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Tuned In to TV's Racial Divide

From 'Beulah' to 'ER,' images of African American life have evolved--but still have a long way to go, notes scholar and author Donald Bogle.

February 26, 2001|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's an anecdote many African Americans readily share, one so ubiquitous and familiar it has urban-legend legs.

Invariably the scenario goes something like this: Depending on the household, the father, the grandfather or the great-aunt stumbles up from his or her TV chair and shouts--rousing the house--"Hey! There's a Negro on TV!"

Decade to decade, household to household, that color-bar-crossing "Negro" might be Ethel Waters or Eddie "Rochester" Anderson; Nat "King" Cole or Hazel Scott; Bill Cosby or Hari Rhodes; Diahann Carroll or Nichelle Nichols; Georg Sanford Brown or Brenda Sykes.

That "Negro," whether he or she was loyal buddy or fetching window-dressing, was significant simply for being there.

What did the presence of these actors mean in the larger scheme of things? Well, for that, we just had to stay tuned.

So Donald Bogle has.

Bogle, a scholar, journalist and author of the seminal study on African American images in American film "Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in Films"--originally published in 1973 and to be reprinted by Continuum Publishers this spring--has made a career reading between the lines of images we see daily.

He lights briefly on the mudcloth-draped couch in the back room at Eso Won Books minutes before he's scheduled to step behind the podium for a talk on his latest effort--"Prime Time Blues: African Americans on Network Television" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). "The truth is," he says, "if there was a TV on and the sound was down and we were talking, even today we would probably stop and turn up the volume to see who those black people were. That's because it's still not our medium."

If anyone can make that statement, it's Bogle, who, between finishing up "Dorothy Dandridge: A Biography" and his teaching jobs at the University of Pennsylvania and New York University, was knee-deep in this book. He spent four years paging through old issues of the Hollywood trades as well as Jet and Ebony, watching old video and kinescopes as well as Nick at Nite and TV Land ("It's the only place I could see 'Hogan's Heroes,' " which features black actor Ivan Dixon). And that's not factoring in the hours he was in front of the tube while growing up in a Philadelphia suburb. To make things slightly manageable, Bogle says he set very specific parameters--focusing only on the networks--including UPN and WB, "both of which built their power bases through African American programming."

The result is nearly 500 pages, (more than 40 of them notes, bibliography and index). In its heft, "Prime Time Blues" could well be expected to suffer from academic overkill. Instead, it reads like an enthusiast's chatty outpourings; Bogle writes in a relaxed, conversational style that is echoed in his personal demeanor--his scholarly specs, tweeds and wing-tips, jazzed up by a flame-red tie and soul-patch.

As a couple of dozen men and women, black and white, young and old, industry types and ardent fans, settle into folding chairs, Bogle decides to forgo his planned slide show and begins, instead, by trotting out his own family memories.

"Even as a kid, I found myself asking all sorts of questions aboutwhat I was seeing and enjoying," he reads from the book's introduction: "The friendly maid Beulah [on the show named for her] never appeared fazed by the fact that she was a servant in a household that clearly took her for granted. Even the progressive Scotty [Bill Cosby] on 'I Spy' chummed it up with his white buddy Kelly without the subject of race.

"Before I could consciously express it, I think I was aware, as was most of black America, of a fundamental racism or a misinterpretation of African American life that underplayed much of what appeared on the tube. Yet I kept watching television."

For Bogle, like many black viewers, it wasn't simply the lure of popular episodic TV. What held him was what he saw beneath the thin veneer of the caricature or ghosts he glimpsed drifting across the screen: "What remained consistent throughout television history was that a group of dynamic or complicated or intriguing personalities managed to send personal messages to the viewers."

Those messages made enduring connections. For one generation it might have been Amanda Randolph's turn as the forthright maid Louise on "Make Room for Daddy," for another it was Redd Foxx's slovenly but acid-witted Fred Sanford on "Sanford and Son." Watching them became an exercise to attempt to draw out backstories, even from the slimmest of distinguishing details. Bogle admits he spent an inordinate amount of time imagining inner thoughts for these incidental characters. "With stars like Louise Beavers or Ethel Waters [both playing the character Beulah], you really felt this sense of waste," he laments.

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