Noreen Farooqui, writer, copywriter, behavioural scientist, strategy, strategist, University of Toronto, English, business psychology, behavioural economics

Negritude Portraiture: Part 1

For: Jude.

It’s Black History month so to celebrate, I thought I’d post this article on the positive the evolution of black characters on television.

Television advertising is intricately linked to programs, and I’ve mentioned the impact programming throughout the decades has had on advertising attitudes.

Negritude Portraiture:
A History of Black Television Programming
Noreen Farooqui

Television is a powerful medium for which many of our perceptions of the world are based. The moving images of people on the monitor are translated into realities in our brains. As much as it is familiar, it is also an introduction into the world of the unknown.

In the 1950’s, television brought hope to a people who had been historically marginalized. During the Second World War, black men stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their white counterparts in the fight for freedom. Having proved their strength of character and loyalty in improving the condition of the world, blacks would no longer stand by and allow their image to be negated. However, this was not an easy task as the stereotypic images created by the white man perpetuated the minds of the masses.

A Look Back: Whites Mimicking Blacks
In the 1800’s, blackface minstrels were prevalent throughout the world. White men would darken their faces with burnt cork and use make-up to enlarge their mouths and eyes. This was to imitate enslaved blacks in the south. Dramatic acts and musicals, such as the happily singing and dancing coon were ways for whites to demonstrate their supposed superiority and perpetuate racism.

After slavery was “abolished,” some blacks formed their own minstrels, advertising themselves as ‘authentic’ blacks and playing out the characters introduced by their white minstrel predecessors. Justification for self-deprecation came from the fact that job opportunities were scarce and some blacks hoped that this format would introduce the public to their talent for work in other realms of the entertainment industry.

Radio serials helped to further spread negative black images. The longest running radio program in history, Amos ‘n’ Andy debuted on Chicago’s WMAQ on March 19, 1928. Two white actors, Freeman Gordon and Charles Correll impersonated the ‘negro’ dialect and recreated an array of characters originated in blackface minstrelsy.

Amos and Andy were entrepreneurs who owned their own cab business, serving Harlem. They were dim-witted men who abused the English language as in the popularized term, ‘Splain dat to me’. Whites for the most part, did not exist in their world, and the characters themselves were so vulgar that integration was an implausible thought.

Because of the popularity of the radio serial, it was believed that a television program would be a sure success. CBS decided that they wanted to have black actors portray the characters and the first televised version of Amos ‘n’ Andy aired in June of 1951. Soon after, the NAACP communicated their outrage. In a document entitled, “Why the Amos ‘n’ Andy TV Show Should Be Taken Off the Air,” the group stated the following:

It tends to strengthen the conclusion among uninformed and prejudiced people that Negroes are inferior, lazy, dumb and dishonest.
Every character in this one and only TV show with an all-Negro cast is either a clown or a crook.
Negro doctors are shown as quacks and thieves.
Negro lawyers are shown as slippery cowards, ignorant of their profession and without ethics.
Negro women are shown as cackling, screaming shrews, in big-mouth close-ups, using street slang, just short of vulgarity.
All Negroes are shown as dodging work of any kind.

It is interesting to note how many programs featuring blacks continue to have these very images.

Racial tensions were on the rise. More and more blacks demanded positive depictions of themselves in popular media. Advertisers began to pull their campaigns from the program, as clients did not want their product to be associated with blacks when whites were the prime consumers. A combination of factors resulted in the cancellation of television’s Amos ‘n’ Andy.

Syndication would continue until the early 1960s and in 1963, CBS sold the program to Kenya and Nigeria. Shortly after, the Kenyan government announced that Amos ‘n’ Andy would be banned in that country.

Although blacks were featured in variety shows, such as the Ed Sullivan Show, it would be another twenty years before another program would feature a predominantly black cast.

Tomorrow: The 1970s: The Reintroduction of Blacks on Television

2 Responses to “Negritude Portraiture: Part 1”

  1. Mark Trumble says:

    An account of what racism is, and a bit of history

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