The close of the writer’s strike-shortened television season – the endless season finales and salacious sweeps week programming – has made me think about how far television has evolved.
But as I thought, specifically about how African Americans are represented on television, I realized that I could still count the notable and inspiring black characters this season on one hand. Heck, one of the few black characters we had on air was just killed off on CSI (strange, since the white characters whose lives were in peril during last season’s cliffhanger episodes were miraculously spared). We all know black folk have come a long way in real life, but for some reason, TV still tells a different story.
I think I prefer the black television of yesteryear. We’ve been so busy moving forward and not looking back that we’ve forgotten the black characters of the past who inspired us, worked hard, set positive examples for the community and made us proud to be black. Case in point: Good Times.
During my adolescence, Good Times was often dismissed as a negative representation of black popular culture. People said it perpetuated stereotypes, and everyone focused on J.J. as The Coon. But recently I had a chance to lay up all day one Sunday (with a very hot man, I may add) and watch a Good Times marathon on TV One.
At some point over the course of the day, it struck me: Good Times actually had it right.
Looking at the show through 2008-colored glasses, so many things stood out to me, especially after watching several shows in a row. First, the Evans family probably had more integrity than any African-American TV family. Ever. Now before you jump in with the Huxtables, I have to say, the Evanses are far more impressive, because they actually had real life problems. The Huxtables, while they were a meaningful and entertaining acknowledgement of affluent black life, didn’t struggle like the Evanses. I mean, the test of a man is how he performs when he’s down right? Well, the Evanses were down all the time with constant problems. And I’m not taking about Huxtable-esque, “the other kids are calling me rich girl”/Gordon Gartrelle problems. Theo Huxtable’s girlfriend was never shooting up heroin in the bathroom.
The Evanses had real life or death, how-we-gonna-eat problems. They faced poverty, VD, unemployment, discrimination, gangs, suicide, child abuse, drugs, alcohol, teen pregnancy, hypertension, illiteracy and the like. I mean, if there was a social issue, Good Times covered it. And the family’s way of dealing with these issues always centered around morality, integrity, strength and just being downright decent. What African-American TV family represents those values today? Hell, what white family for that matter?
The Evanses had a strong two-parent home. James was clearly the leader of the family, but he and Florida still acted as partners. The kids respected the parents. They weren’t obnoxious smart asses, and they weren’t incorrigible troublemakers either. They were regular kids. They were us. Although they were poor, they were hopeful and eager to learn and jump at opportunity.
J.J. was a talented artist. What an incredible role model! I mean, as silly as J.J. was, he was a creative genius. Where can you find a talented African-American painter on TV today? He made black art and painting accessible to the world. He showed us a talent and an art form that many of us would have never been exposed to otherwise. He showed poor kids that poverty cannot stifle art or creativity. And the J.J. character allowed the producers of the show to incorporate the work of real life African-American artist Ernie Barnes (who did all the actual paintings shown). Where can you find African-American art on TV today? Do you realize how hot that is?