Owning our Representations; or Why Black People See So Little Reflected Back in Television

I recently went to see Dr. Michael Eric Dyson at Politics and Prose bookstore here in DC. He was selling his new book, Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind? The presentation consisted of Dr. Dyson running down, in hip-hop parlance, reverend runs, and academic discourse, myriad reasons for why he felt that Bill Cosby’s statements at the 50th anniversary celebration of the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision were problematic and (as presented) baseless.

I was deeply moved seeing Dr. Dyson (and not just because I’m a huge fanboy who devours his books like the latest superhero comic book) because, as always, he makes pains to be direct, clear and honest without maligning his subject. He is acutely aware of who Bill Cosby is, how important a figure he remains to a generation, and as such, he gives Bill Cosby far more importance than perhaps any one person deserves.

I haven’t read the book yet, but it is interesting to contemplate how much effect Cosby’s words had in the first place. I’m inclined to think not much, but I think that, ironically, his views aren’t unique so in writing the book, Dr. Dyson brings to light a problem that besets black middle class–a tendency to see the black poor in a negative, degrading light.

What struck me while listening to Dr. Dyson recount the specifics of Mr. Cosby’s assault on poor blacks was that it sounded like someone who only sees black people through the media, TV in particular. It is common for people like myself to say that as black people move up the socio-economic ladder, they become less “connected” or “interested” in the rest of us.

And that is not really fair.

But I do think that if you look at the dearth of representations of blackness (in any forms) in mainstream media coupled with the enormous power of a few blacks, there does seem to be an insistence on not really calling too much attention to blackness in any forms that may threaten their class position. It is fine for Oprah to make TV films based on black literature that is well-respected by the (mostly) white academy and (largely) unknown to the general public. It is fine for Spike Lee to represent blackness in ways that are considered problematic. It is fine for Denzel and Will to be huge bankable stars by downplaying (or in the case of Will, playing off aspects of) their blackness. It is fine for Lil’ Kim to be demonized, eroticized, and a media darling. Because these things do not challenge or threaten their class positions.

But none of these black people are taking control of other images of blackness. They understand how to market themselves, but they are not so much interested, it seems, in putting out a multitude of black images for public consumption. And the reasons for this are clear, but it seems to me then that they shouldn’t get the option of lamenting the state of poor Black America when they are not offering up strategies for change.

Lil Shenehneh might not be a “hoe” if she could see other images of black femininity on BET, which most black people watch indiscriminately. Lil Muhammad might not shoot up a corner store, if he could see Common videos as regularly as he sees 50 Cent videos.

Again, the issue of representation lies not just in a dearth of blackness in mainstream media, but in the lack of a multitude of images. We all flock to BET and the UPN comedies because we have such an inate and powerful desire to see ourselves on TV. If all young people see are a certain type of blackness represented, they might not think they can do or be much more. It’s the same socializing factor that tells white folks who’ve never met a black person that all black people are like what is on TV.

Right now on television there are significant numbers of black people represented, but more times than not it’s in secondary roles. In the leading roles, it is always and only about upwardly mobile black folks who downplay any signifiers of black people that are deemed “too black” or “lowerclass”.

Note the class element. On UPN, the class element overdetermines who they market the show to and how the characters are rendered. The Boris Kodjoe/Nicole Ari Parker show, Second Time Around, is mainstream because it features upper-middle class blacks who don’t display any signifiers of “blackness” that are typically off-putting to white people. What this means is that the show has mass appeal because it’s not considered “just” a black show. People say this because, apparently, “black” life isn’t interesting to non-blacks. This is the same logic that people apply to The Cosby Show; the Huxtables were just like everyone else (read: white).

UPN’s other show, Kevin Hill (just cancelled, the morons!), is what progressives would probably hail as great programming. Kevin Hill’s world is intergrated. He is a black man with an latino best friend working in a all-female law firm that is racially diverse. Like Second Time Around, Kevin’s race is never really mentioned (and Kevin is pretty “bougie”) but some of the signifiers (namely black colloquialisms) are still evident. More importantly, Kevin Hill started the season offering very nice critiques of patriarchy. Kevin’s initial problems centered around how he would redefine his masculinity given the new baby in his life and having to work with women. The drama came from watching him come to grips with the reality that he was still desirable, if not more desirable, as a less patriarchal man. The importance of a major network show with a black male lead who deals with these types of issues can not be stressed enough.

However, due to low ratings, UPN foolishly cancelled Kevin Hill. The show had the kind of premise, writing, and cast that would only have grown over the years. It’s cancellation either signals to us that progressive people don’t watch TV, don’t exist, or didn’t like Kevin Hill. Nonetheless, it remains one of the best shows to have been developed and put on the air in the last 10 years.

The other networks fair much worse. The WB and Fox in particular built their networks around black-oriented (and “so-called” lower class white) programming and then abandoned them once they could reach “a broader audience”. Of the three major black roles on the WB slate, Edwin Hodge’s Marcus on the brilliant Jack & Bobby, is the most prominent. The others are Wesley Jonathan on the suprisingly decent What I Like About You and Dorian Gregory on Charmed. Hodge’s Marcus is problematic because he is essentially characterless. He’s an athlete and competitive with Jack (Matt Long), but other than that, he has no discernible identity. The show is remarkably progressive in its politics, shown to nice effect in the character of Grace McCallister (a brilliant performance by Christine Lahti). In fact, the show makes pains to paint both Democratic and Republican ideologies as honestly and neutrally as possible. No one is safe from critique.

It is telling then, that the producers have yet to figure out what to do with Marcus. He is best friend material right now and that is understandable as the main stories are quite compelling. But as a viewer, it is sad that the show doesn’t hint at who he is by giving him a family, a past, history, or anything to tide us over until he (hopefully) becomes more integral to the show.

Gregory’s cop on Charmed has always been an afterthought. He is apparently married, but who he is (outside of being a cop and loyal) has never been mentioned in the six- or seven-year run of the show. This is depressing.

Jonathan’s Gary on What I Like About You occupies much of the same space as Marcus; he’s Holly’s (Amanda Bynes) best friend. He has no history, no family and basically is the quasi-dumb, buffooning friend. Jonathan’s portrayal is sharp, he never plays Gary shuckin’ and jivin’, even if that’s the intent of the script.

Bernie Mac and Damon Wayans’ shows are interesting in that they attempt to fill the void left by The Cosby Show and both do it in different ways; ways that completely contribute to how they are perceived. Wayans’ show suffers from bad casting, bad writing, and a softening of Wayans’ personality to a point that is neither interesting nor believable. However, it’s the biggest black show on TV precisely because, like The Cosby Show, the fact that all the characters are black is never really considered. They are fully assimilated into middle class life. Bernie Mac’s show is stellar because his caustic, yet tender approach to comedy makes him a very believable father in the design of the show. The humor is “black”, and much of the language consists of black colloquialisms and thus, despite it’s widespread critical acclaim, it is promoted as a primarily a black show. This is similar to what happened with the critically acclaimed Martin show. Because both shows are rooted in black culture and humor it is assumed it has no value to the larger audience, even if it is critically acclaimed.

NBC’s Scrubs functions very much like Kevin Hill in that the world is integrated but it’s not an “issue”. In fact, much of the humor is found in the best friend relationship between Zach Braff’s JD and Donald Faison’s Turk. The show’s humor walks a fine line between making fun of cultural and sexual differences (in particular the berating of JD’s masculinity by John C. McGinley’s Dr. Cox is deftly handled as more as symptom of Dr. Cox’ own insecurities and struggles with the limitations of patriarchal thinking). Turk represents an interesting contradiction; the show is aware of the best-friend-no-history phenomenon and plays with just who Turk might be. His relationship with latina Carla is also key because there is a nice subversion of gender roles going on there.

But hands down, the best show featuring black characters is UPN’s Girlfriends. This comedy strikes the balance that great comedies like Friends, Sex and the City and The Cosby Show did so well–comedy and drama. Since UPN gave the show time to develop, what happened is that the producers had the chance to deepen every character. The four women, Joan (the neurotic one), Lynn (the biracial flake), Toni (the “bougie” one) and Mya (the “ghetto” one) began the series as archetypes, but the show did a brilliant job of grafting dimension onto each woman’s personality, giving each woman insecurities, faults, and histories. Toni is a fascinating portrait in the hazards of overvaluing money, status, and material possessions. Her struggle with how self-destructive she can be over the show’s life is definitely the most powerful and fully realized aspect of the show. Same can be said for Golden Brooks in the role of Mya. Her zest for life, her desire to change her lot in life without denouncing where she is from is a wonderful portrait of black self-determination.

The comedy is sharp and hard-hitting, but the show achieves true artistic credibility when the characters are in pain–when the jokes stop and life is really lived. Mya cheated on Darnell, when Joan dropped Toni as her best friend, when Toni realized she was loosing Todd and Lynn’s quest for her self. These moments resonated because they were realistic and the characters felt the emotion.

My reason for breakin’ all this down is to really get at the reality that for a large portion of America, TV is all they have that lets them know what black people are like. And since people aren’t watching Kevin Hill, Girlfriends, or even Jack & Bobby, frequently all that is left are the comedies that feature thin caricatures and stereotypes passing for archetypes.

I wonder then if men and women like Bill Cosby have spent so much time away from the multitudes of blackness that they’ve (either passively or actively) bought into a limited view of blackness from TV and media. Can it be that Bill Cosby’s only interaction with black people different from him is when he turns on the TV, watches Charmed and the news? This might sound comical, but the root of that question is very real to me.

Is it not time for blacks who move up the socio-economic ladder to stay connected to the multitudes of blackness that supported them as they climbed that ladder in the first place. One of the issues raised by Dr. Dyson was the question of whether or not we should repudiate this idea that black people in the upper echelons of society “owe” or “are responsible” to the rest of us. I think the tension between saying “no” and “maybe” is the hardest place to be.

The politics of communalism would say that it’s not about other people being your first and last responsibility, but that they be a part of your decision making process in day-to-day life. Bill Cosby may not have said what he said if he wrote checks to foundations and also spent time with the people that money is supposed to help. He might have said something entirely different if he spent time with black men and women who work two and three jobs and do their damnedest to raise good, conscientious children. He might have said what he said in a more well-rounded way (or put it into some kind of context) if he had any connection to the realities of the hard-working nature of poor black people (and non-black people as well).

Interestingly, the TV shows I referenced all feature middle class or upper middle class blacks and the reality of the dearth of a multitude of images of the black poor is also most certainly a factor. Without dramatic portrayals of the myriad ways black poor life really is (or can be), one is left to MTV, BET and the news to paint a picture of that life.

More times than not, this is not a well-rounded portrait.

Men and women like Bill Cosby owe it to themselves to develop more shows and images of blackness that counter images that are harmful to society (and clearly, harmful to themselves). Will and Jada have their new show, All of Us, but it is based on their very upper middle class life. This may or may not be relatable to most blacks.

(A separate issue for another day might revolve around the affect that all these “bougie” portrayals have on blacks who are not in the class represented. Is it creating a generation of black people who aspire to be deracinated? Are they getting a false sense, a narrow sense, of what blackness is?)

Too frequently black actors become preoccupied with taking roles that are “written” for whites. This is problematic for a number of reasons, the least of which is the rather silly assumption that whiteness is the “absense of race”. This is categorically false. It is more useful for us as black people to continue to create our own images. We can have a lawyer show, an action movie, etc. What would that look like? It needn’t be just inserting a black actor into a part. There are cultural differences between black people and white people and so it follows that the kind of lawyers we could be, the kind of action stars we could be might be a little different.

The bottom line is that our representations need to be wrested back from the corporate structure that makes money off of the demonization of black poverty and the images of blacks who are middle class and overvaluing money, status and celebrate rampant consumerism.

There is more to blackness than these two (seemingly) contrasting ideals.

Originally written on May 25, 2005

About tlewisisdope

I write. I live in DC.
This entry was posted in Television. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Owning our Representations; or Why Black People See So Little Reflected Back in Television

  1. class of fitness says:

    All i am going to say, is ‘UPN’ had the better black tv shows.

  2. tigger500 says:

    I think you are probably right.

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