Ever since television began in 1939, African Americans have been portrayed as
maids, servants or clowns. These negative perceptions started to appear in sitcoms
such as in Amos and Andy, who were the stereotypical backs who never took things
seriously. All those views changed during the 1970’s when black sitcoms were
becoming more reality based. Although blacks have been, and often still, portrayed in a
negative way on TV, there has been some improvement of stereotypical images of
African Americans on television.
There were five stereotypical roles of blacks between 1940-1970; the Tom,
Coon, Mammie, Tragic Mulatto, and the Buck (Gray “Recognizing”). The tom was
always insulted, but kept the faith and remained generous and kind. The coon (most
used image) was always lazy, unreliable and constantly butchered his speech. The
mammie was more distinguished than the coon only because of her sex. She was
usually big and plump and full of heart. The tragic mulatto was fair-skinned, trying to
pass for white. Always well-liked and believed that their lives could have been better if
they were not biracial. The last stereotype was the buck. He was the big, oversexed
black man (Gray “Recognizing”).
In the late 1960’s, there were shows like I Spy and The Flip Wilson Show that
had blacks starring in it. After, starting in 1971, shows were popping everywhere with
black casts (“Changing Image” 76). Sanford and Son appeared on NBC in January 14,
1972, to replace another show (Booth 26). The show took place in South Central
California, where Fred Sanford and his son Lamont lived and owned a junk yard. Fred
was satisfied with his little business . However, Lamont, wanted something bigger and
better. Fred would do anything to keep his son from abandon him and the business.
Every time Lamont threatened to leave, Fred would do his famous act and fake a heart
attack and start moaning to his late wife, I’m coming, Elizabeth, I’m coming. Lamont
never fooled by his father’s scheme, but he did love him and, despite what he said
about his future, really wouldn’t have leave him (“Network and Cable”). They were
rated the 6th most popular show during the 1971-72 season, and 10th during the
1976-77 season. The stereotype was still there, but realistic views were appearing on
the show of realistic lives of black men.
After Sanford and Son cam on air, others followed. Good Times appeared on
1974 (Ingram ?Good Times”) Florida and James Evans were lower middle-class
blacks, with their three children in a high-rise ghetto on the south side of Chicago. J.J.,
an amateur painter, was the oldest, Thelma was a year younger than he, and Michael
was five years younger than she. James, who was always in and out of jobs, made
their lives difficult at times, but there was always plenty of love in the family. The
famous catch phrase from J.J ,Dy-No-Mite became very popular in the mid 1970s
(Ingram “Good Times”). During the first season, Good Times was the 17th most
popular show (“20 Most”). Many black families related to them. This was the first
black show that had controversial issues such as gun control, murder, and drug use
(“Network and Cable”). These were topics previously unexplored on television. Good
times was one of the most original shows on television its time.
The Jeffersons were seen often on All in the Family from 1972-1975. The
Jeffersons was an extremely popular TV show from the 70s and 80s. It was about a
black family making it to the top in New York City. George Jefferson, was a successful
dry-cleaner, with seven stores. He and his wife Louise, or “Weezy”, started out with
nothing, living with George’s mother. They moved to a house in Queens once George’s
business hit big. As he became more successful, they moved, with their son Lionel, into
the famous dee-luxe apartment in the sky,. They decided they needed a maid, and
hired a black maid. Her wise-cracking humor made the show that much better. The
best friends of the Jeffersons were the Willises, an interracial couple (“Network and
Cable”). The Jeffersons had in its show what no other show had. Many other shows
had a few episodes with interracial relationships, yet, The Jeffersons had a interracial
couple as supporting actors on the show. There were funny episodes, light episodes,
and ones that almost made you cry. The Jeffersons wasn’t just a comedy. It was a
show that taught America, and especially blacks, that if the tried, they could achieve
anything. The Jeffersons were in the top 20 for seven years (“20 Most”).
Now that the eighties were entering, there was a new stereotype of blacks.
They were no longer the “croons”, but now, people were viewing blacks as
lower-class, yet still happy people (“Adjusting” 2). There was a new image blacks had
to confront and defeat.
In the late 70s to the early 80s, there was a famous icon and saying that came
form one Pint-sized little boy. The boy was from an interracial show named Dif’rent
Strokes. 8-year-old Arnold with his famous, “Whatchu talkin about Willis”, and his
12-year-old brother Willis were two black kids from Harlem who found themselves
suddenly in the lap of luxury. Their dying mother, a housekeeper for wealthy Philip
Drummond, had taken from her employer the promise that he would look after her
boys when she passed away. It didn’t matter that there were endless double takes when
the rich, white Philip Drummond, president of the huge corporation Trans Allied, Inc.
introduced the two spunky black kids as his sons.. Also in the household was
Kimberly, his 13-year-old daughter and the new, scatterbrained housekeeper, Mrs.
Garret. There was always plenty of love around. Everybody learned little lessons about
what was right and wrong in each episode. The show also tackled serious issues such
as child abuse and the dangers of hitch-hiking (“Network and Cable”). There was a
huge controversy over the interracial relationships between the two boys and Philip.
Critics protested that the show wasn’t realistic enough. But in a study performed by
US News and World Report , revealed that there was an increase of interracial
adoption up 20% (57). Other Shows followed Dif’rent Strokes such as Webster.
In 1984, The Cosby Show appeared on NBC. The Huxtable residence, in New
York City, where Cliff (an obstetrician) also maintained his office. He and his wife
Clair, a legal aid attorney, had five children. Sondra, the oldest daughter was a senior
at Princeton University during the first season; Denise and Theo were the know-it-all
teenagers; Venessa the rambunctious 8-year old; and Rudy the adorable and
mischievous little girl (“Network and Cable”). The family held values and were proud
to show their ethnic and social backgrounds. There was a positive approach to family
life, values and standards (“Changing Image” 80). The Cosby Show has been watched
by more people than any other situation comedy in the history of television. Having
won countless awards and enjoying record-breaking success, the program has been
ranked number one more times than any other TV series since its premiere (Crenshaw
People argued that The Cosby Show was attempting to break the “traditional”
way of black lives, and that it didn’t reflect the typical black family (“Adjusting” 4).
However, the show’s main goal was to abolish those exact stereotypes (Crenshaw
“Cosby”). It was true that the show didn’t copy the repetitious images people saw on
the news, but it did show the common black middle-class family of the 80s. In
actuality, the show represented many black professionals in America (Crenshaw
“Cosby”). Not only did they make an effort to eliminate the stereotypes people saw of
blacks, but purposely created positive roles of blacks.
The 90s perspective was different from how it was in the 60s. The Cosby Show
changed the stereotypical view of the black family on television. It introduced real
African American on TV. Other shows cam along the 90s that were affected by The
The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air premiered on NBC on September 10, 1990 (“20
Most”). The series is about a young man named Will from Philadelphia who gets sent
by his mother to live with his aunt and her family in Bel Air, California. Will has to
adjust to a totally different lifestyle and to having new relatives around. He now has an
aunt, uncle, and three cousins (“Network and Cable”). Having a black family in
upper-class but still humble was a huge sensation. Fresh Prince had many similarities
of the Cosby Show. Both were of well-to-do families that were proud of their heritage.
Fresh Prince had episods where you couldnt stop laughing, and some episodes that
had you on teh verge of yout seats. They delt with things that happened to everyday
people from trying to make the cheer squad to buglury. It was number 10 on the “Top
20 shows in the 70s, 80s and 90s” in 1992-1993 season, and number 6 in 1993-1994
Family Matters showed focus on a middle-class black family living in
Chicago. The family included a blustery father, Carl, a Chicago cop; Harriette, his
sharp-tongued wife and Eddie, Laura and Judy, their loud and crazy children. Hanging
around is Grandma Winslow, Carl’s and Harriette’s recently widowed sister, Rachel,
who moved in with her infant son, Richie. The real star of the show emerged halfway
through the first season. Steve Urkel, the ultimate nerd, was a neighborhood kid with a
serious crush on an uninterested Laura. With his oversized glasses, hiked-up pants and
high-pitched voice (“Network and Cable”). They were portraying the average black
Today, many black roles avoid much of the racial stereotyping that was
characteristic of shows. There is a definite change in American’s view of the”typical” black family, and widely opened the doors for other shows that came along
after the 1970s. Although there still are stereotyping on minorities (especially blacks),
there has been improvements that will help the next decade to take away stereotypical
images bit by bit.
“20 Most Popular TV Shows In the 1970s and 1980s”. Nielson Media Research. July
Allen, Bonnie. “The 1980s: A Look Back”. Essence. Dec 1989: 82-84.
“Blacks on TV: Adjusting the Image”. New Perspectives. Summer 1985: 2-5.
Booth, Stephanie. “Redd Hot”. TV Guide March 3-10 1975:26-28.
“The Changing Image of the Black Family on TV”. Journal of Pop Culture. Fall
Crenshaw, Anthony. ?The Cosby Show Changes the way Blacks are Viewed”. July 20,
Gray, Steven F. “Recognizing Stereotypical Images of African Americans in
Television and Movies”. Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. July 20, 2000.
Ingram, Billy. “Good Times (They Weren’t)”. TV Party . July 25,2000.
“The Network and Cable TV Guide”. July 27,2000.
“TVs Disappearing Colorline”. US News and World Report. July 13 1987:56-57.