The Cultural Debate
The increasing visibility of African Americans in television has produced a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it has created well-received entertainment and has proven the marketability of black productions. Increased use of black performers has also enhanced the careers of a growing number of black actors and actresses.
Many new minority talents have emerged, among them Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Lisa Bonet on The Cosby Show, Jaleel White of Family Matters, "Downtown" Julie Brown of Club MTV, Fab 5 Freddy on Yo! MTV Raps, Sinbad and Jasmine Guy on A Different World, and Robin Givens of Head of the Class.
Meanwhile, show business veterans such as octogenarian Jester Hairston, who plays Rolly Forbes on Amen!, and Helen Martin, who appears as Pearl Shay on 227, have achieved great popularity after years of relative obscurity. For a nation in which more than 20 percent of the population is non-white, the rise in black presence on TV suggests that the industry may be catching up with social reality.
But increased visibility has produced a downside as controversy has arisen over the appropriateness of some of the characterizations offered to the mass audience. It is a dispute that strikes at the root of depicting African Americans in a society chronically abusive toward its citizens of color. It involves matters of social class, racial imagery, integration, and black cultural integrity.
Most video blacks are culturally and socially assimilated and at least middle-class. As it does with Poles, Irish, Italians, Jews, and other white nationalities, the medium generally avoids the authentic qualities that make African Americans distinct. While Bill Cosby's Dr. Cliff Huxtable may be an extreme example of such acculturation, from soap operas to sitcoms blacks on TV usually exhibit the bourgeois values, habits, and attitudes that are so familiar in white characterization. This has especially been the situation in broadcast television where the principal target of programmers has been the middle-class white viewer. To attract this person, the networks historically offered positive African Americans who approximated the mores of bourgeois Caucasians, and negative blacks who personified the derisive stereotypes familiar to most white viewers.
Television has been inhospitable to blacks who were not middle class and/or pejoratively stereotyped. Less visible, for instance, have been representations of the authentic African-American lower class and urban underclass. Seldom has television been able or willing to portray disadvantaged or working-class blacks in their own cultural terms. As sociologist Herman Gray indicated, these people have traditionally been relegated to the crime and mayhem stories reported on TV newscasts. And since such reportage rarely explains lower-class failures in terms of root causes, the emerging picture is one of lawlessness brought about by poor citizens all by themselves.
In real life, however, a large number of black men and women labor in blue-collar jobs. Others are poorly educated and ill-prepared to function constructively in a world growing increasingly technical and specialized. And many are economically impoverished, trapped in inner-city slums that are spiritually degrading and dangerous. These are not bad people. But they are among the millions of African Americans who do not experience life as portrayed on The Cosby Show or even 227. They are part of the multitude of Americans who continue to cling, however tenuously, to the belief that life someday will improve for them or for their children. But television has had little interest in any of these people.
While TV avoids sympathetic characters drawn from the black lower classes, African-American culture—especially that which is urban and economically deprived—remains an inventive resource for all commercial entertainment. Poor blacks inspired the music of ragtime, jazz, blues, swing, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll. Dance, dress, language, sports, comedy, drama, and other forms of human expression have been influenced by the black déclassé. Contemporary popular culture in the United States is greatly indebted to the African-American poor.
Significantly, the need for programming ideas in the 1990s, has led the entertainment industry once again to the black lower classes. And from ghetto slang and the hip-hop rhythm of rap music to the varieties of basketball slam dunks, disadvantaged urban blacks have responded, infusing American pop culture with renewed vitality and seductive style. However, the move has often been accomplished in television with questionable taste and excess, thereby sparking debate over what should or should not be characterized in the mass media.
It is a debate with a history. Just as the salty lyrics and bawdy dance gestures of rhythm and blues prompted many in the early 1950s to condemn the "leer-ics" and passion of this black adult music, so today does rap music generate hostile commentary. Just as reliance upon minstrel-show stereotypes provoked a condemnation of television and radio, and cinema before that, so today do many black comedians exasperate those who are sensitive to racial misinterpretation and abuse. More than a century after the Emancipation Proclamation, and decades since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of integrated public schooling, a poll of white Americans in 1990 confirmed that the majority population overwhelmingly understood blacks in unflattering terms. According to the National Opinion Research Center, 77 percent of whites still held negative stereotypes (laziness, preference for welfare, prone to crime, etc.) about African Americans.
As television continues to produce racial controversy, a different aspect of the black-white cultural question is being argued. In the 1950s the moral problem posed to white TV was primarily quantitative: "When will there be more blacks on the screen?" In the 1970s social developments transformed the question to a qualitative one: "When will the medium abandon demeaning characterizations and present blacks more honorably?" While these early inquiries still have not been fully answered, the prepossessing challenge of the 1990s is directed primarily toward artistic and political integrity: "Must African Americans always be presented with a veneer of middle-class assimilation, or can television portray the fullness of black social diversity, its strong points and weak points, without fueling white bigotry or undermining black accomplishment?"
This latest problem is made all the more perplexing because it involves black creativity in the popular arts. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. pointed out in early 1991, the debate about the nature of black art and its political implications "can be identified as the dominant concern of black artists and their critics for the last seventy years." Even African-American creators have been troubled over how to display the black lower classes without feeding the prejudices of the dominant white population. While there is little doubt that the distorted caricatures of the minstrel show validated white bias and eroded minority self-esteem, can contemporary artists depict themes such as the unsophistication of rural blacks or the crude street culture of urban youth without encouraging the ignorant to characterize all African Americans as unsophisticated and crude?
Conversely, must all positive black characters be clones of Dr. Cliff Huxtable, or can television respectfully create and audiences maturely accept a wide range of black personalities? Can satire, that subtlest of comedy forms, be widely understood as contemptuous parody instead of self-defeating confirmation for white bigots? Can drama portray distressing black realities without inviting racial insult?
White Americans are not unfamiliar with the syndrome themselves. While the skin color of Caucasians is no impediment to humorous dramatic characterization, controversy always erupts when representation touches insensitively on differences in religion, ethnicity, or lifestyle. Even if some Italian or Latino Americans speak English with thick accents, their depiction as inept in English generates argument. Ethnic slurs and religious jokes, while a vigorous part of American vulgarity, are seldom used in commercial popular culture. Less than honorable portrayals of homosexuals are intolerable to most citizens. And given the destructive history of anti-Semitism in the Christian world, most Americans are enraged by negative images of Jews in the mass media.
The problem confronting African Americans, however, is more complex. Given the historic intolerance of the dominant culture in the United States, it seems myopic and even dangerous for blacks to tolerate portrayals of themselves that are not complimentary. For all their achievements and honors, black Americans are still struggling for social empowerment, still seeking to integrate the entrenched and obstinate white power structure. Thus, depictions that might connote generic inequality—be it physical, intellectual, social, political, or otherwise—have dire implications that affect individuals as well as the entire race.
Adding to the dilemma, black characters are almost always recognizable as minority figures. Where the racial, religious, or ethnic origins of a white actor or his part are not necessarily announced, that same is not true for African Americans. In a nation where assimilation means sameness, the "differentness" of black Americans is immediately apparent. Whereas Caucasian stars can portray uncouth or stupid or cunning characters without being ethnically or religiously specific, a black actor in such roles inescapably brings race to the part. Condemned always to be black in a society where bigotry endures, the African-American entertainer is forever vulnerable to interpretations that may be self-abusive. He or she can never be certain that the predominantly white audience is laughing at the performance instead of at the performer; never certain, too, that the majority population understands negative black roles as dramatic pretense rather than racial authenticity.
As television accommodates increased minority participation, the classic dilemma of the black artist is being debated in the 1990s. Were it simply a matter of balanced representation—adverse stereotypes being acceptable because there is now a sufficient number of affirmative black portrayals on TV—the quandary might be more easily resolved. But it involves much more than a certain symmetry between detrimental and favorable portrayal. The problem goes to the essence of black existence in the United States. It concerns the status of minorities of color in a democratic civilization that historically has moved toward actual racial equality only through controversial laws and the force of arms.
If television continues to present African Americans without reference to lower-class and underclass realities, it runs the risk in the age of narrowcasting of excluding a creative and economically significant segment of minority society. Yet, if the debilitating nature of poverty is distorted or glorified or overexposed for the sake of ratings, as TV is capable of doing, it risks compromising the modest achievements toward practical racial equality the nation has realized.
This is not to say that TV cannot display the complexity of black America without resorting to controversial representation. This has been accomplished, although more successfully in non-fiction programming than in fiction-based entertainment. In particular, several documentaries are noteworthy for their treatment of minority realities. As it has done since the 1960s, public television has offered disturbing inquiries into the African-American experience. "The Bloods of 'Nam" which appeared in May 1986, was a Frontline documentary concerning black soldiers during and after the Vietnam War. Based on a book by Wallace Terry, the program sensitively related the destructive experiences of several black servicemen during and after the conflict. It also contrasted the nation's need for these young black men when it was waging war in Southeast Asia to its contemporary disinterest in their economic and psychological needs once they returned to civilian life.
In the two parts of Eyes on the Prize—the first six episodes aired in 1988 and covered the years 1954 to 1965, the last eight installments appeared in 1990 and treated the period 1965 to 1985—producer Henry Hampton used archival film footage and contemporary interviews to reconstruct the history of the civil rights movement. In the process he created the fullest and frankest visual record of American racial history, a production that won Emmy and Peabody awards and continues to be marketed to educational institutions, where it influences a new generation's understanding of the African-American struggle.
Less comprehensive, but nonetheless informative and inspirational, Don Bogle in early 1986 wrote and produced Brown Sugar, a four-part PBS documentary celebrating the cultural contributions of legendary black female entertainers. In this project, Josephine Baker, Dorothy Dandridge, Carmen McRae, Lena Horne, and many other African-American women became models of the enrichment of all civilization that is attainable when human potential is unfettered and talent is nurtured.
On occasion, too, network television has sought honestly to expose the debilitating social conditions facing large numbers of powerless black Americans. In his CBS Reports investigation of ghetto realities, "The Vanishing Family—Crisis in Black America," first broadcast on January 26, 1986, Bill Moyers looked candidly at the human toll exacted from African Americans having to survive in a world of poverty, ignorance, and crime. Here were poor black women raising families in the bleak ghetto of Washington, D.C. And just as they were enveloped by the depressing, destructive realities that result from chronic deprivation, so, too, was the beauty of this capital city of a nation of immense wealth surrounded by dehumanizing, abject poverty.
Five years later Moyers offered yet another striking treatise on the exploitation of the race. This time the focus was on the way college sports used young minority athletes to fill their sports teams. In the PBS documentary Sports for Sale, telecast March 18, 1991, Moyers showed how college athletes were "shot through with greed, fraud, and flagrant violations of the rules." Here were black stars talented in basketball, football, and other intercollegiate sports, but they were often academically unprepared to compete for grades on the college level. Lured from the ghettos of America with promises of academic betterment and a chance at careers in pro sports, they were used by colleges only to create good teams that could attract lucrative television contracts, thereby bringing millions of dollars to alma mater. As for education, the vast majority would never graduate. And when their athletic eligibility was completed after four years or because of injury, they lost their scholarships and were otherwise dumped by their colleges.
It may not sound bold, but in 1989 when ABC permitted its black journalists to investigate, write, produce, and report on the African-American condition, it was the first time in twenty-eight years—since the same network produced and telecast "Walk in My Shoes"—that a similar project had been undertaken by national TV. And in this ABC News Special, "Black in White America," which was aired August 29, executive producer Ray Nunn found that whatever their social status or personal achievements, whatever joy and purpose they had found in their lives, black Americans still faced special difficulties in their struggle to succeed in a society where prejudice against blacks continued to affect the ground rules for social, economic, political, and intellectual improvement. As correspondent George Strait commented at the end of the broadcast:
There's a notion that white folks have done enough for black folks, but black people still remain the poorest and most segregated people in this land. So, America, don't kid yourself. When it comes to black people, there's still a lot of unfinished business—business that won't be completed until America begins to live up to the promise that it made to itself more than two-hundred years ago: that every individual is free to succeed or fail based on who they are and not what they are.
Even more distressing, Charles Thomas, who with Strait and Carole Simpson co-hosted the program, offered a perspective seldom communicated in U.S. broadcasting. Appearing on ABC News Nightline following "Black in White America," Thomas explained how the mortal fear he encountered among the underclass residents of Washington, D.C., was common to all blacks in the United States, regardless of their station in life. As he pointed out, this was not a dread of ghetto crime, but a subtle terror bred by years of physical mistreatment by white police authority.
It doesn't just happen to blacks who live in housing projects. It happens to me when I get in my car and I drive to the grocery store. I realize that if I'm stopped by a white police officer who happens to be a racist, who's having a bad day, I might not see the sunset that night. But in their case, they're dying every day. When they wake up in the morning, they might not see the sunset that day, and they realize that. But it's something that we live with every day, and we've lived with this for as long as we've been on this earth. You're taught this very young when you're black in America. This is part of the feeling.... It's real in black America.
While in actuality television reports honestly on the black lower classes only infrequently, fiction television practically never offers respectful portrayals of the black disadvantaged. Situation comedy seldom makes the effects of racism the center of its humor; detective dramas may spotlight African-American policemen and private eyes, but they are falsely emblematic of minority respect for the criminal justice system; and although made-for-TV movies may show black heroes triumphing over adversity, they send the message that the system works and that racial oppression can be overcome through the strength of individual personality.
Yet, there have been significant exceptions to this pattern of denial. The telefilm Heat Wave, a riveting docudrama on TNT in 1990, explained the Watts riot of 1964 by dramatizing its impact on a group of sympathetic black characters. Here were Southern black teenagers, recently migrated to Los Angeles, who found their lives threatened by white punks from "across the tracks." Here were citizens chronically abused by the police, and qualified men unable to get meaningful work because of their race. And here were bad blacks, young men only too willing to resort to violence and looting to vent their frustrations.
In a different vein, Oprah Winfrey's made-for-TV production of The Women of Brewster Place conscientiously probed the personal relationships and dreams of inner-city women. During its short run on ABC in 1990, viewers were able to visit with working-class blacks who cared for their children, but often anguished over their fate; African-American business owners who labored long hours to survive; people who were not middle class, but who were otherwise respectable people with goals, ideals, and ethical standards that shaped their existence.
Although it did not deal with the black lower class in the United States, singularly striking in its invention and authenticity was the British miniseries Shaka Zulu which was syndicated in the U.S. in the late 1980s. Its theme was the establishment of the Zulu nation in southern Africa; its perspective was black African. Through its fierce theatricality and awesome depiction of social customs, political life, and military battles in Africa in the early nineteenth century, the miniseries provided stunning insights into black ancestral history.
As well as through special productions, entertainment series on occasion treated the black condition with respect and sensitivity. As a sequel to The Women of Brewster Place, Oprah Winfrey's dramatic series Brewster Place concerned the residents of a poor, black Chicago neighborhood. Although quickly canceled, it offered a sympathetic portrait of working-class African-American existence. Despite its middle-class appearance, A Different World has used its comedic innocence to spotlight issues critical to black America. Especially after direction of the show was assumed by Debbie Allen beginning with its second season, this sitcom set in a black college environment became a vehicle for exploring social problems as disparate as date rape and the high percentage of blacks in the U.S. military.
On the surface Frank's Place was a CBS dramatic sitcom concerning a Boston professor, played by Tim Reid, who now owned and operated a neighborhood Creole restaurant in New Orleans. During its acclaimed network run in 1987-1988, the series drew much of its inspiration from local black folklore and customs. Like oral historians, Reid and Hugh Wilson, the white producer of the program, accumulated background items for the show by visiting churches, funeral homes, and other gathering places in the area, and by tape-recording interviews with black citizens of New Orleans. According to Wilson, the insights gleaned from these encounters helped to create characterizations, set designs, and story lines for the series.
With programs such as Frank's Place or Brewster Place, little negative criticism was heard—except as angry commentary about their low ratings and quick cancellation by the networks. But when TV approached African-American culture less understandingly, protest often became substantial. This was not the result of occasional racial indelicacies, or the exclusion of blacks from the medium. This controversy arose from the growing confidence of many white producers and black performers that America was ready for a broader portrait of the African American. After decades of dwindling national interest in civil rights issues, and an increasing permissiveness in U.S. popular culture, the time seemed right to reintroduce race humor. Similarly, it seemed possible to supplement the bourgeois image of African Americans with a lower-class cultural style that was crude, occasionally profane, markedly less respectable, but amazingly marketable.
This was not always the honest TV fare that disadvantaged minorities are capable of creating or inspiring. Perhaps the most authentic manifestations of inner-city culture has appeared in the amateur productions offered on access cable stations in many U.S. cities. Here gospel songfests and religious sermons, music and dance showcases, educational lectures, talk shows, and political forums constructively project African-American life as never seen on over-the-air television. While these productions attract minuscule ratings and are confined to specific cable systems that may not even be available in an entire city, they remain informative and among the most unpretentious cultural expressions offered by the medium.
When commercial television turned to the inner city for inspiration, however, controversy arose as racial caricatures were resurrected and the boundaries of what is racially allowable on TV were broadened. While most viewers understood the sitcom 227 as a positive series blending humor with a flattering portrait of working-class life—with especially strong family values communicated by Marla Gibbs and Hal Williams, plus a production corps that included more African-American writers than any other network show—by accentuating the man-crazy, vampish Sondra Clark played by Jackee Harry (later, just Jackee), the series revived the controversial stereotype of oversexed black women last realized by Flip Wilson's Geraldine. Although Amen! is a comedy series about a minister, his wife, father-in-law, and friends at the First Community Church of Philadelphia, to some this successful program—especially with Sherman Hemsley's portrayal of Deacon Ernest Frye as a slightly-restrained version of George Jefferson—belittled black religion, turning church workers into buffoons and the church into a laughingstock.
Clearly, the rising star of late-night variety programming in the 1990s has been comedian Arsenio Hall. With the young comedian as host, The Arsenio Hall Show offers a nightly party, pulsating with urban rhythms and a relentless vitality. In the process Hall has weakened the appeal of his vaunted ratings competitors such as Pat Sajak, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Rick Dees, and Ted Koppel. While Hall has accomplished this, he has helped to widen the perimeters of black expression on broadcast television. With frequent references to African-American culture—from allusions to the colorful inventiveness of black surnames and playing "the dozens" with guests like Will Smith and comedian George Wallace, to frequent references to the ghetto as his own creative wellspring—Hall has brought a strong racial identity to late-night TV.
But in the process, he has helped to legitimize inner-city experiences, offering the ghetto as a positive environment from which warm memories and inspiration flow. For those who believe the best thing about a ghetto is escaping it, this aspect of The Arsenio Hall Show seems self-defeating. Still, blacks constitute a large percentage of the audience for late-night programming, and they and millions of white viewers have embraced the dynamism of the program. Ironically, a stronger criticism of Hall's show has been the charge that the comedian does not employ enough African-American writers.
The most debated black comedy program, however, has been the satirical In Living Color, created by producer-writer-director-star Keenen Ivory Wayans and an ensemble of talented young black comedians such as Damon Wayans, Kim Wayans, Tommy Davidson, and David Alan Grier. This weekly review of satirical sketches has produced an array of controversial black characters. Homey the Clown is a mean-spirited clown dressed in his silly costume accentuated by a big red nose, painted face, and pointed hat. Bonita Butrell is the busybody gossip of the housing projects who seems to slander everyone she knows. "The Home Boys Shopping Network" is a recurring skit in which two young ghetto thieves humorously sell stolen merchandise from the back of a van. In another familiar skit, "Men on Film," where sexual innuendos are plentiful and obvious, an outrageous pair of gay film reviewers downgrade most motion pictures starring women, but they are ready to award "two snaps up" to movies such as Dick Tracy ("You know, I loved the title, but the movie just left me limp.").
Nothing better epitomizes the satirical irreverence permeating In Living Color than a skit in which Frenchy, a brash jericurled street hustler, crashed a black "Save the Dolphins" fund-raiser. As broadcast on January 27, 1991, the uninvited guest arrived at the tuxedoed party wearing a yellow-fringed, red leather suit and carrying a bucket of chicken wings and bottle of Cold Duck wine in a brown paper bag. At one point he compared credentials with a bourgeois black man who declared, "I received my B.A. from S.M.U., and my Ph.D. from M.I.T." Frenchy's response was mocking: "I'll have you know that I bought my B.L.T. from Mickey D's ... and once got VD in D.C."
Before the sketch ended, Frenchy had humiliated his unwitting host, insulted the invited guests, passed around his cheap booze, and had most of the party-goers gyrating in a funky dance line. Whether intended as a reminder to middle-class blacks of their humble origins, or offered as a contrast of "authentic" street values with "pretentious" bourgeois attitudes, the skit ridiculed minority social achievement, while lauding ostentation and ignorance. It also belittled the environmental movement. And by exploiting class tensions existing between blacks, the sketch belied whatever notions of racial solidarity viewers may have held.
For Benilde Little, a senior editor at Essence magazine, such comedy represented a social step forward. As she explained it to a British TV audience, "I think In Living Color is funny. I think it's insightful, and I think it's necessary. I think the time has come for us to be able to laugh at ourselves, and not be too concerned what white people think of us."
On the other hand, it was precisely such representation that prompted Franklyn Ajaye, a black comedian and writer with In Living Color, to quit the program at the end of 1990. Ajaye expressed his disillusionment with the glorification of the ghetto inherent in the series—and with the foul-mouthed, ignorant direction taken by modern comedy stars such as Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy. Ajaye explained, "I have no desire to be hip to the latest black slang and the stereotypical hip thing.... When [profanity and street slang] becomes a whole thing that defines [blacks], we're limiting ourselves—the enemy is us." He continued,
This whole street, urban rap thing needs to be pulled back some. The ghetto is being glorified, and there's nothing good about a ghetto except getting the hell out of one. Being black and speaking properly are not mutually exclusive. My father was an African, and he spoke beautifully at home. Nelson Mandela speaks beautifully. Should Mandela put his hat on backward and say, 'Yo homey, this is Nelson. Yo Winnie yo, this is def'?"
Ajaye recognizes the self-defeating ramifications of a culture that questions the legitimacy of social achievement and celebrates uncouth behavior. To him, much of contemporary black culture, especially that created for youthful consumption, was destructive. He complained, "I look at so many young black kids and I don't see the dignity. I don't see us carrying ourselves with dignity." Ajaye continued:
As recently as the seventies there was just as much anger as there is now. But we used the anger to motivate us to study and to try to expand our base of knowledge.... Sometimes I feel that Dr. King and Malcolm X died in vain. These were men who spoke and expressed themselves eloquently. They died hoping that we would be able to achieve things. And now I see our achievements dropping, not expanding. There is nihilism now, and I don't know where it comes from.... If young kids are allowed to believe that ignorance is all right, then we are going to be in worse trouble than anyone has yet imagined.
While comedy sketches on In Living Color frequently belittle the values of the black bourgeoisie, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air is a situation comedy that has class conflict built directly into its foundation. When a brash young rap musician from the streets of Philadelphia crossed the country to move in with his wealthy aunt and uncle in Southern California, a future rich in class-conscious comedy was assured. While the effete uncle— portrayed by James Avery, Philip Banks is an elected judge and obvious symbol of "the system"—might verbally fight back, reminding the Fresh Prince (Will Smith) that he was there when Malcolm X spoke all those poignant words, there is no way a glamorized hip-hop dude can lose to this accomplished, but dull and overweight paragon of Establishment success.
Above all, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air communicates a message dear to the hearts of many in white America: that it is the responsibility of the black middle class to clean up the ghetto—that bourgeois African Americans, not the taxpaying innocents of the greater white society, have the obligation to spend time and money and sweat preparing inner-city residents to succeed in the capitalist world. On the premiere broadcast in the fall of 1990, the embodiment of ill-mannered, undereducated street culture lectured his prosperous uncle. "I don't have the problem. You have the problem. I remind you of where you came from and what you used to be. Now I don't know, but somewhere between Princeton or the office you got soft, you forgot who you are and where you came from." Another African American of accomplishment put it his place.
For all its racial tension, the series is more theatrical pretense than social vilification. This fresh Fresh Prince is no menacing rap artist. Before coming to the NBC series he was essentially a suburban rapper whose one hit record, "Parents Just Don't Understand," was a teenage boy's protest against a dominating mother who would not allow her son to select his own shirts, slacks, and gym shoes when buying back-to-school clothes at the shopping mall. Moreover, the writers of the series are white, and its creators are two white Harvard-educated producers-writers.
Nevertheless, Smith and executive producer Quincy Jones have defended their show. Smith, an intelligent young man who once was admitted to study engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told an interviewer that the show would enlighten white viewers who still believed "what black means is chicken, watermelon, and a big radio." Jones, too, argued that the series possessed an educational potential. "It initiates the hip-hop sensibility into the mainstream in a clash," he told a questioner. "It's a very powerful dramatic vehicle for comedy to have this type of clashes of cultures—from a ghetto kid in a very affluent black family—inside the same family." And Jones promised, "Nobody's going to turn the rapper around, so you know you've got conflict right there. And this affluent society, they have their mores that are almost, in some cases from the surface, that appear to be white. But that's just a duality that most of the families like that go through."
Unappreciative of the program's potential for popular enlightenment, Don Bogle blasted The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, calling it "an old formula—a familiar contrast between high and low, loose and uptight—that's been updated to appeal to a new audience. It's a mix of 'The Beverly Hillbillies' and 'Diff'rent Strokes.' .. . The updating makes it a contrast between the bourgeois Negro and the street niggs." More than a refurbished formula, however, Bogle detected in the central character a return to familiar minstrel-show elements. The Fresh Prince, he noted, "is turned into a jivey, clownish figure out to dissemble the home of his aunt and uncle. The Fresh Prince cannot simply walk into a room, he has to bop." Bogle wrote:
he bodaciously enters the room outlandishly dressed in old-style coon fashion; he wears a tuxedo jacket over a colorful striped T-shirt with the cummerbund around his chest, sneakers, and wearing his cap (which he doesn't take off when inside the house). Throughout, the hip-hop clothes, language, and culture—which could be a real fashion/cultural statement—are mainly used to make him look silly and cartoonish.
Missing, too, in the Fresh Prince's character is respect for the black family. The rapper is rude to his elders and ungrateful to his relatives who have allowed him into their home. As the product of his mother's parenting, he is no credit to her love or concern for his well-being. According to Don Bogle, "Hollywood has never understood that there are many people from the inner city who can speak without slang (or who use it judiciously), who have manners and are perceptive enough to know when to talk loud and bad and when to sit back, listen, and take in the scene before making any moves."
The assault upon the black middle class and its values seems relentless in modern TV humor. But not all TV comedy has had such a focus. Those series modeled after The Cosby Show—productions such as Family Matters and A Different World—have avoided such an aggressive approach. Yet, jokes made at the expense of successful black people have their appeal. In the 1990-1991 season, for example, In Living Color was the third-highest-rated Fox network offering, and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air was ranked among the top 40 programs.
The most strident iconoclasm, however, has occurred on pay-cable channels such as Home Box Office and Showtime, where stand-up comedy acts by Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Charlie Barnett, Whoopi Goldberg, and others have explored new areas of expression on television. In these presentations profanity, scatology, misogyny, and sexual frankness liberally punctuate the personalized, well-received comedy routines. There is rough talk here that verbally explores all areas of sexual activity, employs every four-letter word, and shocks the audience with epithets usually heard in juvenile locker rooms or in the streets.
Certainly, black stars have not been alone in popularizing this standard of comedy. Many white TV comedians have embraced vulgar humor. Profanity is abundant in the routines of many stand-up performers on cable, and stars such as Sam Kinnison and Andrew Dice Clay reached the top of their profession by delivering jokes that emphasized hate, explicit sex, woman-bashing, and racial denigration—all punctuated by a constant stream of invectives and expletives.
Most of this bawdy humor has been accepted enthusiastically by viewers. Although Clay's career crashed once opposition from critics and racial and women's groups made him a liability for programmers, Kinnison endures, and Murphy and Pryor have been especially successful in entertaining the nation. And they all have influenced other performers.
By 1990 even The Cosby Show shed some of its stately demeanor. By adding Claire's teenage cousin Pam—who came to the Huxtable household from her home in the infamous Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn—the program widened its focus to include situations confronted by African Americans in the inner city. Accordingly, one show in early 1991 involved Pam in matters of high school sex and the use of condoms.
While broadcast and cable humor has generated considerable debate, the most intense controversy over cultural standards has occurred in popular music where rap, as a product of urban underclass youth, has mounted a forceful assault on middle-class norms. Television has played a major role in this development, weaving rap productions into the music video programs that have saturated the medium, especially on cable outlets such as BET, MTV, and VH-1. The leading program on MTV by 1990 was Yo! MTV Raps, a hip-hop showcase replete with the full range of rap's verbal transgressions—from grammatical inexactitude and sexual boasting to crude sexist ideas—plus the stifling of melodic song by the repetitive rhythm and unsophisticated chant that are hallmarks of the musical phenomenon.
Rap emerged from the ghetto. Its frequent themes of immediate gratification and physical violence seem drawn from the stark realities of "the streets." In lyrics that are sexually explicit, hostile to authority, and often brutally disrespectful of women, rap has defied bourgeois standards. But it must not be discounted as a cheap thrill or an exploitive fad. Its practitioners are indignant and demand understanding. The more authentic rappers are part of a new generation of angry young men, communicating the rage and the confusion of minority communities wracked by poverty, drugs, crime, gangs, fear, indiscipline, and the hopeless feeling of being abandoned by the greater society.
In recordings such as "Fuck the Police " and "Gangsta Gangsta," N.W.A. (Niggers with Attitudes) rapped about police brutality in the ghetto and the need for the brutalized to respond to this force. Themes in the music of Public Enemy—a group tinged with accusations of anti-Semitism, but still considered the most influential group with black teenagers—include beating women and achieving power through violence. The infamous 2 Live Crew has used frank sexual description, in particular a preference for anal intercourse, to proclaim its distinctiveness.
Most of these egregious pieces never appeared on TV as music videos. Nonetheless, they are on commercial albums, and they are marketed through videos of other songs appearing on those disks. For white writer Pete Hamill, rap music is "puerile doggerel," symptomatic of the growing distance between the black underclass and the genuine cultural accomplishments of gifted black creators such as James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Wynton Marsalis. But black critic Harry Allen has applauded the openness of rap. "When Ice-T releases a record called 'Let's Get Buck Naked and Fuck,' when 2 Live Crew on a cut called 'S & M' calls to women to bring their 'd--k-sucking friends,' when Ultramagnetic M.C.'s Kool Keith on 'Give the Drummer Some' talks about smacking up his bitch in the manner of a pimp, sisters understandably scream.. . . Hip-hop is sexist. It is also frank."
It is also familiar. On ABC News Nightline on November 24, 1989, rapper Ice-T explained that his music was popular because its words and themes reflected the world of the greatest fans. When I call one of my home boys a nigger, I don't look at it as a dis [disrespect], or anything like that. You know, I mean the kids that I rap to in my music-I could speak for myself—they heard all these words by the time they're five years old, and it's nothing new to 'em, and stuff. When their parents look at 'em and say, "Oh, you're hearing something vile and offensive," they're lookin' at moms like, "Yeah, right, you know. I heard you say that yesterday." So, I don't think we're really givin' 'em anything that they haven't already heard. That's why they like the music, 'cause we're talkin' the language they talk.
This is not to say that all rap is so socially confrontational. A number of performers have taken it into the mainstream of pop music. Through the efforts of rappers such as Run-D.M.C., The Fat Boys, and M.C. Hammer, the rhythmic chant has been left intact—and in the case of M. C. Hammer, it has been supplemented with stunning dance routines—but the lyrics have been purged of profanity and sexual explicitness. Hammer has even become a TV pitchman, making elaborate rap commercials for products as diverse as Diet Pepsi and British Knights gym shoes. And with the premier of Hammerman in September 1991, he became the animated star of his own Saturday-morning cartoon show.
But rap entertainers have also emerged as provocative political spokesmen, turning their music into the most sustained critique of black-white relations since the 1960s. Increasingly, African-American rappers have employed their recordings and videos to proclaim the dissatisfaction of the inner city- with the status quo, to assault white complacency, and to revitalize feelings of pride and self-worth among the urban poor. In "My Philosophy," Boogie Down Productions lashed out at distorted stereotypes of inner-city blacks, recognizing them as injurious to racial self-esteem. Several leading rap artists combined as Stop the Violence Movement to produce "Self Destruction," a powerful appeal to black youth to unite and end black-on-black violence. And Intelligent Hoodlum in "Arrest the President" blamed government and the president of the United States for failing to solve the staggering problems of the inner city.
In preaching esteem, many performers have brought historical figures into their videos, drawing from the African-American experience to illustrate continuity in the struggle against oppression. "Self Destruction" begins with the voice of Malcolm X speaking of America's serious problems. In "Black and Proud," Intelligent Hoodlum hailed the accomplishments of racial leaders from Marcus Garvey to Nelson Mandela; and in "Heed the Word of the Brother," X Clan employed images of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, and others to explain the linkage of African-American history with the continuing struggle against oppression. In this way rap has become not only a supplement to formal education, but an insistent response to the abandonment of disadvantaged blacks by much of the American political system.
Female rap artist Queen Latifah has argued that the mixing of pop music and historic references is constructive, since the resultant videos might prompt youngsters "to find out about who these people are and what they meant to black people in the United States." Similarly, music video director Charles Stone III endorsed the educational dimensions of such productions. "These faces of history ... are not shown on mainstream television and aren't discussed in school. And through rap and through rap videos, we are able to see these faces. It's re-schooling African-American children."
While television generally has avoided the most defiant rap music, themes of power through sexual gratification and the domination of women are familiar in the videos of groups such as 2 Live Crew ("Me So Horny"), Tone Loc ("Wild Thing"), and Digital Underground ("The Humpty Dance"). In October 1990, Phil Donahue devoted his talk show to consideration of the obscenity charges filed in Florida against 2 Live Crew and the owner of a record store who sold the group's controversial record album, As Nasty As They Wanna Be. On Donahue the group's live performance of the sexually explicit "Head Down, Ass Up" was filled with words bleeped out for the home audience.
Rap music and black performers are not alone in offending traditional social-sexual standards. Sultry, sexy, suggestive images pervade most rock-and-roll music videos. Although this is programming aimed primarily at teenagers and children—with sponsors that include bubble gum, candy, and soft drink companies—scantily clad women and undulating torsos abound on MTV and other music outlets. Misogynous themes have long propelled the career of The Rolling Stones from "Under My Thumb" and "Some Girls" to more recent releases. From writhing strippers in "Girls, Girls, Girls" by Motley Crue and bikini-clad nymphettes running throughout most of David Lee Roth's videos, to the eroticism prevalent in most of Madonna's productions, sexual titillation permeates the pop music of American youth. And one of the most popular white rock groups, Guns N' Roses, has gone beyond sex and profanity, defying decades of advances in civil liberties to declare in song that "niggers" and "faggots" and "foreigners" are threats to society.
But when angry young black men perform this way, it is predictable that a hostile reaction will occur. In its milder form it is recognizable as appeals for recording artists to exercise reason and responsibility; in its most virulent manifestations it is manifest as police power employed to censor or otherwise suppress performance. It is no wonder that several rap groups have created videos that address issues of free speech and other constitutional liberties. Among these productions are "Banned in the U.S.A." by 2 Live Crew and "Fight the Power" by Public Enemy. The appearance of iconoclastic expression in African American comedy and music has rekindled the chronic debate concerning the responsibilities of minority art in a racist society.
To some, such bold representation of blacks—even when written, directed, and produced by African Americans—is too reminiscent of the classic racist images created by white Americans. As Dr. Alvin Poussaint, Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard University, said when denouncing the use of the word "nigger" in contemporary pop music, "It may be reflecting racism and bigotry in the society, but at the same time it's promoting it.. . . And it is hateful.... It's damaging to people. It's damaging to black children. It's teaching white children that the word is legitimate to use."" But in a commercial culture that proclaims its dedication to free speech, it is difficult to repress language and physical expression, even if the final product is insulting, distorted, or infuriating. Were it otherwise, depictions offensive to African Americans would never have appeared on television for so many years.
The essence of the artistic problem involves social timing: at what point is there enough black representation on television so that negative black characterization does not cast aspersions on the entire race? The traditional argument against negative images of African Americans has been that the narrowness of black video roles turned comedic misrepresentation into racial ridicule and satire into slur. Logically, fuller and more honest depictions should neutralize any misconceptions.
According to this line of argument, with so many African-American men and women appearing on TV by the late 1980s, distorted images once termed racist must now be considered as inoffensive artistic license. If exaggerated characters like Herman Munster or Archie Bunker did not denigrate Caucasian manhood, then the old hallmarks of anti-black derision—sexual preoccupation, dim-wittedness, profanity, broken grammar, unemployment, criminality—were counterbalanced in a medium where virile Philip Michael Thomas captured crooks and women's hearts, where Bernard Shaw had become the news anchorman for the world, and where Oprah Winfrey hosted the premier talk-show in the nation. If in 1988 George Bush could win the presidency of the United States by using a convicted black rapist-murderer, Willie Horton, to symbolize the menace of lenient law enforcement, surely minstrel-show characterization in a situation comedy could not be considered socially unacceptable. Conversely, if African Americans were so well assimilated into middle class society that many could run—often successfully—for every elected office from city mayor to president of the United States, then tough black young men talking dirty on TV could not compromise the black struggle toward political empowerment.
But it is not that easy. There are drawbacks, the most overwhelming of which is the lingering problem of race. Where TV has handled the white ethnic differences by ignoring them, the medium has never found a way to handle African-American differentness with similar objectivity. On TV white people are just people. There may be young-old, rich-poor, intelligent-ignorant dichotomies in their characterization, but since the late 1950s there has been little effort to offer portrayals of French Americans, Greek Americans, Jewish Americans, Italian Americans, Polish Americans, Irish Americans, and the like.
The actor of African ancestry, however, is not just a person on TV, he or she is "the black person," recognized almost reflexively as standing out. Writers usually have this character do or say "something black" to demonstrate that he or she is as aware of differentness as are the white viewers at home. In a nation hostile for so long to its racial minorities, this unsolicited distinction instantly places the African-American performer, and by extension his or her race, in a position of vulnerability.
Thus, performance that divides the black community and confounds the white audience—even if created by black artists—may be detrimental to continued racial progress. If there has been improvement in the black condition over the past two decades, it is due in great part to the solidarity among African Americans who struggled in common for minority rights. While the increased utilization of black talent on television should be applauded, the nature of much of that representation may be counterproductive.
The battle for civil rights has not been won, the fight for economic and social opportunity is ongoing. If television played a critical propagandistic role for the movement during the 1960s, surely it continues to affect public understanding of racial injustice. But are black representations on TV today delivering the same constructive message as those of three decades ago? More importantly, if distorted racial portrayals were attacked for decades as perversions that eroded African-American self-esteem and prejudiced white attitudes toward blacks, is the minority imagery on contemporary television furthering or corrupting the struggle?
It is definite that broadcasting alone could never have resolved the racial dilemma confronting U.S. television. The key to improvement must lie in the emerging narrowcasting present and future. Only by offering so much choice can the minority audience—any minority audience—receive the respect it deserves. When video success is based upon attracting that black 12 percent of the population, and when sponsors want minority customers badly enough to respect them, only then will derogatory imagery diminish and credible representation flourish.
And there is hope. At the 1991 convention of the National Cable Television Association, industry leaders heard predictions of a virtual explosion in cable capability which by the year 2000 could produce as many as five hundred channels. Relating the optimism of John Malone, president of the major cable operator, Tele-Communications, Inc., Broadcasting magazine reported that technological developments will revolutionize cable by the turn of the century. "Systems could deliver 200-500 high quality signals.... Such a system could provide fifty to one hundred channels of PPV [pay-per-view] ... giving viewers record and time shift options. Niche channels will proliferate.... There will be an enormous profusion of education channels ... as well as twenty to thirty shopping channels, reflecting the shopping mall concept."
In this proliferation of video offerings, the future for minorities in general, and for African Americans in particular, seems encouraging. When one hundred, two hundred, or five hundred stations compete for the American viewer, the black audience will become a powerful force. Surely in such a universe, white programmers will finally comprehend that minorities are to be prized. Surely, too, black entrepreneurs will understand that the time is propitious for investment in the burgeoning TV future: that this is the chance to enter the business, to gain power, to make money, and to act as gatekeepers correcting—as white television officials presently do for their own minority interests—erroneous impressions before they are propagated, while initiating projects that tell the authentic story of black America.
Television with hundreds of channels is also an industry in great need of programming. Here is the chance for a new generation of African-American creators to emerge. A quantum leap in opportunity should render racism less debilitating. Producers, directors, writers, actors, editors, all will be needed in abundance. There will be a need, too, for technicians: men and women who can handle all aspects of these complex video operations.
If the original promise of TV was impractical under the original organization of the industry, it is more realizable today than ever—and more so tomorrow than today. The revolution sweeping the networks toward extinction can catapult racial minorities to new levels of power. Hopefully, in a nation with hundreds of video outlets there will finally be consistent, plentiful, honest representation of African Americans that will be worthy of the egalitarian ideals that continue to guide, but not really define, American civilization.