The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, NPR.ORG
Black sitcoms have experience a rise and fall in popularity since the establishment of The Cosby Show. African Americans have fought for an equal standing in society as well as on the television set. It would be foolish to think, though, that these battles exist separately.
My blog post is a response to an article I read this week in the Huffington Post. The article outlines how different shows handle talking about race. For example, The Cosby Show avoided the discussion altogether while Black-ish tackles race head on. In one episode on The Cosby Show, Claire Huxtable tries to get a job as a lawyer but is rejected. The writers briefly discussed making race an explicit issue, but settled on subtly indicating race as the reason she did not get the job. Interestingly, The Cosby Show provides an ideal image of the black family and was a show that gave African American families hope. An image newly freed slaves could barely imagine.
African American leaders like W.E.B DuBois and Booker T. Washington would be impressed with shows like this because they urged blacks to start small, and work with their hands to build our own communities. But in these shows, blacks are integrating (with the exception of A Different World which is set at an HBCU).
A Different World, Pinterest.com
Shows that skate around race issues allows black audiences to envision a society free of racism, where we are no longer inferior to our white counterparts. Ironically, though, these shows are also an escape from the black struggle within American history. These shows allow us to see what it would be like if racism never existed. If we were equal, legally, economically and socially with whites from day one.
Unfortunately, these images are very much fantastical. But it is nice to see where we can get to as a society. Further, the absence of many white characters in these shows play into that black empowerment message. In other words, our lives are no longer seen in opposition to white lives, rather our lives are dominant.
Other shows focus on race and are not shy about these issues. A Different World being one of my favorites because it places an emphasis on black education and not the education that privileges whites structurally from the professors and staff down to the curriculum. I remember one episode when the students were having a debate and the teacher did not try to calm students down but he encouraged them to speak with anger and frustration. In this way, blackness is not stereotyped but embraced.
I am not sure whether I would rather black sitcoms to avoid race discussions or confront them. I do think it is important to have a mix of both. It is important, however, that the rise of white sitcoms in popularity not dictate the choices of black sitcom writers to avoid race to protect and attract white audiences for the sake of ratings.