Black, White, and in Color: Television and Black Civil Rights

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This book examines the representation of blackness on television at the height of the southern civil rights movement and again in the aftermath of the Reagan-Bush years. In the process, it looks carefully at how television's ideological projects with respect to race have supported or conflicted with the industry's incentive to maximize profits or consolidate power.

Sasha Torres examines the complex relations between the television industry and the civil rights movement as a knot of overlapping interests. She argues that television coverage of the civil rights movement during 1955-1965 encouraged viewers to identify with black protestors and against white police, including such infamous villains as Birmingham's Bull Connor and Selma's Jim Clark. Torres then argues that television of the 1990s encouraged viewers to identify with police against putatively criminal blacks, even in its dramatizations of police brutality.

Torres's pioneering analysis makes distinctive contributions to its fields. It challenges television scholars to consider the historical centrality of race to the constitution of the medium's genres, visual conventions, and industrial structures. And it displaces the analytical focus on stereotypes that has hamstrung assessments of television's depiction of African Americans, concentrating instead on the ways in which African Americans and their political collectives have actively shaped that depiction to advance civil rights causes. This book also challenges African American studies to pay closer and better attention to television's ongoing role in the organization and disorganization of U.S. racial politics.

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What People Are Saying

Sharon Willis
Lucid and accessible in both argument and style, this book offers perhaps the most theoretically sophisticated treatment to date of the historical relationship between the civil rights movement and network television, as well as of the complexities of representations of race in contemporary television. It embraces a wide academic audience, opening a conversation across disciplines that too often fail to take each other's accomplishments into account.
Sharon Willis, University of Rochester
Phillip Brian Harper
This book is distinguished by a rare combination of critical acumen and historical insight. Torres is characteristically incisive, presenting an argument that appears both incontrovertibly correct and wholly original.
Phillip Brian Harper, New York University
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691016573
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 3/10/2003
  • Pages: 168
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Black, White, and in Color

Television and Black Civil Rights
By Sasha Torres

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2003 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-01657-3


The Vicissitudes Of The Stereotype

SCHOLARLY ACCOUNTS of racial representation in American television have been dominated by the conceptual category of the "stereotype." A good example-though one might cite many others-of this tendency is Jannette L. Dates and William Barlow's collection, Split Image: African Americans in the Mass Media, which treats many aspects of mass-mediated culture and contains several sections on television. In the general theoretical introduction to the volume, Dates and Barlow trace a number of African American stereotypes back to their historical origins in antebellum popular culture, arguing that the versions persisting in contemporary commercial culture may be meaningfully linked to these origins in minstrelsy. For Dates and Barlow, widely circulated stereotypes such as the comic Negro, the Jim Crow figure, the pickaninny, the tragic mulatto, and the Aunt Jemima are perpetuated by whites in an effort to secure and maintain cultural power. The history of African American mass-mediated representation, then, is the history of a "split image," in which "the dominant trend in African American portraiture has been created and nurtured by succeeding generations of whiteimage makers, beginning as far back as the colonial era," while "[i]ts opposite has been created and maintained by black image makers in response to the omissions and distortions of the former." The intellectual and political purchase of accounts like Dates and Barlow's is considerable for a number of reasons. The stability of the white oppressor/black victim binary is always tempting, and often accurate. In addition, such readings have historically been successful in organizing aggrieved collectivities of (usually middle-class) African American spectators into counterpublics, as in the NAACP's campaign against the television version of Amos 'n' Andy. Finally, these accounts are extremely efficient at replacing the pain of outrage and indignation with the pleasures of thinking "I know what that means."

But the cost of these gains is rather high. First, these accounts leave little room for the complex, and often resistant, spectatorship engendered by the sheer egregiousness of such stereotypes, or for the creative and unpredictable cultural work it does. The NAACP's fifteen-year campaign against Amos 'n' Andy, for example, could not prevent a young Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and his black community in Piedmont, West Virginia, from "loving" the show. In his memoir, Colored People, Gates recalls,

everybody loved Amos 'n' Andy-I don't care what people say today. For the colored people, the day they took Amos 'n' Andy off the air was one of the saddest days in Piedmont ...

What was special to us about Amos 'n' Andy was that their world was all colored, just like ours. Of course, they had their colored judges and lawyers and doctors and nurses, which we could only dream about having, or becoming-and we did dream about those things.

While Amos 'n' Andy was inspiring dreams of becoming a doctor or lawyer in Piedmont, elsewhere in the segregated South it was giving the girl who would become bell hooks some of her early training in cultural criticism. She writes,

a poor black family, like the one I was raised in, might sit around watching Amos 'n' Andy-enjoying it as we simultaneously critiqued it-talking about the ways this cultural production served the interests of white supremacy. We knew we were not watching representations of ourselves created by black artists or progressive white folks. Within the context of an apartheid social structure where practically every aspect of black life was determined by the efforts of those in power to maintain white supremacy, black folks were incredibly vigilant ... Watching television in the fifties and sixties, and listening to adult conversation, was one of the primary ways young black folks learned about race politics.

Note that hooks's account focuses not on the stereotypes themselves, but on the interpretive community they generated, and the useful political effects of that interpretive work. Such effects are poorly explained by a reading practice that has exactly one trick up its sleeve.

Second, the scholarly focus on the stereotype tends to flatten its textual objects to such an extent it almost always under-reads the complexities of even the most stereotypical texts. Consider as an example an episode of Beulah (ABC, 1950-53), in which black maid Beulah (Louise Beavers) has somehow gotten the (mistaken, but that pretty much goes without saying on Beulah) idea that her white employer, to whom she refers as "Miss Alice," is pregnant. She passes this "information" on to Alice's husband, "Mr. Harry," who promptly begins dreaming of the new arrival. As he and Beulah's boyfriend, the hapless handyman Bill, are hanging outdoor lanterns for a picnic, they exchange the following lines of dialogue:

BILL: "Anything else you'd like me to hang up, Mr. HARRY?" HARRY: "A little boy with Donny's smile or a little girl with blonde curls." BILL: "Huh?"

While the bizarre allusion to lynching here, and to the lynching of a suburban white child at that, does nothing to mitigate the organizing racism of Beulah in general or this episode in particular, surely we can at least agree that something complicated is going on here. Is the text allowing itself to imagine, surreptitiously and fleetingly, deadly and racially coded violence against its own idealized whiteness? Regardless of how we read this moment, this is not the kind of textual detail likely to be spotted under the coarse lens of "the stereotype" or the "negative image."

Third, such analytical approaches under-read as well the complex relationships between texts deploying stereotypes and the televisual fields that surround them. Such fields, organized by flow, genre, and historical moment, or what Robert Deming has called "the viewer's television archives," may tend either to support or to challenge stereotypes. Recall, for example, the first season of CBS's Survivor. Survivor, with its "tribes," "talismans," and "idols," is always organized by the most transparently racist and ethnocentric tropes; that first season, to boot, was populated by African Americans who either couldn't work (Ramona) or couldn't swim (Gervase), and by a winner (Richard) who, despite being gay, managed to market himself, through his unapologetic emphasis on "playing the game," as the perfect corporate white guy. But these effects were complicated, that summer, by the Reebok ads that punctuated the program throughout its run. Featuring two geeky, twentysomething white guys in Survivor-inspired situations, these ads ironized Richard's game-playing. Their characters played the game badly, continually and unnecessarily adopting the most extreme and foolhardy approaches to "surviving," only to have their stupidity pointed out to them by well-meaning (and Reebok-clad) passersby, usually women and/or persons of color. If another Richard, Richard Dyer, is correct that one of the constitutive and enduring tropes of whiteness is the white man's conquest of the wilderness, surely these ads serve a destabilizing and unpredictable function in relation to the text of Survivor "proper."

Fourth, by taking what is only the most obvious form of televisual racism-the stereotype or "negative image"-as the medium's singular or even dominant form of racial ideology, stereotype-focused accounts risk drastically under-describing other problematic representational modalities in which racial types figure marginally, if at all. Such forms are more subtle and may be just as insidious. Consider (as I will throughout this book), for example, the long tradition, from Nat King Cole to André Braugher, of respectful-even deferential-depictions of the exemplary Negro, depictions whose positive effects for white hegemony may outweigh their effects among blacks as "positive images." Consider as well the documentary gaze, from Edward R. Murrow's Harvest of Shame to Bill Moyers's The Crisis in the Black Family, which fetishizes "accuracy" while gaping ethnographically at its black Others. And consider the consistent reduction of mass black politics, from the March on Washington to the Million Man March, to their implications for whites or their potential for "unrest."

Fifth, and finally, prevailing descriptions of the relations between African Americans and television, like Dates and Barlow's, in which powerful white opinion leaders slander passive blacks, are inadequate to explain these modalities and the overdetermined industrial conditions and social relations that produce them. Because they rest on the assumption that racial stereotypes invented "as far back as the colonial era" have persisted pretty much unchanged, they rest as well on the denial that television, as an historically situated and technologically specific phenomenon, might both organize and be organized by similarly specific racial formations. These descriptions are inadequate, in other words, because they fail to recognize the ways in which African American persons, collectivities, and politics have collided at crucial moments in television history with industrial self-interest, cynicism, and even, on occasion, the desire to do the right thing, to produce not only the content of television's programs, but their form and reception as well. To put it more bluntly, these descriptions are inadequate because they fail to apprehend the extent to which progressive postwar racial politics and American television have nurtured, relied on, and exploited one another.

Let me give you an example.


There are eight pieces of thirty-two-year-old correspondence in a file marked "American Broadcasting Company" among the papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Archives of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. The letters chronicle the attempts, starting late in 1967, by Issues and Answers producer Peggy Whedon to book King as a guest on her series. Prompted, apparently, by news of the upcoming Poor People's Campaign, Whedon wrote to King on December 5: "It has been far too long since you have been with us on ISSUES AND ANSWERS, and we would like to plan towards a program with you for the time in April when you start your plan of civil disobedience in Washington, D.C." Hoping to entice the ever-overscheduled King, Whedon promised that "ISSUES AND ANSWERS offers the ideal format and best TV time slot for a presentation by you to the American people."

King's secretary at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Dora McDonald, replied to Whedon on January 11, 1968: "Dr. King asked me to write to say that it will be possible for him to appear on Issues and Answers on Sunday, February 11, 1968. In keeping with the telephone conversation we had recently, he will not appear on any similar program at least thirty days before or after your engagement." But King's schedule and the network's conflicted: ABC would preempt Issues and Answers on February 11 in favor of its telecast of the Winter Olympics from Grenoble. Could King, Whedon asked in her January 22 letter to McDonald, appear on Sunday, March 24? No, McDonald replied, he was already scheduled to appear on Face the Nation that day.

Undaunted, Whedon wrote back on February 13, again pitching the potential program's efficacy for both ABC and the civil rights cause:

Since we cannot confirm a March date with Doctor King for a guest appearance on "Issues and Answers", I'd like to suggest a late April appearance after the Washington demonstrations. This would probably involve a summary of what had been accomplished and a look ahead to the summer. We shall wait to hear from you as to a good Sunday ..., a Sunday that would have a strong impact on audiences and on news stories. Since the program is carried in every large city in the United States, let's find a Sunday that would be mutually effective and important. Would April 28th be a good date?

April 28th was not a good date. Murdered on April 4th, King would be by then relegated posthumously to television genres other than Sunday afternoon public affairs programming: catastrophe coverage (news of the assassination and its aftermath), media event (the funeral), and, eventually, liberal documentary retrospective and public service announcement.

I cite this correspondence here as evidence of the complex relations of power at work in the relationship between the industry and the movement. Note, for example, that Whedon approaches King, not the other way around. Note the frankness with which she pitches Issues and Answers-with its "ideal format," "best TV time slot," and address to "every large city in the United States"-as a publicity vehicle for the campaign. And note how her emphasis on the "mutuality" of interest between ABC's program and King's movement constitutes a near-admission that each will be using the other for particular kinds of gain: while King and the campaign will benefit from national exposure, ABC will get exclusive access to King, at least for thirty days, and "a strong impact on audiences and on news stories."

A darling of the press since the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King enjoyed media access that was unique among movement activists. In 1968 he would have been particularly sought after by television producers, despite his opposition the Vietnam War and his shift to the Left on economic issues, as a "moderate" with respect to race relations. But if King-as a "reasonable" black leader with immense telegenicity-constituted for people like Whedon the prize on which they always had their eyes, I would argue that this had as much to do with a historical alliance between television and the civil rights movement as with King's singular televisual luminosity. The first two chapters of this book chart the early years of this alliance, which emerges in the wake of the lynching of Emmett Till and continues at least until 1965.

There was much more connecting civil rights with television than the temporal coincidence between the rapid expansion of the southern movement and the similar growth in television's penetration and profits. One of the central arguments of Black, White, and In Color is that from 1955 to 1965, both the civil rights movement and the television industry shared the urgent desire to forge a new, and newly national, consensus on the meanings and functions of racial difference. For its part, the southern movement's most consistent and effective gesture against segregation was to contrast the racial terrorism of the South with national ideals and democratic discourses. At exactly the same moment, television was becoming a national medium. The continued expansion of the industry's profits thus depended on its ability to exploit in programming the visuality and topicality of race across sectional borders. This in turn required a newly national consensus on the range of race's possible meanings, one that could spare networks the ire of southern affiliates, who were, from the perspective of the New York-based corporations, out of step with the rest of the country with respect to racial representation. Television and the civil rights movement, then, through a perhaps unlikely coincidence of interests, formed powerful allies for each other during this period.


Excerpted from Black, White, and in Color by Sasha Torres Copyright © 2003 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix
Acknowledgments xi
The Vicissitudes of the Stereotype 1
Issues and Some Answers 4
Television and Conservative Racial Projects after the '60s 8
"In a crisis we must have a sense of drama": Civil Rights and Televisual Information 13
The Burden of Liveness 13
"Pictures are the point of television news" 15
"We have shut ourselves off from the rest of the world" 20
"That cycle of violence and publicity" 23
"The vehemence of a dream" 33
The Double Life of "Sit-In" 36
"Sit-In"'s Industrial Context 36
"Sit-In" Flashes Back 39
"Sit-In" as a Movement Text 41
"Sit-In" and Black Idiom 44
King TV 48
Rodney King Live 48
Liveness: An Ideology of Television and Race 49
L.A. Law and Televisual Justice 52
Doogie Howser, M.D., and Televisual Instruction 60
Rodney King Dead 68
Giuliani Time: Urban Policing and Brooklyn South 70
Cops and Cop Shows 70
Giuliani Time 71
How to Identify with the Cops 77
Good Cop, Bad Cop 83
Civil Rights, Done and Undone 86
"A virtual whitewash in programming" 86
Malcom X on TV 91
The Nick Styles Show 97
Video Surveillance and Counterspectatorship 103

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