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“It’s A Different World” for Black Women in Television

October 24, 2017

Washington, DC --- I’m obsessed with television. As a child, I remember bartering television minutes with reading hours with my mother. I cherished the small screen and the stories that reflected my lived experiences. After finishing my weekly reading assignments I was allowed one hour of television a week. During the 1980s my shows where “The Cosby Show”, “Fame” and “A Different World”.I was enthralled by the characters portrayed by the incomparable sisters Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen. Corporate lawyer Clair Huxtable and dance teacher Lydia Grant were icons during my childhood years.


Their poise, grace and beauty established a blueprint for the Black women I grew up admiring both on television, and in my predominately African American neighborhood of Mitchellville, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC. Lawyers, doctors, educators and entrepreneurs were the norm, not the exception.


I vividly remember meeting Carol Moseley Braun, a lawyer who was the first African American woman elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992 at a lecture series. Braun was Clair Huxtable personified. Brilliantly determined, Braun and her predecessors, Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan and Maxine Waters are the original “Black Girl Magic” posse. These women gained their moxie and grit during the 1960s.Their political, educational and economic representation was immortalized on television. The images of Black women defying stereotypes inspired an entire generation of young people, especially people of color.


As a doctoral student in Mass Communications at Howard University in 2007, I again tapped into my childhood obsession, but this time through a critical lens. I began studying the connection between the social, political and educational advancements of Black women to their visual representation on television. It’s not a coincidence that Shirley Chisholm was the first Black woman elected to Congress in 1968, the same year Diahann Carroll became the first Black woman to star in her own network show, Julia, as a character other than a domestic servant. Portraying the widowed-single mother nurse, Carroll’s character marked the television representational shift for Black women just as Chisholm’s election marked the political shift for Black women in America. This intersectional research led to my recent book, “The Evolution of Black Women in Television: Mammies, Matriarchs and Mistress” (Routledge/Taylor & Francis). Here is an excerpt.  


Clair Huxtable was the first character in a litany of Black females who visually represented the changing social and political climate in American society that began almost 20 years before the show’s 1984 debut. Critics originally were not convinced that “The Cosby Show” was an actual portrayal of Black families. An obstetrician husband, lawyer wife, five children, one away in college at an Ivy League school (Princeton) and living in a Brownstone in Brooklyn, New York, could not possibly be reality. Or was it? Phylicia Rashad has spoken openly against those dissenters who didn’t believe an educated middle class Black America existed. In a 2013 interview on “Oprah’s Next Chapter”, Winfrey and Rashad discussed having to defend the representation of a successful Black family on television.  Winfrey asks, “You all had to answer that question over and over, how is it realistic to have a doctor and a lawyer in the same house? “Well, they didn’t grow up in my community,” remarked Rashad about the naysayers. “I grew up in Houston, Texas, in third ward and it was very realistic. It was realistic in Charlotte, North Carolina; in Atlanta; in New York; in Richmond; in Hampton; in Los Angeles. It was realistic in a lot of places. I guess it’s  who you know and what you know.”[1]


Rashad’s reality was also the reality of many African Americans in the 1980s.

The Cosby Show visually represented the growing population of middle class and affluent Blacks. A report issued by the Population Reference Bureau in August 1991 verified what Rashad and Cosby already knew. Summarized by the Associated Press and published in a The New York Times article, the report’s author, Taynia L. Mann remarks, “Evidence points to two African-American communities: one of middle-class and affluent blacks who took advantage of the increased opportunities provided by the civil rights movement, the other of poor, largely urban blacks who remain socially and economically isolated from the American mainstream.” According to the article and the report, “the number of affluent black families doubled in the 1980’s, and virtually quadrupled since 1967...the number was 266,000 in 1967, and more than a million in 1989.”[2]


Television sitcoms and dramas in the 1990s and 2000s portrayed African Americans as a diverse non-monolithic group. Programs such as A Different World which showcased life at a historically black college, had a direct impact on the increase of college applications, admissions, matriculation and graduation rates amongst Blacks during and immediately after the program’s tenure.


Dr. Walter Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas, in a 2010 New York Times Q&A about historically black colleges and universities remarked,


“The Cosby Show” was the catalyst for the black college boom of the late 1980s and early ’90s. With its spin-off, “A Different World,” beginning in 1987 and the Spike Lee film “School Daze” released in 1988, black colleges reached a degree of prominence and visibility in the media that would, in turn, fuel rapid growth. From the debut of “The Cosby Show” in 1984 until the end of “A Different World” in 1993, American higher education grew by 16.8 percent. During the same time period, historically black colleges and universities grew by 24.3 percent — 44 percent better than all of higher education. But in the 11 years after “A Different World” ended, while all of higher education grew at a robust 20.7 percent, historically black colleges and universities grew only 9.2 percent.[3]


The upward trajectory of Black women politically, socially and economically has mirrored the evolution of Black women in television for the past 70 years.  When Black women are in creative control of their own television image they present a more complete, complex and charismatic view of the Black female experience. Take Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network and Ava DuVernay’s “Queen Sugar” as a prime example.


Currently, Black women are having a phenomenal rise in prominence on television and behind the scenes. For the first time in almost two decades, Black women are not only starring in leading roles on sitcoms and dramas, but are also showrunners, directors, writers and executive producers of the most successful series on television.


Issa Rae. Shonda Rhimes. Ava DuVernay. Michelle Obama. Kamala Harris. Maxine Waters. What do they all have in common? Race and gender aside, these six women have flourished creatively and politically by using their lived experiences to empower, educate and subsequently entertain millions of people across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic boundaries.


In a time of vast uncertainty, the aforementioned women are at the forefront of a visual representational revolution. If it’s not Maxine Waters “reclaiming her time”, it’s Ava DuVernay breaking down the prison industrial complex in “13th” and Issa Rae making all of us Black girls feel a little less awkward in our awkwardness. Black women are not just being portrayed on television… they are being empowered to write, direct, and portray themselves, with a creative freedom previously unknown to women of color in Hollywood. The television landscape has changed for Black women. Stay Woke because this revolution is being televised.

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