Roles That Black Women Played on TV in the Early Era of TV Term Paper

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Black Women on Early Television

African-American portrayals on television have been based on negative stereotypes that do not objectively or accurately portray reality... These stereotypes include, but are not limited to, the portrayal of African-Americans as inferior, lazy, dumb, dishonest, comical, unethical, and crooked (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 1977). Dates (1990) was able to add to this list: insolent, bestial, brutish, power-hungry, money hungry and ignorant." (Rada)

The image of Black people on television has changed somewhat since the early era of television. The purpose of this discussion is to examine the roles that black women played in the early era of Television. We will discuss how the roles of Black women were limited to playing the role of mammies during the early era of television. The paper will also discuss roles for Black women that were labeled as being too white. In addition, our research will examine the stereotypic roles that were portrayed on television throughout the 70's. Let's begin this discussion with a brief synopsis of the types of roles that black people played on television and how it affected the way they were treated in everyday life.

Blacks during the early era of Television book entitled Living Color: Race and Television in the United States explores the representation of black people on television in a section of the book entitled "Extra-Special Effects: Televisual Representation and the Claims of "the Black Experience." In this section of the book the author explains that the portrayal of blacks on television and in the media have always been controversial. (Harper)

The author contends that since the days of Amos and Andy people have been torn about the way Black people are represented to the American public through the medium of television.

The author further asserts that much of the controversy stems from the idea that many believe that the images of Black people that are on television can influence the way that Black people are treated in our society. (Harper)

They asserted that art would begin to imitate life. The author explains, "The standard of simulacra realism that has informed popular demands for greater representation of blacks on TV is rooted in the assumption that such representation would improve the objective conditions characterizing daily life for the mass of African-Americans living within the scope of television's influence."(Harper)

An article in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin seems to confirm the assertions made by Harper. The article asserts that,

Television portrayals of African-Americans and other minorities have been shown to influence whites' perceptions of those groups. Greenberg (1972), for instance, found that over half of the white children sampled reported that television was a principal source for information about African-Americans. Furthermore, children who experienced a high degree of exposure to African-Americans on television were particularly likely to believe that the portrayal of African-Americans was "true to life" (p. 13). Television's portrayal of minorities, then, can serve to create, reinforce, or change disparaging stereotypes (Dates 1980; Scherer 1971)." (Ford)

Harper goes on to assert that there was almost no accurate reflection of black people on television in the 60's. Harper points to an observation made by the author John Oliver Killens which asserts that "through the mid-1960s, a black person could "stare at television and go to an occasional movie and go through the routine from day-to-day, month to month, and year to year and hardly (if ever) see himself reflected in the cultural media. It was as if he had no real existence, as if he were a figment of his own imagination, or, at best, if he had an existence it wasn't worth reflecting or reflection."(Harper)

The roles black women played in the early era of television (1950's and 1960's)

As we can see from the aforementioned research, during the early era of television Blacks played very limited roles. These roles were not an accurate depiction of Black people or Black life. The perpetuation of these images was controlled by White producers and writers and Black actors were forced to choose between having a job and not playing roles that propagated stereotypes of Black people. Many people were opposed to the images that they saw on television and these images have been studied and scrutinized in the years since these images were first seen.

Marilyn Fife writes in her essay on the image of Blacks in television during the 1950s and 1960s that television failed the minority viewer, especially the Black viewer. And since television was a new form of mass media, it simply reinforced the ideas and images already set forth by films, radio, and most publications. The Black person on television was usually cast in character roles. (Giovanni and Smith)

Indeed, many of the roles that were available to black actors and actresses were very limited during the early era of television. Both Black men and Black women played stereotypical roles which were set forth by the White majority. For the black women these roles consisted mostly of mammies (Beulah) and roles that were deemed as too white (Julia).


One of the most prevalent roles that black women played during the early era of television was that of the mammy. A book entitled Images of Blacks in American Culture: A Reference Guide to Information Sources explains the claims made by Karen Sue Warren Jewell in her dissertation "An Analysis of the Visual Development of a Stereotype: The Media's Portrayal of Mammy and Aunt Jemima as Symbols of Black Womanhood." Jewell's claims assert that, the mass media had historically developed and portrayed Black women as mammy and Aunt Jemima, and that these images ran myths and stereotypes that are generalized to all Black women irrespective of social class or age. She stated further that the rationale for the media's portrayal of mammy and Aunt Jemima is deeply embedded in the very fabric of American society. According to Jewell, this rationale dates back to early conceptions of the value and worth of Black women as human beings. These images of Black women suggest that they are lacking in beauty, femininity, attractiveness, and the other attributes generally associated with womanhood. In addition, the images suggest that Black women are satisfied with their lives and want nothing better for themselves or their families." (Giovanni and Smith)

The book goes on to assert that these mammies or Aunt Jemima's were often images of overweight bossy women that were satisfied with their stations in life. These mammies were also viewed as being comical with affection for taking care of children and a household. (Hamlet) The book argues that these images were degrading to black women and gave America the wrong image of black women.

The book reports that one of the first shows to feature the black mammy was Beulah which ran from 1950 until 1953. (Giovanni and Smith) In this particular television show the main character Beulah was a domestic house keeper and also was surrounded by other black actresses that also played the role of housekeepers. (Giovanni and Smith) The role of Beulah was played by several prominent black actresses of the time including, Hattie McDaniel and Ethel Waters. (Giovanni and Smith) Many people felt that this image of black women was racist and unnecessary. While others felt that it was good to see black people on television at all even if the roles that they were playing were degrading.

Aunt Jemima

Another "mammy" character that was controversial during this time was Aunt Jemima. Aunt Jemima was present in television advertisements for pancakes. A book entitled Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow explains that the concept of Aunt Jemima dated back to ancient Rome. The book reports that Verta Mae (1972) offers a historical viewpoint relative to the concept of Aunt Jemima as a servant and suggests that the foundation for her birth dates back to ancient Rome and Europe. She defines Aunt Jemima within the context of the preparation and serving of foods by blacks to whites from a historical context and suggests that it was common practice for royalty to have black male and female servants. Consequently, the price of black slaves in Rome was higher than for whites sold at slave markets." (Foxworth)

The book goes on to assert that Black women are often viewed in America as having a natural talent for cooking. The author insists that these notions were perpetuated even more during the post slavery era with the notion of Southern hospitality and the Black cook. (Foxworth) The book also contends that Whites believed that because of the experiences that Blacks had they were expert gardeners, farmers and cooks. (Foxworth) Therefore if they endorsed a particular cooking product than Whites believed that it was a good product to purchase. These notions were pivotal in creating such characters as Aunt Jemima. (Foxworth)

There were several different women that appeared in advertisements for Aunt Jemima beginning in the late 19th century. The first Aunt Jemima to appear in a television commercial…[continue]

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