Does the title “Minstrel Show” ring any bells? Maybe from a history class? No? Well, I’m more than happyto explain. A Minstrel Show was a traveling company of sorts, developed in the early 19th century. The performers would dance, sing and put on skits of various kinds. Most the performers were white and some were black under white management.
What is frustrating about these shows, was the makeup worn by the actors. You’d expect a little powder, some blush for the ladies, but no. Black face and wigs were worn to immolate actual black people. They would would put on a dialect, dance and sing their wows about working a plantation. The Minstrel Show’s were vastly popular.
Now, you’re saying “How does this relate to television?” I’ve got you covered. Like I stated previously, white people would play black people as a sort of caricature. This bled into television roles that blacks were only able to get once they were allowed to be integrated in television.
Black people, and other people of color, were most likely to play the drug addict, the prisoner, a prostitute, a gang member, and the white lead’s best friend. People of color have been more commonly portrayed as hunter’s who are out kill people, demons, evil witches, and witches who die after a couple minutes of screen time. If they are not killed, you can surely believe that if the character is a woman, she is very sexualized. These are all from what I’ve noticed in shows, that I absolutely love like Charmed and Supernatural.
I don’t know about you, but having seen your people being portrayed like this for decades is tiring. We wanted to see black led stories and see people who looked like us; not what white people think we are. This brings me to the start of black lead television shows, which so happened to have begun on the radio.
The first ever black “sitcom” was a radio show, called Amos ‘n’ Andy, that ran from 1928 until about 1960. It was aired on CBS in April of 1943. The show was a big hit among radio listeners and TV. watchers. Amos ‘n’ Andy had all titular black characters and was set in Harlem. Finally! People we can relate to and who “live” where we do. After the run of Amos ‘n’ Andy the airwaves went a bit quiet on black television shows.
Until the year of 1968 where we gained the popular “Julia”, this woman was the spark that ignited decades of great black television. Later in the sixties and seventies came “The Jeffersons and Sanford & Son”. The eighties and nineties had even more iconic shows, such as“A Different World and Family Matters”. I was born at the tail end of the nineties, so I was blessed with seeing many of these re-runs.
As a kid, my eye were glued to Disney Channel with shows like “That’s So Raven” and currently “Raven’s Home”. Inclusivity even ran into animation with “The Proud Family”, “Static Shock”, and later, “The Boondocks”. But as I grew, I noticed the lessening of black television (part of the reason of why I wanted to write this article). I was massively disappointed. There was BET and more recently OWN, of course, but it was like we were pushed back into a tiny corner.
Now, as an adult I see the resurgence of black television such as “Black-ish”, “Empire”, “Insecure”, and all the shows Tyler Perry has made. It fills me with so much excitement as a writer and a lover of entertainment. Black people were now more then ever able to cross into every genre. From dramas, comedies, romance, etc. We can be more than what we used to be portrayed as.
The ground has been broken; the foundation laid. So let’s see what will be built next.