Growing up in the ’90s had its perks. Pogs, Tamagotchis, Starter jackets, Guess Jeans outfits, Grant Hill’s Filas, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, homemade mixtapes, Blockbuster videos, Bagel Bites, BrainQuest, and those weird transforming McDonald’s toys. ALL OF THAT WAS DOPE.
You know what else was great about the decade before Y2K? Black television. Of course, there were iconic sitcoms such as The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Martin, and Family Matters. But with shows like Roc, The Parent ‘Hood, Hanging With Mr. Cooper, New York Undercover (y’all just had to kill Eddie, huh?), Living Single, In The House, and In Living Color, there was no shortage of minority representation on a nightly basis. Seriously, EVERY NIGHT. It was en vogue. It was chic. It was proactive and got the people going. It was also impactful and encouraging because it provided images of people who shared my melanin doing big things, like going to college, or becoming doctors (and lawyers and judges), or developing transformation chambers to get the girl of their dreams. (What up doe, Urkel?!)
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They made us laugh, and they made us cry. (Why did Will’s daddy do him like that?) They found ways to discuss societal issues, such as drug use, sex, violence, gender equality, and police brutality. Truth be told, had it not been for A Different World — and my mom filling out an application to FAMU — I probably would have never attended an HBCU. And given Detroit’s horrific resemblance to apocalyptic ruins during my childhood, this impression mattered.
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Which is why I appreciate the current renaissance of black entertainment. While there have been some notable black shows in the new millennium (My Wife and Kids, The Bernie Mac Show, Girlfriends, Chappelle’s Show, Everybody Hates Chris, The Wire, Treme, and Oz), Black folks have been mostly relegated to the minstrel rachetness of reality television. (Was I the only one who peeped BET’s first scripted series, Somebodies?)
But since Donald Glover’s Atlanta (FX) and Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar (OWN), premiered to record-breaking ratings and impressive reviews, the tide certainly seems to be turning for the better. Furthermore, these two hits are just the latest residents to crash the old-fashioned, white neighborhood that is the television industry. Fox is steady hauling in advertising dollars with Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard commanding a loyal following as Cookie and Lucious Lyon on Empire, and Pitch envisioning a world where Mo’ne Davises grow up to dominate the MLB. Starz is also serving a double-dose of blackness with the Twitter-favorite Power and the LeBron James–produced Survivor’s Remorse. WGN’s poignant series Underground was renewed for a second season after a compelling 10-episode debut.
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And is there any acclaim Black-ish isn’t garnering with Tracee Ellis Ross’ beautiful self? It’s also proof that if Anthony Anderson can recover from his token roles in Agent Cody Banks 2 and Kangaroo Jack, you can blow up in that nursing program, get your hair done, and buy a Toyota Camry. Don’t give up on your dreams, people.
Perhaps the most incredible example of black people flexing their talent on television is the upcoming show Insecure. While HBO has provided some beautiful cinematic art, since Chris Rock’s flagship program concluded in 2000, the premium station has been extremely white with its content. Like white, white. Game of Thrones is great, and all, but the only prominent Negro on that mug was Xaro, and he fell victim to Daenerys’ ruthlessness for foolishly trying to double-cross her on some nonsense. Up until now, HBO’s longest-tenured shows featuring black folks were either about selling drugs, or prison. C’mon, b.
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The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency featuring the lovely Jill Scott and Anika Noni Rose was canceled after its inaugural, seven-episode season despite garnering a Peabody Award. Brothers in Atlanta, a comedy series from seasoned writers Diallo Riddle and Bashir Salahuddin, was scrapped after the network greenlit the project and ordered a pilot. Plus, we all know how they tried to play our soul-sista-friend Effie Brown on that “White Boy Bro” nonsense, Project Greenlight. Yet, terrible shows such as Bored to Death and Lena Dunham’s, Girls, survived multiple seasons before getting axed.
Which makes Issa Rae’s meteoric rise as unlikely as it is welcomed. Much like her best-selling novel The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl and her budding web series of the same name, Rae’s Insecure seeks to feature women of color beyond the clichéd roles of strong, loud, menacing, ghetto, angry caricatures. Positive imagery matters, but so does realness. Not every black woman is Olivia Pope or whatever melodramatic, stereotypical nonsense Tyler Perry concocts. If the show’s irreverently hilarious pilot is any indication, Insecure figures to be yet another Emmy favorite for the premium network. Gon’ head and get that Friends money, girl!
Make no mistake, this influx of Afrocentric programming on the small screen isn’t going to rid our country of racism and systemic bias. Romanticizing about how our televised stories will somehow incite care, understanding, and empathy is a beautiful notion, even if it is profoundly misguided. Regardless of the overwhelming amount of successful shows featuring colorful casts portraying minorities positively, the 1990s was still one of the most racially tumultuous decades since the Civil Rights era.
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The cops who brutally beat Rodney King and heinously executed Amadou Diallo unjustly escaped consequences for their criminal actions despite Officer Winslow’s touching portrayal of racial profiling. Moreover, officers sworn to protect and serve our communities continue to benefit from a flawed judicial system that frequently provides immunity to those who use their oath as a creed to unlawfully abuse their power, thus permeating law enforcement’s blatant disregard for black lives.
But Negro representation on the tube does provide much-needed access to role models and ideals that may be not available within decaying communities. Plus, these shows afford opportunities to minorities in an industry that is perversely structured to be Caucasian. At the very least, this latest iteration of black television is supremely enjoyable entertainment that has proven to both critically and commercially successful. May the new wave of colored television reign on. Black is beautiful.