Back to US Life Histories

The Portrayal of African Americans in the Media

Larry Miller

Unless your parents are paranoid, the media will bombard you for most of your life.
I think one of the first things that freaked me out was when I started to notice the alarming portrayal of African Americans (or blacks) on television.

Like most children, I spent a majority of my childhood years with my grandmother. Often she would sit me down to watch cartoons while preparing my lunch. Around this time I started noticing that the cartoons I viewed had racial overtones that I never expected to see.
The first thing that caught me was a Tom and Jerry episode, in which there was a black "mama-esque" character yelling "Thomas" and chasing him through the household. In another one, that hunter who used to chase Bugs Bunny, attempted to catch him by setting an oil slick trap and an explosive charge. As usual the hunter was smarted out. When the smoke cleared he was covered in oil simulating a black face.

As I got older I started to investigate how much movies and television of the past used white actors in shoe polish to imitate or behave as black Americans. I became extremely angry at the portrayal of my people in the arts.

Little things began to step out to me. I would think it funny that when watching the news, black criminals' faces would be shown, and often a white perpetrator's face would not be broadcasted.

The media's representation of blacks would upset me on a daily basis. Television often cast us as shakin' and jiving hipsters, criminals, or addicts. When I would express or talk about these things with my family, my mother would tell me that even though miniscule, there are positive roles. I was too young to remember. She told me about Bill Cosby playing a cop on Eye Spy, and some television show where Diane Caroll played a nurse.

Those things were cool, but I still felt that as far as corporate Hollywood was concerned I was just a novelty. Even things that I eventually embraced, such as black exploitation films, disgusted me at first. I wasn't able to appreciate these things until I started to see positive images of blacks.

Even now in the nineties and two thousands this type of stereotyping exists. This is an era where crap like "Homeboys From Outer Space" can be considered decent family viewing. I mean "Damn" there are blacks on television now, but what percentage of blacks that you see as compared to the amount of Caucasians?

I think that it's funny that as I'm writing this, audiences across America are being bombarded by Spike Lee's new film Bamboozled.
What we have here is an African American poking fun at Hollywood and the networks. I'm glad that we are at an age now where blacks can portray ourselves the way we want to be seen. I am also happy that other nationalities are able to do the same.

The media has an alarming amount of control over what people perceive, and sometimes that power is used without consciousness and spreads racial stereotypes. This country and it's entertainment business has come a long way from such embarrassments like Birth of a Nation in which the Ku Klux Klan is heralded as being saviors of the white race.

Newspapers and periodicals are guilty of similar injustices. These things trip me out. I find it funny that the media in all forms will jump on something this day and time and in a country such as ours. Our news and entertainment sources should be more consistent with the portrayal of our heterogeneous society.

Now I don't consider everything in print or on television to be negative. After all for a while there were programs such as The Cosby Show and A Different World, which provided excellent role models and portrayals of modern day African Americans. Television shows such as these have opened the minds of millions of Americans to show them that our lives and experiences aren't as bad as they have been illustrated. Our music has become a driving force behind the recording industry and our style, speak, and culture has been adopted by the masses.

Whether you are black, white, hip-hop, or alternative, grunge or house, the media will put you in a negative spin until they are able to figure you out. There is a huge amount of fear of the unknown. The media has been known to capitalize and propagate that fear. Fear is not for the ignorant, but for those who do not have knowledge of what they oppose. I feel that the more responsible the media is with its portrayals of all cultures, races, sects, etc., the less people like myself will have to bitch about. If you want people to listen to your music, you have to realize that your public is diverse. You must not alienate them with half-truths about who they are.

Back to US Life Histories