From Urkel to Issa

Alisa Moore's picture

The history of black representation in American television and film has been largely informed by the lens of whiteness. Although undoubtedly integral to the progression of black representation on television, 1970s-90s sitcoms such as Family Matters, Good Times, and The Cosby Show reproduced white American ideals of family structure by focusing on the day-to-day lives of mostly middle to upper-class nuclear heterosexual families. This was due to the belief that white audience members would not be interested in watching shows that showcased the more unique aspects of black culture and the struggles associated with being a black person and having to deal with everyday as well as institutionalized racism, because it would not be relatable to them. This is not to say that every black sitcom on TV reproduced whiteness, or that those that did did so all the time. Plenty of shows (like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) highlighted non-hegemonic experiences of black people, and even touched on issues such as racism or racialized sexism, but these storylines were very rarely the entire focus of the show overall, instead taking a back seat to the more palatable narratives of finding out who will end up with whom romantically and watching the characters get into comic mischief. So, although black audiences were able to more readily identify with characters on shows like the ones I mentioned, they still had to make room for the perceived sensitive tastes of white people.

However, in recent years there has been a shift in TV shows that feature a predominant or exclusively black cast. Shows like Insecure, (created and produced by Issa Rae) and Atlanta (created and produced by Donald Glover) have taken over the popular consciousness when it comes to black centered media. The main difference between these shows and those from the 70s-90s is their refusal to cater to a white audience. Insecure focuses on the lives of Issa and Molly, two young black women living in L.A., as they go through relationships, deal with problems in the workplace, and try to maintain their mental health. These storylines are widely relatable, but Insecure does not shy away from presenting Issa and Molly’s experiences as being uniquely informed by their social standings as black women, addressing subjects like unfair pay in Molly’s law firm, and Issa’s struggles with expressing her sexuality. Atlanta places its focus on the character Earn, a black man living in Atlanta, Georgia, trying to get back on his feet by managing his rapper cousin. Throughout the series, Earn and other characters go through relationship issues and work-related drama, but also deal with tough topics that are an everyday reality for the black community in America, like police brutality and homophobia/transphobia. Rather than shying away from subjects that have been considered taboo to mention on television, writers and producers like Issa Rae and Donald Glover are engaging with black culture unapologetically. Shows like Insecure and Atlanta are made by black people, star black actors, and feature black stories, because they are being made for the black community specifically. Additionally, the commercial and critical success of these programs show that non-black audiences can enjoy media that was not carefully catered specifically to them, much in the same way that people of color have been enjoying white-centered TV and film for decades.

The idea of a “post-racial” America is directly challenged by these new forms of black media. Again, by mainly focusing on hegemonic ideas of black culture as replicating whiteness, the shows featuring black characters from the 70s-90s produced an assimilationist narrative that reinforced the notion that America had moved beyond race, and no longer saw color. Unfortunately this “we are all a part of the same race, the human race,” rhetoric only serves to glaze over hard truths of anti-black racism that is so pervasive in our society. By refusing to buy into this stance, the black created and centered TV shows we are seeing become popular now are a reminder that we have a long way to go before we can reach racial equality in the United States. In not shying away from the harsh realities that come with being a black individual in America, Insecure, Atlanta, and other shows and films like them allow black audiences to identify directly with what is going on, and demand that non-black audiences empathize with black people, and join the movement for true structural change in our country.