2. TV sitcoms and African Americans

Television shows in the United States display how American families live, how they work, how they shop, how they vacation, and how they handle relationships. To I love Lucy, Bewitched, The Brady Bunch, and Seinfeld, stereotypes of white American families are displayed, some wealthy, some middle class, but there is a variety of lifestyle in the way they live. When looking at black women and men in TV sitcoms, there is not a lot of variety in their lifestyle till the 1980s. Shows such as Amos N Andy, Sanford and Son, Good Times, and The Jeffersons, reinforce the African American sterotypes that had been placed all the way back from the antebellum period. I want to examine each one of these African American TV sitcoms, and discuss the “black stereotypes” reflected in the women characters on the show, and how they reflect previous stereotypes.

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seinfeld

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Amos ‘n’ Andy:

Began as a radio show in the late 1920s, two white men portrayed black people in their dialect creating humorous skits and situations. These men were Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, the radio show was a huge success and lasted till 1951 in which it switched over to television. Traditionally white actors would perform in black face, however all the actors on the show were black. This would be the first all black television cast on TV for over a decade. The actors were experienced, funny, and exaggerated their characters just like the radio performance. Some of these actors were Amanda Randolph and her sister Lillian randolph, both African American women who were actresses, singers, and appeared in movies, radio shows, and television. Black women were in media but again followed certain culture stereotypes of African Americans. Of course these portrayals of African Americans offended many people, to the point that the NAACP held a legal suit against CBS for the following reasons:
1. It tends to strengthen the conclusion among uninformed and prejudiced people that Negroes are inferior, lazy, dumb and dishonest.

2. Every character in this one and only show with an all-Negro cast is either a clown or a crook

3. Negro doctors are shown as quacks and thieves

4. Negro lawyers are shown as slippery cowards, ignorant of their profession and without ethics.

5. Negro women are shown as cackling, screaming shrews, in big-mouth close-ups using street slang, just short of vulgarity.

6. All Negroes are shown dodging work of any kind.

7. Millions of white Americans see this Amos N Andy picture and think the entire race is the same.

The show was cancelled in 1953, it was perfect timing because one year later the Brown v.Board of Education case won, and segregation in America was legalized. The show ending, reflected American society changing, against race, stereotypes, and segregation, however traditions were not easy as to end as the NAACP hoped. Andy ‘n’ Amos was
continued on televisions till the 1960s, it has been claimed as its cancellation “as a civil rights victory.”

Sanford And Son (1972-1977)

Good Times (1974-1979)

The Jeffersons (1975-1985)

Historian Darnell M. Hunt stated in his book Channeling Blackness: Studies on television and Race in America the following, “The television programs involving blacks in the 1970s were largely representation of what white liberal middle-class television program makers assumed were “authentic” accounts of poor black urban ghetto experiences.” In Sanford and Son and Good times, they are portrayed as poor families living in overpopulated black communities, with no jobs but humor and other black families to support them. The Jeffersons aired later then Sanford And Son and Good Times and into the 1980s. The only difference in the show was the shift from the family from being poor to a middle-class family. The humor stays the same as it had been in Amos ‘n’ Andy, Sanford And Son,  and Good Times, Hunt states, “they too were anchored by and in dialogue with familiar themes and emblems of familial stability, individualism, and middle-class affluence.” Hunt goes on to argue that these shows were made for the white middle class, “However, because they continued to construct and privilege white middle-class viewers and subject positions, in the end they were often as benign and contained as shows about blacks from earlier decades.” Society had not shifted away from ignorant stereotypes that had been plaguing America for decades, society would view black women, and black men as what they watched, read, and heard. Poor, uncivilized, loud, vulgar, and dumb. The following clips give examples of these stereotypes in the television shows, emphasizing black women and how they were portrayed on television.

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Sanford And Son

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The Jeffersons

 

Amos ‘n’ Andy In the following clip (watch minute 7:30-8:30) displays one of the characters wife in the Mammy image. He comes home from work to tell her great news, she comes in with her hair in a bun, an apron on like she has been cooking, and a little overweight. She is overly excited when he speaks, and opens her mouth really wide and smiles. Just like a Mammy would, or Aunt Jemima.

Sanford And Son In the following clip (watch from minute 5:47-7:30) it shows Aunt Esther yelling, waiving her hands around, using slang, and then she  proceeds to scream and hit the men with her purse. Again a black women being reflected as an overweight, loudmouth, who can become violent.

Good Times  In the clip at the very beginning there is a portrait of the family the mom of the family is portrayed overweight, with a bandana, and similar facial features to Aunt Jemima. As the clip continues it shows a young girl dancing, like a free spirit, almost in a sexual way, she is high pitched and yelling during the clip. The mom comes home and asks her son why is he dancing, and tells him to knock if off. Just like the Mammy figure would, she takes control and tends to her kids.

The Jeffersons In the clip The Jeffersons bring a friend over named Diane, she assumes that Mr. and Mrs. Jefferson are the maid and butler because the house is so nice. She is shocked to find out it’s their house, and goes on to ask how they can afford such a thing. Diane talks about how she is maid, stereotyping black women occupations. Then Mr. Jefferson adds to the stereotype by adding that he owns his own business a cleaning business. Diane leaves because she can’t believe people like “her” could have money like that. Mrs. Jefferson is again portrayed, busty, hair in a bun, with a loud, low, raspy voice.

Hunt, Darnell M. Channeling Blackness: Studies on Television and Race in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
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One thought on “2. TV sitcoms and African Americans

  1. Are there any accounts from the black actors and actresses in Amos ‘n’ Andy concerning their feelings about the show? Did they feel frustrated about portraying such negative stereotypes of African Americans? If not, that may be reflective of just how deeply engrained those cultural perceptions were.

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