the Creation of the Hilton Hotel" and why God wanted him to drive a Cadillac. And Leroy could become animated when he felt black rights were being abused. This happened once when he mistook a gorilla in a zoo cage for a fellow black man being held in jail and forced to eat from a trough on the floor. Lecherous and dishonest, Leroy was no exemplary black parson, but a parson he was, at a time when religious leaders were in actuality directors of the civil rights movement.

Certainly Wilson was no racist. But his humor was too familiar, too trusting, and too soon. In a harmoniously integrated America, such comedy would have been less offensive. But in the early 1970s, the nation was turning away from values of brotherhood and toward self-interest and renewed prejudices. This was no longer the age of Julia Baker and Chet Kincaid; this was the time of Don Rickles and insult humor that baited in­stead of appreciating ethnic difference.

There were other prominent black comedians at the time. And frequently they, too, exploited race in their routines. But in humorists like Godfrey Cambridge and Dick Gregory, racial comedy was used to make stabbing, ironic statements about dis­crimination and social injustice. Flip Wilson, however, avoided politics. He did not use his humor to strike the conscience of the nation. Typically, one of his jokes dealt with a black couple on welfare receiving a robot as part of its government handout in 1984. Lacking a note of the sardonic or moral, the joke simply suggested that years into the future blacks would still be receiving welfare—one racist stereotype confirmed! In the minds of many who had struggled in the 1960s to improve race relations, The Flip Wilson Show was at best a lost opportunity. At worst, it was an exploitation of white prejudice for the sake of the Nielsen ratings.

Television critic Les Brown has suggested that rather than satirize black culture, Wilson’s showcase actually mocked it. And like the racist series of the 1950s, this type of comedy "fed, rather than dispelled, racial bigotry." Nevertheless, the enormous popularity of Flip Wilson and his brand of hilarity was compelling. And to others in the competitive television industry, this achievement was suggestive. Soon, TV screeners would be filled with black comics joking about their racial ancestry and ethnic characteristics. Thanks to Wilson, Americans recommitted themselves to racial comedy. And nowhere would the style be more perfected or prolific than in the comedy series created by Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin.

Continue Reading…