This term is a controversial one for sure. After reading the above definition, you may have experienced some very strong feelings well up inside. It is true, there is a lot to be said about gentrification, but my goal is not to stir up feelings concerning what to do about housing, development, or the urban poor. Today, I want to talk about television.
Since the beginning of television programming, Americans have seen billions of images through their home screens. Actors and actresses from all walks of life have been given the opportunity to entertain massive audiences, telling unforgettable stories and moving their viewers. There is certainly a lot to say about television, and how influential everyday people can be when they take to the screen. But what if I told you that not everyone has had their fair share of relating the complex and original stories of people and experiences to their audience? What if I told you that instead of giving a rounded, human side to personal stories, some actors are only asked and offered to play roles that fit one into one box, a box that is greatly hindering a whole country’s view about what it means to be that kind of person?
Sadly, this is the conundrum we find with Black people and television. Normally, when using the term gentrification, we are discussing “The process of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste. (Merriam Dictionary)” This concept has been the basis for many political and social debates, sparking controversy around urban development and renewal, and how cities should approach abandoned houses and overgrown lots, and even where new businesses should be built. There are different arguments for both the pros and cons of gentrification, but I am not here to side with either. Instead, I would like to propose a new idea, one that I believe is relevant to a specific pattern we’ve witnessed in television over the past few decades. This pattern, or phenomenon, rather, deals specifically with black television shows, or tv with a majority black cast. I would like to call it: The Gentrification of Black Television. This is a concept that I think can be defined by a mixture of the two earlier given definitions. In many ways, black people and culture on television has conformed to fit a middle-class taste – one that continues to project stereotyped, non-dimensional characters and situations that often fulfill viewer’s preconceived notions. Gentrification in its regular sense refers to the improvement of a house or area. Black gentrification on television deals with attitudes and desires – how viewers wish to see a particular group of people on television. Let me say this before going farther into the discussion, I do not think and will not imply that middle-class and black-gentrifying attitudes go hand in hand. What I do want to discuss is how we – meaning all Americans, from all ethnicities, even black – wish to see black Americans on television, no matter our economic standing. And it seems to me that Americans don’t expect much from black actors.
Let’s look at the kinds of roles we often see played by black actors.
Exhibit 1: The Thug.
You’ve seen it, I’ve seen it, we’ve all seen a television or movie role where that one black character causes such a nuisance, often projecting fear and a level of discomfort on the other characters. Marlon Riggs, describes this role perfectly, saying, "Black folks have played the role of absorbing and reflecting all that is wrong with America. There is this sense that we can be used because we're so elastic, so empty in our identity that society can project upon us its fantasies and phobias." – Marlon Riggs
This is such an issue that we as a country face today. When we continue to present a single minority group as a menace, violent and drug-addicted, it is no wonder we feel apprehensive when coming in contact with the boogeymen shown on our television screens. Our viewpoints are formed by what we meditate on through entertainment, and without even realizing it we continue to feed into this gentrification of black life. It is not that black people can never play “undesired” or “gritty” roles, but must this be such a common occurrence?
Exhibit 2: Black BFF/Magical Negro
In an article written for ThoughtCo, Nadra Kareem Nittle addressed 5 common black stereotypes on television. The first (and funniest in my opinion) was the “Magical Negro.” This was a character who will “make appearances solely to help white characters out of jams, seemingly unconcerned about their own lives.” Nittle also pointed out that this Magical Negro was only concerned with the life of his/her white (or other) counterpart, as if the black character had no desires or aspirations of their own and just weren’t as valuable. Another common stereotype Nittle examined was that of the “Black Best Friend.” This character Nittle identified to be a woman in most cases, who had spunk, sass, and the right amount of practical wisdom to guide her protagonist through any conflict.
Between thugs, convenient best friends, and magical fixer-upper black characters, you would think that American blacks were either slaves or one of the above. But this is just not true. We must stop feeding into and meditating on this message about Black people. We must shift our gentrified taste of how we will see blacks on television.
Do we only want to see black thugs and criminals? Do we only want to see that black best friend? Are we truly ok with the magical negro, whose loyalty we can depend on for a motivational boost of confidence here and there? Is that all black people are good for?
Then vs. Now?
Another factor that proves this gentrifying pattern is in the sudden boom and following decline in television shows featuring a majority black cast. In the 1980’s and 90’s, there were over 30 different black network television shows for Americans to tune into every night. From the Fresh Prince of Bel Aire to the Cosby Show, black characters had the chance to be more than just supporting roles, best friend side-kicks and magical negroes. Now, the protagonists and guest stars were all represented by black actors and actresses, something majority white shows had been experiencing for decades. This is not to say that we should have all black television and all white television shows. I am not suggesting a segregated cable experience, just one that can do justice for all people, regardless of their ethnicity. Denise, Vanessa, and Rudy in the Cosby Show could be a typical all-American teenagers – just like Jennifer and Mallory Keaton in Family Ties.
Gentrification of black television is the deliberate dumbing down of the complex lives and experiences of black Americans. It is the same old story, the version of black personalities that we have come to expect and are comfortable with. All black people are not thugs, and we do enjoy more out of life than just giving good advice.
Is TV Even a Good Idea?
I have been talking for some time about the effects that watching characters on tv can have on our attitudes. But should we even care about our entertainment that much? I think so, because there is so much power in what we experience on tv, and that subconsciously effects our views about the world around us. Not everyone has the same opinion on the matter. Todd Gitlin, professor of sociology and director of the mass communications program at the University of California at Berkeley commented on the topic, "People are looking to a shoddy institution geared to making money to lead us to the promised land, Television is a poor place to look for guidance. It's the dependence on television that makes me queasy and should make others queasy."
This observation is true on all accounts. We should be wary of letting our glowing boxes determine how we will interpret the world. The truth is, however, that a good chunk of our free time is spent watching television, with the average American watching 5 hrs and 4minutes per day last year, according to the New York Times. That’s the equivalent of 34 hrs and 28 mins per week! Insane, I know. This is not a matter of you cutting down on those Netflix binges, but what you’ve taken in (and will take in) during that time. It is surprising to me that a professor of mass communications would feel this way. It seems that of all people, a professional in mass communications would be extremely sensitive to our relationship with television, especially given the stats to prove our nation’s (albeit unhealthy) obsession. Encyclopedia.org says that television has the power to “influence viewers' attitudes and beliefs about themselves, as well as about people from other social, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.” If one glowing box can do this to our society, it is important to evaluate what messages are being projected.
Too Many Blacks?
While some may agree with my desire to present black people on tv more often and in broader and more unique ways, others, like Sir Ludovic find this notion to be unfair. He said in an interview some years ago,
"I'd like to take issue with Will (referring to Will Wyatt, former BBC executive) when he says it was his aim to bring more blacks to the screen, in which it seems he has more than succeeded. I am all in favour of black advancement, but there's now hardly a TV pub, police station, soap, vox pop or ad without rather more than its fair share of black participation." Sir Ludovic’s comments are nothing short of controversial. He sees black “participation” as unfair and out of balance in comparison to other ethnicities. Just having a black person on television shows is not the aim. It is the type of black person that is being portrayed that is the issue, not the fact they are physically present on a show. In a way, Ludovic has a point. Blacks are participating in television all over, but at what cost? How many times can a black woman be the side-kick, or Morgan Freeman play God? Black people are on television, but I don’t think they can really participate to the fullest.
We Can Do Better
Looking back at the good old days, when many different networks played shows like Moesha, Sister Sister, Living Single and a Different World, it makes me appreciate all the progress we started to make. We are nowhere near perfect, but we are getting better, and are slowly rising out of our television gentrification. Every black woman does not have to fit the best friend stereotype – we have Clair Huxtable and Rainbow Johnson to prove it. Every Black man does not have to play God – We have Jerrod Carmichael and Chadwick Boseman to prove it. We have the power to change our views about how complex people are in real life. Let’s give black people on television the opportunity to make the job easier.
This article appeared in the October issue of The Vindicator. The online version of the issue is here!