Black Lives Televised, by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

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can remember as a child sitting upstairs in my bedroom and hearing my mother shout at the top of her voice that someone “colored . . . colored!” was on the screen and we’d all best come down right away. And we would. As we ran down the stairs, Momma shot to the front porch to let all the neighbors know, while Daddy let the folks downtown know by way of the telephone. “Colored, colored, on channel five!” he’d shout to be heard over the commercial, while Momma’s echo sounded from the street: “Colored, colored.” We were so starved for images of ourselves that we’d all sit in that living room, nervous, expectant, praying that our homeboy would not let the race down.

Since then, much has changed in the relationship between blacks and the media, at least on the surface. In part because of governmental pressures, as well as a growing black consumer market for white media, blacks in major cities are just as likely as women to be announcers and reporters. More blacks are writing under their own bylines than ever before. And all major newspapers, network news programs, and magazines claim at least a “representative influence” on their editorial boards.

Prime-time television, too, is replete with comedies that depict black people who laugh and cry, who share middle-class aspirations and harbor middle-class prejudices, who live on the East Side of New York and the South Side of Chicago. Blacks polka­dot just about every program from soap operas to the Sammy Davis Jr. show.

Against this background we must place the death of the civil rights era, and the demise of organizations whose raison d’être was integration of American institutions. This collapse is partly due to a lack of funding; but it is also a result of a failure to adapt to the new world. The disease from which these groups suffer—the lack of an incisive, coherent approach—can be seen in the pattern of protest that arose against Ralph Bakshi’s satiric fable Coonskin and Lars Ulvenstam and Tomas Dillen’s documentary Harlem: Voices, Faces.

While the projection of images of black people has become the preoccupation of major networks, the “quality” of these reflections has become the preoccupation of a tiny coterie of “concerned” black people, determined to protect the community from images of itself. In part, this loose federation consists of exhausted civil rights leaders searching for that simple answer to social problems that will, overnight, elevate them to national prominence. To this group add a dash of black media types, scorned for years by white media and anxious to substitute their view of the black man not only for the white man’s view but often for the view of blacks who have infiltrated the white media.

The veto of this motley band has such a prescriptive right that to air a program despite their protests is not merely to ignore their opinion, but to reject it. This was supposed to be a tool to argue the supremacy of a new media elite. However, after a plethora of polemics and pressures over image and the black community, it is clear that our black oracle is fallible.

I do not mean to imply that the media have no racist tendencies, or even that I am happy with the way they project black images. But there is an even more urgent consideration. We must begin to understand why public outrage over the ghetto as a place of exile has diminished since the ghetto situation comedies appeared. This sort of thinking is very subtle, and our own black oracle has yet to make its subtleties of thought public. By making ghetto life palatable, TV is defusing its sheer horror. Ironically, the decision to portray ghetto life in this way in large measure stems from the criticisms that only our seamy side is emphasized publicly. So Harlem becomes livable.

We must come to understand that all the “violence” in the blaxploitation films only serves to create another form of escapism. Real violence shapes reality; it limits our choices almost as much as do economic pressures. To see what makes people act, what makes them not act, and what creates different value systems—these are the educative functions of black films and TV programs. These could increase understanding between ethnic groups, where only confusion, hate, and distrust reign.

Reprinted with permission of Henry Louis Gates Jr.

From “Portraits in Black,” which appeared in the June 1976 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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