The Evolution of Blacks on TV
All-black shows are still too rare in prime-time, but on any night you can find African-American actors playing rich, complex characters. That's progress, and we should acknowledge it.
Fast forward to now -- and be careful not to hold your finger on the button for too long, because it's only about 10 years later. King is in Southland, playing a troubled detective who is a full-blown, racially rooted human being. I doubt that King could have imagined in 2002 that she would ever be playing a role like this on television, as opposed to in the occasional film role.
Pierce, meanwhile, not only gave us the equally profound Bunk on The Wire but is now limning a similarly complex character on Treme. That is: In a glum depiction of post-Katrina New Orleans with as many black characters as white, Pierce plays an impecunious, divorced trombone player -- and it's a national hit, with people blogging about each episode all over the country. What??? Try to imagine that as recently as 2000.
It's at the point that racial history is visible in small time intervals as well as big ones. Think about a typical NBC sitcom hit in the late '90s: Friends depicted a strangely vanilla Manhattan; black people were onetime guests now and then. Seinfeld was similar. Frasier was also a deeply white show. Occasionally there'd be a flop attempt at more of the same; shows like The Single Guy and The Naked Truth barely had more black people on them than there had been on Taxi or Cheers.
Today, on Thursday night, there is a sitcom lineup that makes all of that look like Our Miss Brooks, and the main thing is that none of it is even intended as a big deal. Community has not just one but two black leads, both with quirky and yet not deracialized characters to play. Parks and Recreation has a black secretary who can do more with one line than almost anybody on the show, and is again an individual in all ways -- we're a long way from, say, Janelle on Spin City, included merely as what might as well have been termed "colored."
The Office's Stanley is neither heavy and jolly (comic relief) nor heavy and tired (earthy wisdom), but heavy and grouchy, plus married to a white woman (noted only glancingly now and then), but then only after a first marriage to a black woman -- and he's having an affair (with a black woman). And 30 Rock has several black characters, none of whom could be treated as stereotypes of any kind. Or, to the extent that they could be, the layered irony that the show is based on would make the argument much more complex than ones to be made about anybody on The Jeffersons.
Incidentally, note that this means that evaluating how far blacks have come on television is not only about how many all-black shows there are, as some seem to suppose lately. We could see all-black shows as, to an extent, a bridging step -- segregated, as it were -- between the old days and the new ones.
Quite simply, the role of blacks on television has changed much more from 2000 to 2010 than it did from 1990 to 2000. It's part of the "browning" of American culture that Leon Wynter memorably described in his underread American Skin: Pop Culture, Big Business and the End of White America. If Bull Connor came back from the grave and turned on a television set, what he saw would make him physically sick.
All of which is to say that while Regina King is right to point out the Emmy problem, my friend and fellow contributor to The Root Stanley Crouch was also right on when he once wrote, "One should always keep a hot poker ready for the backside of injustice, but it's important to polish the crown when you've damned well earned it."
John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root.