Donald Bogle's Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television is a funny, sarcastic, exhaustive media history book about blacks in television. The major chapters are divided by decades, beginning in 1950 when African-Americans were placed in unobtrusive, easily disposable – for those Southerners who might be offended – clips on primetime television, and moving onward through the 1990's, the book shows how television
has mirrored society's attitudes towards African-Americans and other blacks.
Each decade is giving a subtitle: The 1950's: Scraps; The 1960's: Social Symbols; The 1970's: Jokesters; The 1980's: Superstars; The 1990's: Free-for-alls. These subtitles are used by Bogle to show each decade's historical events and how they build upon stereotypical expectations, broadening the white society's view of blacks, but still managing to restrict the African-American's full humanity. Whether sitcoms, lawyer and cop programs, westerns, scifi or dramas, the black person remains utterly overly-known as a stereotype, and unknown as a real person.
The 60's had the angry black, the socially-conscious black (and self-congratulatory white), the down-trodden ghetto black mom – often with an angry or drug-addicted son – and so on. In the
50's, African-Americans and other minorities were unknown to most American television viewers, except as stereotypes placed on the screen to bolster white characters. Blacks served whites but had no valuable life of their own. Although the stereotypes proliferate, the lack of a real life for Black folks continues subtly unchanged throughout the decades.
Bogle's humorous ability to pinpoint and trace stereotypes through media history is both cynical and tickling. For instance, how many white viewers are conscious that Oprah fits into the "nurturing mammie" stereotype syndrome. Of course, most blacks know this kind of thing. How many times have we rolled our eyes on seeing the white hero's or heroine's stalwart black best friend? In analyzing many program stories and character interactions, Bogle shows how the propensity for white liberal self-congratulation to pop up in touchy racial situations was dishonest, but often the only way for a television show to avoid offending viewers.
Bogle highlights many of primetime's major racial breakthroughs, especially the racial-tension subtext of many white-black relationships. Blacks know, for instance, that a film's white character is supposed to be "good," and therefore "a typical American,"
because he's the friend or caretaker of a black person. But Bogle points out that African-Americans also know that these TV friendships are usually lacking equality, or sexuality, or both. And then there was the problem of proximity...sexual or otherwise. Bogle writes amusingly of the creative tension on the set surrounding the first primetime interracial kiss -- between
"Star Trek"'s Kirk and Uhura. Reading Primetime Blues, one finds oneself imagining sweating white producers fearing southern audiences and popping antacids
Bogle points out that the trouble with stereotypical depictions is that often such characters do exist in the black community, and black actors need work as white actors do. While describing the decade and cataloguing almost all television programs with African-Americans, Bogle also gives us minor histories of black performers who may or may not have paved the way. He records the struggles, triumphs, failures and battles actors such as Ethel Waters, Diahann Carroll and
Dorothy Dandridge had to endure. Some African American performers, like their white counterparts, are too unenlightened or too caught up with the success of a particular schtick to change their ways. Bogle mentions many of these personalities in passing: Martin
Lawrence, Stepin Fethcit, and J.J. Walker, for example, performers whose comedy
is rooted in black stereotypes. These actors are commented on, but neither excused or condemned. This is a fine line which Bogle walks quite well
African-Americans are well aware of these stereotypes. And Bogle's history of African-Americans in film also comments on African-Americans' ambivalence towards certain programs. There is pleasure – on one hand --
in seeing a black face on screen, but that black face is often much lighter than the viewer's, or the personality they display is a collection of stereotypes, or self-congratulation is
so blatant as to be offensive.
If there is anything lacking in Primetime Blues, it is that Bogle is too commited to his definition of Primetime – the land of white television -- with all its sitcoms, westerns, dramas, talk and variety shows. A vast area indeed. And perhaps I'm quibbling. But he ignores black cable, which came into its own in the
Nineties. And black produced videos. Granted, these aren't shows produced on major broadcasting companies but I would have liked to see his analysis of all those light-skinned women dancers one sees in black-produced videos, or light-skinned newscasters on BET, the Black cable station. And who has watched black-produced movies wondering why all the villains were dark-skinned and all the good guys light-skinned?
"Penitentiary I" or "II," anyone?
But, for the most part, this book is a massive historical work. He missed a few trend-setters, namely
"Mantis," a science fiction show from the early nineties which seriously depicted the first black sci-fi
hero. In his catalog of heroes, he forgets to mention the integrity of Lola Falana, who deserved mention. But, for the most part, this is a wonderful media history. It might seem foreboding because of its size – 495 pages. For that reason, most whites – and indeed, many
blacks -- will not be drawn to it. But the book is fun, insightful and an easy read. And it should be included in the curriculum of most media classes or culture classes. Any child – white or black -- would have fun reading this book for black history month. Donald Bogle
has also authored Toons, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, Brown Sugar: Eighty Years of America's Black Female Superstars and Dorothy Dandrige: A Biography. He teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.