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Growing Up with Black & White, and "Colored," TV
August 24, 2010  | By Gerald Jordan  | 1 comment
rca-console-tv-am-fm-stereo.jpgThe memories seem funny now. My brothers, my sister and I can't help but laugh every time we relive the days when Uncle Shag would call on us to verify his suspicions about what he saw on TV.

That was during the late 1950s and early 1960s in Malvern, Ark. It was an era of visions in black & white from the standpoint of both the picture on TV and the even sharper contrast of the segregated life we lived. It was a time when African Americans were rendered invisible on TV, except in some sparse news coverage -- much of it civil rights demonstrations on the network nightly news -- or some horrible cliched, buck-eyed, grinning images.

So the massive RCA console TV, which in my youth seemed big enough to house a family of four, took on a role more important to us than a mere entertainment medium.


In the rural South, it was our melting pot, particularly The Ed Sullivan Show. It was on that CBS show that we could see more African Americans in flattering roles on Sunday nights than at all other times combined on TV throughout the rest of the week.

And, most often, it was on those Sundays when Uncle Shag would lean forward in his inner-spring rocking chair and peer at the TV. Someone in a chorus would catch his eye. An entertainer whose seemingly sepia tone was apparent enough to raise doubt would become the focus of his curiosity. And Uncle Shag would call out "Come here!" One, or all of us, would scoot into the room, or press closer to the TV set if we already were there. "Is that one colored?"

Understand that it was the language of the time. And depending upon how much camera time that poor soul got, the debate was on.

We -- my brothers, my sister and I -- probably watched too much television. There were, however, lots of reasons; no, there were lots of excuses. It was an inexpensive distraction from roaming the streets, but then there weren't many streets to roam in my small hometown, and they could hardly be described as dangerous, save for the voluminous truck traffic along Little Rock Highway.

No, TV was the theater where African-American kids were entitled to the same comfortable seats down front as those occupied by whites. TV was our window on the world. Really. It was a main branch public library where everybody got the same treatment and the same access to books.

Still, though, it was a window with a skewed view.

We'd keep watching, hoping to see evidence of ourselves, not reruns of Amos 'n Andy, movies that featured Mantan Moreland, or anything else that offered whites more chances to mock African Americans. And there likely were many more times than I can now remember when we were just plain angry at television because it lied to us so often.


Rin Tin Tin never showed us any members of the U.S 10th Cavalry Regiment, the so-called Buffalo Soldiers. There were only rare appearances by African Americans -- never physicians -- on Dr. Kildare. No African American attorneys challenged Perry Mason.

We knew they existed because we had to go to Hot Springs or Little Rock to be treated by African American physicians or consult African American attorneys.

Certainly there were no police or private detectives who looked like us, because God forbid that a national TV audience sees black people wielding pistols rather than microphones, and calling out to white criminals rather than crooning ballads.

Heaven knows that African Americans never used any of the products advertised on TV, and that alone might be the root of enduring racial divisions played out on television. If the sponsors weren't so hell bent on "not offending customers" by perpetuating the lie that there was no African American middle class of consumers, who knows what barriers might have fallen long ago?

Much has changed since those days when we crowded around the RCA, relative to the change that has taken place in society. Or has it? I am eager again to turn my eyes toward the TV set. I'd say the flat screen, but I'm not that into TV. And I'm even more eager to watch television in the age of Obama. I hope that we've all progressed.




Hop said:

I'm curious. Having watched Amos 'n' Andy as a kid and more recently on DVD, I was surprised how funny it was and that it was not more controversial. In your opinion, would lifting the TV ban on the show be a mistake or a chance to educate and review the culture of the 50s?

Comment posted on August 26, 2010 12:29 PM

Noel Holston said:

Gerald, how are you? Been a long, long time. I'm living in Athens, Ga., now, working parttime for the Peabody Awards program at the U. of Georgia living a quieter, frugal life.
Really liked this piece, getting your perspective. Good point about the Sullivan show being a rare TV stage for black entertainers in that day.
What else have you been up to since I last saw you about, oh, what, 25 years ago.
(Grassy) Noel

Comment posted on September 23, 2010 1:23 PM
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