Because I am black that doesn't mean I have to deal with the problems of all black people. That's
not my sole responsibility...all TV is divorced from reality.
-Diahann Carroll, circa 1968
Taken simply as a catalogue of appearances by African Americans on television over the past sixty years, this book is perhaps adequate. It takes an exhaustive (sometimes exhausting) look at the role of black actors on primetime television, decade by decade. Bogle seems to have watched every episode of every TV show that ever featured blacks, from Beulah and Amos n' Andy in the early days, to the slew of UPN shows now, with stops along the way for hits like Julia,Sanford and Son, and The Cosby Show and the many all too brief series like Get Christie Love. He discusses all of them, not just the shows in general, but individual episodes, plus TV movies and black-themed episodes of white shows. Every snippet of TV history is held up and examined like an important fossil in the hands of a paleontologist. But, unfortunately, the various pieces never add up to a coherent whole; the book suffers from the lack of a thesis, from an unrelenting earnestness, and from a woeful absence of perspective.
The overarching problem is that Bogle does not seem to be operating from a defined principle. Is this a story about how African American images on television have evolved and gotten better, or at least more realistic, or is it about how things have really not improved ? How should blacks be portrayed on TV ? Have portrayals of Black America on television been better or worse than the reality of the times ? Have those portrayals been more stereotyped and less realistic than those of whites and other ethnic groups ? These are some of the questions that the author should have asked himself before he began writing and which the reader should expect will be answered by the end of the book. He did not ask and they are not answered.
As a result, Bogle's assessments and criticisms of each show occur in an intellectual vacuum and are often contradictory. Some shows are taken to task because they offered an unrealistic portrait of blacks as living in nuclear, middle class, nonpolitical families. Others are criticized for falling back on societal stereotypes of single parent households, poor families, involvement in crime, etc. If a police show has a black captain, that's unrealistic because blacks weren't put in positions of power. If the cop is black, it's unrealistic because he's middle class and an authority figure. If the crooks are black, that's a stereotype, placing blacks in a bad light.. Well, what the heck were the producers supposed to do ? And doesn't the mere fact that roles were being created for black actors mean something, on some level ?
At times, Bogle's lack of perspective, his blind focus on African Americans, comes across as almost laughable. In his discussion of the show The White Shadow, while complaining that the theme of a white coach having to lead troubled black youths is offensive, and worrying that the players were too often caricatures, he mentions the cast of characters and, without further comment, notes that the token white player was named Salami. Suppose the sole black player on a white team had been nicknamed Watermelon ? People would have been outraged, and rightly so. Had he paused for a moment to consider this one instance of insensitivity to another ethnic group, Bogle might have stumbled upon some of the larger truths about television : it's all caricature, stereotypes, and fundamentally unrealistic situations.
(...)TV, with the unique pressures of its weekly schedule and the need to appeal to a mass audience, has always tended toward banality. In the effort to supply escapist entertainment, it has relied heavily on the mindless, the unchallenging, the consciously non provocative. Bogle stumbles upon this fundamental truth in his discussion of The Cosby Show, whose various problems he is seemingly constrained from criticizing because it is probably the most popular African American show of all time :
The audience understood that The Cosby Show was not about contemporary politics. Rather it was
You probably have to read the book to get a feel for how jarring a note this strikes after 300 pages of complaining that innumerable marginal shows were insufficiently political. But it's important to note that Cosby, who had the #1 show on television, actually had the leeway necessary to turn his show into the kind of political platform that Bogle seems to think African American shows should have tried to be, and he did not take advantage of it. Why then expect the many minor and largely forgotten shows that he criticizes throughout the book--shows staffed by actors, writers, directors and producers who were after all just doing their jobs and which were just looking for an audience--to have engaged in some kind of exercise in black empowerment ?
In the end, this book is so limited in scope that, though Bogle does a workmanlike job of describing various African American series, it's hard for the reader to figure out what his point was in writing the book in the first place. It takes on the feel of a reference book, with encyclopedic entries, rather than a coherent narrative. It's occasionally fun reading about some of the old shows (including one of my favorites, The Young Rebel