Since Mad Men is back with us and the year is 1966, it looks as if the handling of race on the show will finally be more up front than it has been before. In the Season 5 premiere, black people picketed the ad agency Young & Rubicam and had water bags dropped on them (which happened in actuality). Sterling, Cooper was soon faced with a lobby full of black people answering an equal-employment-opportunity ad that Roger put out in jest as a swipe at Y&R.
However, are we in for three months of indignant editorials about how the Mad Men writers just "don't get" the black thing? We've been primed for it by common complaints that there haven't been enough black people on the show, period. However, if the complaining continues, one will have to ask: Is there anything the Mad Men people will be able to do right?
I wonder. For example, many would have preferred that Mad Men follow the Drapers' maid, Carla, home and explore her life as a black person during the turbulent 1960s. But we have just seen what happens when white Hollywood makes a film about black maids in the '60s: The Help. And it would seem that the proper way to feel about The Help is that it was a botched job. Mad Men could hardly help reanimating similar sentiments.
The Help kept historical racial clashes like the assassination of Medgar Evers in the background in favor of kitchen-sink dramas, Nelson George told us. But Mad Men has always kept history in the background: No character was placed in Dallas to watch John F. Kennedy get shot. George also disliked The Help's "candy-coated cinematography." But Mad Men is shot in sumptuous, saturated color, and so, things happening to black people, too, are always going to look photographically plush (like the female applicants' outfits in the season premiere).
Many thought that whites and blacks got along too well in The Help. Valerie Boyd found it implausible that the maids would dare tell a white woman their story. How dare there be a certain amount of comedy, Manohla Dargis thought. But even amid segregation and open racism, individuals find common humanity across racial lines here and there when interacting seven days a week. Life is subtle. And part of Mad Men's iconic status is due to its fondness for ambiguity.
There were those (such as Boyd) who disliked that in The Help, black victory was channeled too much through whites; for example, it was the white character Skeeter who wrote the book for the black maids. It's no good, we were told, to downplay black people's determination of their own fates. But if Mad Men depicts black progress from the late '60s on, then it will be true to history if it depicts their working with whites to get things done, bit by bit. Montgomery and the March on Washington are, by 1966, in the past. "Black power" was longer on mood than it was on concrete economic results.
I wonder, too, whether the Mad Men people will be able to get black men right for the critics. There is such a vast array of standard reactions to depictions of black men in the media that it's almost impossible for even black-created TV shows and movies to escape condemnation.
If the black men on Mad Men are mean — say, if Carla's husband is an angry drunk — then it will be seen as a knock on black maleness (a criticism often leveled at The Color Purple) or a depiction of one-note Angry Black Men (see Donald Bogle's analysis). If the black men in the series are saints, we might hear complaints that they are either desexualized Toms (Bogle again) or insufficiently angry about racism. If there just aren't many black men shown at all, then the cry will be that they are desexualizing the women and, again, dissing the men (the Association of Black Women Historians' take was indicative here).
Overall, I assume that many see it as a goal that Mad Men "come to terms," as it is often put, with race. But the question — and a genuine, rather than rhetorical, one — is, what would that mean? It would seem that no one ever gets this coming to terms right, and it's unclear to me who has adequately specified what the terms would actually be. It must be asked: Would it be possible for Mad Men to get race right?
Especially after the response to The Help, I doubt it. It leaves me wishing there were a serious cable drama exploring black America in either the 1940s or the '60s. Then no one would be waiting for a show about race as seen through the eyes of Don Draper to "come to terms with" anything. It's high time there were a long-running spin on the world of Lackawanna Blues or August Wilson plays.
But then, let's face it: The person with the capital, commitment and pull to get something like that on the air and watched would be Tyler Perry. And last time I checked, the higher-brow critics tend to think there's pretty much nothing he does right.
Which leaves us with Mad Men again — for which, apparently, our job is to show how they get it wrong.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor to The Root.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.