Paper II Lucky Me
RTF 316 History of Radio and Television
November 24, 1998
As television moved into American homes in the early 50s, racism certainly came with it. Although racism was something that was clearly evident in America around that time, television had a unique way of presenting it to look like it was not a problem of the time. From shows with white stars like The Rifleman, to shows that had African American stars such as Amos n Andy, racism was always evident in the script.
When looking at a particular text such as The Rifleman, it is generally easy to pick out bits of racism throughout the show. The reason it is so easy for us to pick it out is simply because we live in a period where racism, although it exists, is generally seen as wrong. Although many civil rights movements occurred within the 50s and 60s, African Americans were still segregated and viewed as an inferior race to many. In the show, The Rifleman, Chuck Connors stars the show as the character Lucas McCain. He lives with his boy, Mark, on a ranch somewhere in New Mexico. Within the five years that it was on the air, there were many shows that dealt with issues of racism towards not only African Americans, but also Native Indians. African Americans were commonly shown to be thieves and cheap laborers. They were not stars of the show by any means and if they were to appear, chances are they would be rebels of the town and Lucas would have to hunt them down. Many shows also had Indian characters that were generally threats to the community. Uniquely enough, if they honestly were non-hostile Indians who meant no harm to the community, Lucas would side with them. On the flip side, the town would turn against them no matter what the situation was. Native Indians were viewed as the lowest class of people in the area. They were disrespected, mocked, and distrusted even when they did nothing wrong. The townspeople in New Mexico often wanted to gun them down clean their town even though the Indians caused little havoc. Chuck Connors was the dominant white male character that the society of that time viewed to be in control of everything. He was on the side of the sheriff and of the townspeople, and wanted justice to always be served. He was a single father and did an excellent job raising Mark, which made him the type of character that people wanted to be. Perhaps it was because of this heroic character that the show became so popular. Of course, with so many people watching shows that constantly portrayed minorities as having unacceptable qualities, it is no wonder racism was so out of hand. Maybe if networks had shows that stared African Americans people would have viewed them differently on the other hand, maybe it would make it worse.
Although a predecessor of The Rifleman, Amos n Andy was a show that not only stared African Americans, was centered on them as well. Staring Alan Childress as Amos and Spencer Williams as Andy, their show was a relatively popular sitcom derived from the even more popular radio show. The shows were often focused on Kingfish, played by Tim Moore. He usually had some sort of idea or scheme to make his lifestyle better or more particularly to become wealthy. Although the show was focused on the African American community, it portrayed blacks in a terrible sort of way. The general character on the show was a poor porch sitter who barely made enough money to get by on a regular basis. The characters did not stand up for things that they believed in especially to white folk. They were uneducated, loud, obnoxious, and worst of all were portrayed to have the worst English grammar in society. The women of the show were portrayed to be just as loud and obnoxious but also very demanding and general nuisances to their husbands. In the episode of The Happy Stevens, we are able to see exactly how a typical wife acted on the show. Sapphire (Ernestine Wade) is constantly nagging at the Kingfish to act more like their favorite radio show, The Happy Couple. We see how Kingfish miserably tried to mimic the show the best that he can by using cheap imitations of The Happy Couples ideas. Such disregard for the Kingfishs taste would never have been shown had he been white. The show was watched by millions of people across America from children to elderly people. More importantly African Americans watched it too. Although blacks were being represented on the television, they would have probably been better off without being so. Not only did people of the time get to see white folk make fun of African Americans, they got to see African Americans make fun of themselves.
Although we are now able to look back at how racism was portrayed on television, we must ask ourselves has it gotten any better? I think that the answer is no. Directors and producers have simply done a much better job of incorporating racism into shows without us realizing it. Even in much more recent shows, African Americans are still portrayed to be more deviant characters in society. Take for example the popular seven-year show of Designing Women. One of the main characters of the show is Anthony Bouvier, played by Meshach Taylor. Anthony is portrayed to be a hard working and educated friend and employee of the Sugarbaker firm. He was on the show from the beginning until the end, and even though he was such a hard worker, his past always seemed to come up. He had served time in prison for a crime he had committed some time ago and many episodes incorporate racist humor on him. Suzanne Sugarbaker, played by Delta Burke, often makes comments about Anthony that are shots against the African American community. Of course, she does them in a way that seems so natural and innocent that we can not help but realize that she is joking. Although she is his friend and she means no harm upon him, her views towards African Americans are openly expressed in a humorous way to him throughout her five years on the show.
Racism will most likely be a problem that occurs long past our lifetimes, but is it really necessary for television shows to take advantage of it. Most everyone is guilty of finding a great deal of humor in the racist jokes that we hear on television. Many of us do not even view it as racism because it seems so naturalized on television. It will be hard for the world to be completely non-racist as long as television is part of our lives, and racism is part of television. I would like to think that I know how it feels to have an entire viewing audience laughing at me, but unfortunately I will never know. I am a white male who is supposed to find humor in it lucky me.