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?
And Thelma. She was sexy, yet classy, and like all us women growing up, she made some mistakes and got into some sticky situations. Remember when she was about to marry that African fool or when she got felt up by Wilona's creepy guy friend. I mean that's real life there. But through it all she grew up, stepped up when James died, always handled herself with class and grace, and she had a husband before she had a baby. Who would argue that she isn't a great role model for young women of any socio-economic class?
Ahhhh…and Michael. Little militant Michael. Michael always kept racial issues in the forefront, injecting social consciousness into every conversation. And sure, he got a little gay as he grew up (not that there's anything wrong with that) and his militant rants were soon replaced by cheesy talent show crooning with Penny. But, it's all good. Michael was a typical, bright, city kid. He was militant, excelled in school; he was strong but respectful of his parents. He also got involved with gangs, got drunk off Vita-Brite and beat up that fat kid in school that time. He went through what we all go through trying to find ourselves in this world. But he knew that education was the key to his success, and that thread ran throughout the show. Where can you find that now?
And as bad off as the Evanses were financially, they never asked for hand-outs or charity, never made excuses. They acknowledged racism, but never used it as a crutch. They didn't give up; they didn't try to get over. They just knew they had to work twice as hard because racism stacked the deck against them. If times were tough, James just worked harder. Thelma would work extra hours part-time. Or they would sell underwear out of that big cardboard box. But Florida and James always had a hopeful outlook. They always focused on hard work and its relationship to success. They helped their neighbors and ate dinner together. No one obsessed over entertainers and athletes, bling was a non-issue and a nuclear family was the rule, not the exception. Kids still wanted to be doctors and lawyers. And when they had a chance to get out of the projects, they were gone. They weren't gonna have the next three generations in subsidized housing, just because they could. They wanted to do better. Can you imagine what a world this would be if we all embodied the character traits of the Good Times family? It would be good times, indeed.
Looking at current representations of African Americans on TV, I can't believe I ever stuck my nose up at Good Times. I bought into the theory that we should write it off as some negative one-dimensional image of black life. It was a show that depicted a poor black family, so it was, ipso facto, bad, an insult, a stereotype. It was something we had come too far to look at, an obsolete show with no value and no relevance to modern day black people.
Tell you what, watch Good Times and then look at us now. Take a new look at the Evanses, and then look at us. Look at our images on MTV and VH1 and BET. Look at the way we're depicted on network dramas and sitcoms. Check out the evening news.
Now you tell me, didn't Good Times have it right?
Oops! Gotta go, Flavor of Love is on…
Jam Donaldson is a writer, attorney and television producer based in Washington, D.C.