Where are Black workers’ lives on TV?

May 21, 2008

I VERY much appreciate Joe Allen's article on the misrepresentation of working-class life by U.S. television ("Television's buffoons and bigots").

Until Roseanne aired, there was no one on television that resembled my family or the issues we cared about, which was incredibly alienating.

His article also brought to mind how the well-crafted stereotype of the white working class has fed the insane discussions in the media about Clinton and Obama capturing this vote. One recent example is that, in the aftermath of the West Virginia primary, the front page of the New York Daily News read "Hill Billy Victory," poking fun at both the working class of West Virginia and the Clinton campaign.

I also wanted to mention that, historically, there is also a parallel void in the portrayal of Black working-class life on television. For the most part, if you're Black on TV, you're either the Cosbys or a drug dealer.

The one brilliant exception was the show Roc, which aired on Fox in the early 1990s. Roc was a sanitation worker from Baltimore with a brain and a social conscience. Along with his family (musician brother, Black-nationalist father, and nurse wife), he dealt with the entire gamut of political issues facing African Americans.

The cast was pulled mainly from regulars in Broadway productions of August Wilson plays, which allowed the show to broadcast the entire second season 100 percent live--the first time that had happened since the 1950s. (Hopefully, in our spare time, we can organize to force Fox to release the show on DVD.)

Not that it's a crucial point, but I wanted to give my two cents on the question of Archie Bunker and the "decidedly non-white Queens." Actually, where the show was set--in northern Astoria, Queens--was a mainly white neighborhood from the 1920s to the 1960s, at which point it started to become more diverse, mostly with Greek and Arab immigrants.

I think the show was just trying to explore a dynamic of "white flight," using Archie's conflicts with the Jeffersons, a Black family that moves in, which did mirror a reality in that neighborhood in that time period. The theme song, while a bit over the top, is meant, I think, to make an ironic point about the silliness of the looking back to the mythical past of the Great Depression.

The impetus for such reactionary thinking is, of course, the upheavals of the 1960s, which the show is clearly sympathetic to. It's just a shame that they chose such a ridiculous caricature of working-class people to symbolize this conservatism.
Sean Petty, New York City

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