No Black Brady Bunch (aka: Evolution of Black Family Sitcoms in the 80s)

Diff'rent Strokes sitcom 1978-1986

The only affluent black kids on TV in the early 1980s were the ones rescued from the ghetto by wealthy white people.

Quick! Can you name that black kid from that sitcom around the 70’s and 80’s? No, not the tall skinny ghetto kid who went, “Dy-no-miiiite!” No, not the short, black kid adopted by the rich white family, who always said, “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” No, not the other short, black kid adopted by a white family, either. Come on – who was the good-looking black teen boy from the nice, intact family who lived in an affluent neighborhood? Still don’t know?

Silver Spoons mansion

White kids on TV sitcoms in the early 80s were often privileged and affluent.

It is far easier to name white, affluent teens from the same era of television: Mike Seaver, from Growing Pains; Alex Keaton from Family Ties; Ricky Stratton from Silver Spoons; and, of course, all six Brady kids. Like many black kids across the USA, I grew up watching shows such as these, starring these happy, smiling white families with clean, sparkly homes. Their almost-perfect lives were only occasionally marred by white people problems such as teen pimples, first boyfriends, and naughty little sisters who steal your favorite sweater. By the end of each episode, their problems were wrapped up in some simple, cheesy, happily-ever-after way.

In contrast, most of the kids in the predominantly Black television shows lived in run-down homes in the ghetto. Well, with the exception of Webster, and Willis and Arnold, who were rescued from ghetto life by kind, wealthy white folks (Whatcu talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?). Black kids from these shows didn’t care about pimples – they were often too busy trying to help their parents find a way to make the rent that month. The themes were heavy by comparison, as black characters dealt with topics such as venereal diseases, sexual abuse, and wrongful accusations of shoplifting. By the end of each episode, these problems were both solved and unsolved, often leaving deep questions hanging in the air for the viewer to ponder.

And I don’t know – maybe I even learned something about social justice and black culture by watching those predominantly black shows. But mostly, I remember feeling a sense of shame, even at a very young age, that the people on the screen who looked the most like me came from such dreadful circumstances. Where was the Black Brady Bunch, with happy smiling kids and nice, educated parents who helped them solve their problems?

The Huxtables

The Cosby Show was like a breath of fresh air for black and white families alike.

Well thank goodness, when I was nine years old, Bill Cosby changed America’s perception of the Black TV sitcom family. At last, we had a family to represent us on-screen who neither lived in the ghetto, nor was “movin’ on up” out of a ghetto. The Huxtables were a respectable and affluent black family with five children. The mother, Clair, was a hard-working and successful lawyer, while the father, Cliff, was an obstetrician with his own private practice.  The Cosby Show dealt with both the lighthearted and the more serious issues of family life with intelligence, sensitivity, and humor. Not only Black families crowded around their televisions to tune in, as it quickly became the most successful television sitcom of the 1980’s.

Rosanne Family

After the Cosby Show’s wild success, new sitcom families, such as the Conners from Roseanne, began to represent a wider variety of American families

The Cosby Show signified a change in American family sitcoms. Not only was there a wider variety of shows featuring black families, but there was also an increase in the number of blue-collar, not-so-sparkly white family shows, such as Roseanne, which became the number one sitcom in the country from 1989 to 1990, and dealt with heavier topics than most white family sitcoms had tackled in the past. Just as many Black families cheered with the arrival of the The Cosby Show, many white families also cheered at the arrival of a family who perhaps better represented them, too. At last, American television  was veering away from the archetypes that had ruled the airwaves for so many years, and opening the door to diverse families and new ideas. And to that, I just have say, “Dy-no-miiite!”

(How’s that for a cheesy ending?)

You Are NOT a Mutt! (Teaching My Kids About Race)

The faces of the new generation of Americans

“Mom, what’s a Latina?” my ten-year old daughter asked me yesterday afternoon. “Some kids said that I look like a Latina. Is that bad?”

For a moment, I was stunned. Not because other kids said that my daughter looks like a Latina. But I was stunned that I had not yet prepared my children to handle questions about their ethnic heritage. “Sweetie, you are a Latina,” I told her. “And you are black and white. You are all of these wonderful things.”

Of course, it isn’t really quite that simple. My children are part of a new generation of Americans, with a complex ethnic heritage. According to our family tree, my kids have ancestors from Mexico, Ireland, England, Germany, and who-knows-which-countries somewhere in Africa. Is it any wonder that I have largely avoided the topic? To me, it feels somewhat lacking to simplify their ancestry down to three terms to check off on a census box: black, white, and Latino. On the other hand, it would sound ridiculous if my kids had to explain, “I am a Mexican-Irish-English-German-Unknown-Place-in-African-American.”

Have I mentioned yet my distaste for hyphenated racial tags? I don’t feel that they are much of an improvement over the ambiguous (and somewhat derogatory) terms which multiracial people have used to identify themselves over the years. Mulatto. An Oreo cookie. Heinz 57 Sauce. Mixed.

“To tell you the truth,” I explained to my kids, “Most people are misguided about the concept of race. Science indicates that the world cannot be divided into three main racial groups. There is a spectrum of human variation, and simplifying it all into a few boxes may make other people feel more comfortable, but it does not really determine your individual or collective identity.”

My kids looked at me blankly. Then my 12 year-old son said, “Um, maybe I’ll just tell people that I’m a mutt.”

I sighed. “Just tell them you’re mixed.”

Favorite Websites for Understanding Race:

Understanding Race (A Project of the American Anthropological Association)

Matters of Race (PBS)