Watching While Black

Watching While Black: Centering the Television of Black Audiences

EDITED BY BERETTA E. SMITH-SHOMADE
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 280
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5hj68h
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  • Book Info
    Watching While Black
    Book Description:

    Television scholarship has substantially ignored programming aimed at Black audiences despite a few sweeping histories and critiques. In this volume, the first of its kind, contributors examine the televisual diversity, complexity, and cultural imperatives manifest in programming directed at a Black and marginalized audience.

    Watching While Blackconsiders its subject from an entirely new angle in an attempt to understand the lives, motivations, distinctions, kindred lines, and individuality of various Black groups and suggest what television might be like if such diversity permeated beyond specialized enclaves. It looks at the macro structures of ownership, producing, casting, and advertising that all inform production, and then delves into television programming crafted to appeal to black audiences-historic and contemporary, domestic and worldwide.Chapters rethink such historically significant programs asRootsandBlack Journal, such seemingly innocuous programs asFat Albertandbro'Town, and such contemporary and culturally complicated programs asNoah's Arc,Treme, andThe Boondocks. The book makes a case for the centrality of these programs while always recognizing the racial dynamics that continue to shape Black representation on the small screen. Painting a decidedly introspective portrait across forty years of Black television,Watching While Blacksheds much-needed light on under-examined demographics, broadens common audience considerations, and gives deference to the the preferences of audiences and producers of Black-targeted programming.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-5388-7
    Subjects: Performing Arts, Sociology
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: I SEE BLACK PEOPLE (pp. 1-16)
    BERETTA E. SMITH-SHOMADE

    This project has been engaging my thoughts for nearly a decade. I was forced to actually address it while sitting in our temporary home in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, watching world satellite TV with virtually no Blacks on it. In Nigeria, I became acquainted with Paris-based Fashion TV, U.S.-based Style Network, and the Australian productionMcLeod’s Daughters. Outside of M-Net’s Africa Magic, a network dedicated to showing Nollywood productions primarily, television was anything but Black. This whitening of the televisual frame, even in Black Africa, made me begin to consider the dearth of knowledge circulating about Black television programming, even when abundance...

  5. Part I Producing Blackness
    • 1 The Importance of Roots (pp. 19-32)
      ERIC PIERSON

      In January 1977, I, along with over ninety million other Americans, watched at least one episode of the television miniseriesRoots: The Saga of an American Family. Over the eight days of the broadcast, the audience grew, and debates regarding its impact filled media outlets. In the weeks and months after the show aired, the impact was measurable as many families sought out genealogists to research family histories and college campuses saw increased interest in African American Studies. Vernon Jordan, executive director of the National Urban League, commented, “Rootswas the single most spectacular educational experience in race relations in...

    • 2 Two Different Worlds: TELEVISION AS A PRODUCER’S MEDIUM (pp. 33-48)
      ROBIN R. MEANS COLEMAN and ANDRE M. CAVALCANTE

      Although discourses regarding 1980s representations of Blackness on television heavily focus onThe Cosby Show, its NBC spin-off series,A Different World, depicting student life at a historically Black college, was equally groundbreaking and deserving of critical attention. Looking to transfer the appeal and audience share ofThe Cosby ShowtoA Different World, the spin-off show’s first season centered on the life ofThe Cosby Show’s star Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet) at Hillman College.A Different World’s story provides an illuminating case study of the role and power of television producers, highlighting their influence over a show’s narrative and...

    • 3 A Black Cast Doesn’t Make a Black Show: CITY OF ANGELS AND THE PLAUSIBLE DENIABILITY OF COLOR-BLINDNESS (pp. 49-62)
      KRISTEN J. WARNER

      In a recent debate over the problematic characterization of Bonnie Bennett, the only Black female recurring character on the CW network seriesThe Vampire Diaries(CW 2009), my challenger insisted that with all of the qualifiers I insisted she have, “maybe this is another hidden reason there are no minorities on television: everything becomes an issue and you just can’t win.” Indeed, the main qualifier I suggested that the series allow the character to possess—an innate sense of cultural difference—is difficult to grasp and maintain. However, I do not accept that just because race is difficult, it is...

    • 4 Blacks in the Future: BRAVING THE FRONTIER OF THE WEB SERIES (pp. 63-74)
      CHRISTINE ACHAM

      Television’s synergy with the Web initially seemed inconceivable to network executives. With the rise of Internet use, newspaper and magazine articles announced the impending death of television. While that was clearly hyperbole, network executives, though often anonymously, expressed their fears that Web content would siphon off viewership and thus advertising dollars generated by television programming. Fears may have been quelled with the evidence of the success of television shows first made available streaming on network websites and then for paid download through digital servers such as iTunes. For example, in December 2005, NBC saw a rise in the ratings of...

  6. Part II Blackness on Demand
    • 5 “Regular Television Put to Shame by Negro Production”: PICTURING A BLACK WORLD ON BLACK JOURNAL (pp. 77-88)
      DEVORAH HEITNER

      In the first episode ofBlack Journal, before the opening credits, comedian Godfrey Cambridge appears dressed in overalls and a painter’s cap with a paint roller in hand and methodically paints the television frame. To the viewer, it appears that his or her television is being painted black from the inside—a potent visual symbol from the first national Black public affairs program. Initially, though, the symbol emphasizes a visual challenge to the absence of Black faces on television—a show that “looks” Black, because of the visibility of its Black hosts and reporters, but where whites still have significant...

    • 6 “HEY, HEY, HEY!” BILL COSBY’S FAT ALBERT AS PSYCHODYNAMIC POSTMODERN PLAY (pp. 89-104)
      TREAANDREA M. RUSSWORM

      Although the cartoon seriesFat Albert and the Cosby Kids(CBS, 1972–1984) averaged only nine new episodes a year during its twelve-year run (compared to a more standard production cycle of twenty-five to sixty new episodes a year for other cartoons), the show remained a highly popular option for young viewers on late Saturday mornings. By the time of the series’ network premiere in 1972, the cartoon’s animated African American stars—Weird Harold, Dumb Donald, Fat Albert, Rudy, Mushmouth, Bucky, Russell, and Bill—were familiar and recognizable to American audiences as originating from Bill Cosby’s boyhood community of North...

    • 7 Gimme a Break! and the Limits of the Modern Mammy (pp. 105-120)
      JENNIFER FULLER

      Picture this: a comedy about an overweight Black woman who lives with and takes care of a white family. Joking all the way, she cooks, cleans, helps the father of the family, and comforts the children. Then at one point, we see the father holding his gun and pointing toward the door. The Black woman enters and jumps up and down, screaming, “Massa! Massa! Massa! Please don’t shoot!” It is easy to imagine these scenes in a 1930s film about the antebellum South. But they are actually from the first episode of a 1980s sitcom.Gimme a Break!(NBC, 1981–...

    • 8 Down in the Treme … Buck Jumping and Having Fun?: THE IMPACT OF DEPICTIONS OF POST-KATRINA NEW ORLEANS ON VIEWERS’ PERCEPTIONS OF THE CITY (pp. 121-138)
      KIM M. LEDUFF

      Five years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Louisiana, life remained not normal still for many residents of the city. And while mainstream news organizations remembered the fifth anniversary of the hurricane with extensive coverage, it was the work of filmmaker Spike Lee and television program creators David Simon and Eric Overmyer that perhaps created the greatest buzz about the fifth anniversary of Katrina in 2010. Spike Lee’s first documentary,When the Levees Broke, was released in 2006. It documented what happened in New Orleans through the voices of local residents, politicians, and experts during and immediately after the storm....

  7. Part III New Jack Black
    • 9 Keepin’ It Reality Television (pp. 141-156)
      RACQUEL GATES

      On November 4, 2008, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper appeared onThe Ellen DeGeneres Showvia satellite. One of the more memorable moments of the interview came when Cooper expressed shock that DeGeneres was unfamiliar with the hit Bravo television showThe Real Housewives of Atlanta. “You mean you don’t know about NeNe?” he demanded incredulously, referring to cast member NeNe Leakes—the most outspoken and self-proclaimed “realest” of the Housewives. Cooper’s segment, along with his admission that Leakes was his favorite of the cast, brought even more attention to the already widely debated show, the first of Bravo’s Housewives series...

    • 10 Prioritized: THE HIP HOP (RE)CONSTRUCTION OF BLACK WOMANHOOD IN GIRLFRIENDS AND THE GAME (pp. 157-171)
      NGHANA LEWIS

      Why is it important that a Black woman created, wrote for, and co-produced¹ two highly-regarded television situation comedies that engaged a variety of Black women’s health issues while at the same time these issues were being reduced, simplified, or altogether ignored in mainstream American hip hop? Mara Brock Akil tacitly responded to this question when asked why four episodes of the third season ofGirlfriends(2000–2008), the situation comedy she created and co-produced for UPN, addressed the HIV/AIDS crisis among Black women in America. “I have things I want to say,” explained Brock Akil, “about bridging television’s gap between...

    • 11 Nigger, Coon, Boy, Punk, Homo, Faggot, Black Man: RECONSIDERING ESTABLISHED INTERPRETATIONS OF MASCULINITY, RACE, AND SEXUALITY THROUGH NOAH’S ARC (pp. 172-186)
      MARK D. CUNNINGHAM

      At best, our knowledge about the lives and experiences of Black gay men is limited to a series of stereotypes, snap judgments, and ridicule. In terms of television media product, this aforementioned knowledge has been packaged mostly within the framework of comedy: a red-leather-clad Eddie Murphy talking about the most effective ways to shield his ass from the gay male gaze in the 1983 HBO stand-up performanceDelirious; Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier’s effeminate film critics Blaine Edwards and Antoine Merriweather on the 1990s television variety showIn Living Color; fashionista panel members Miss J and Andre Leon Talley...

    • 12 Graphic Blackness/Anime Noir: AARON MCGRUDER’S THE BOONDOCKS AND THE ADULT SWIM (pp. 187-204)
      DEBORAH ELIZABETH WHALEY

      Aaron McGruder’s “The Return of the King” (2006) is one of many of the artist’s controversial episodes, yet it stands out because of the criticism it received among mainstream media outlets and civil rights leaders.¹ It was the ninth episode to air from his seriesThe Boondocks, which is an anime show that airs on the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim cable channel. McGruder presents the following scenario in “The Return of the King”: What if Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) did not die after his April 4, 1968, shooting and instead awoke after being in a coma for thirty-two years?...

  8. Part IV Worldwide Blackness
    • 13 Resistance Televised: THE TV DA GENTE TELEVISION NETWORK AND BRAZILIAN RACIAL POLITICS (pp. 207-219)
      REIGHAN ALEXANDRA GILLAM

      As activists and political leaders in Brazil call for increasing rights, recognition, and redress to address the multiple forms of marginalization that Afro-Brazilians have endured, media has become an increasingly important sphere through which different constituencies mobilize to advance a project of racial equality.¹ Among these groups enlisting available media resources was a group composed predominately of Afro-Brazilian media professionals who joined together to launch the TV da Gente (Our TV) television network, Brazil’s first television station with the mission to produce racially diverse programming directed toward a Black viewing audience. They launched the network on November 20, 2005, Brazil’s...

    • 14 South African Soapies: A “RAINBOW NATION” REALIZED? (pp. 220-231)
      NSENGA K. BURTON

      In the United States, daytime soap operas are often critiqued as escapist fantasies with narratives that provide leisure and pleasure for middle-class and stay-at-home mothers. The storylines typically involve forbidden sexual liaisons and business relationships, with physical and psychological behaviors that center on powerful families. One family unit usually represents “old money” while the other family represents “new money” or an upwardly mobile group with aspirations of power, status, and influence. The economic differences are usually the source of conflict between the families, around which all other social relationships develop. The temporal space expands and contracts to accommodate storylines, which...

    • 15 Minority Television Trade as Cultural Journey: THE CASE OF NEW ZEALAND’S BRO’TOWN (pp. 232-246)
      TIMOTHY HAVENS

      Four animated, brown-skinned youth are lounging on a porch step in Auckland, New Zealand, when a fierce-looking social worker and police constable approach and insist on knowing where the father of two of the boys is. As the constable raises his nightstick, one of the boys fumbles in heavily accented Māori English, “He went to the pub four days ago and hasn’t been back.” The authorities quickly cart two of the boys off as wards of the state as another performs a Māorihaka, or war chant, in mock warning to the police. However, according to script notes for the...

  9. Notes on Contributors (pp. 247-250)
  10. Index (pp. 251-267)

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