As television emerged as a popular form of entertainment in the 1950s, the representation of black characters on screen was limited and often stereotypical. In the early years of television, black characters were either absent or depicted as caricatures, often portraying negative stereotypes such as lazy or ignorant.
One of the first black characters to appear on television was “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” a comedy series that aired from 1951 to 1953. The show featured white actors in blackface playing the roles of Amos and Andy, two African American characters who were portrayed as buffoons. The show was heavily criticized for its offensive portrayal of black characters and eventually went off the air.
In the 1960s, television began to feature more diverse representation, with black characters appearing on a number of popular shows. One of the first black characters to break through the racial barriers on television was Bill Cosby, who starred in the hit show “I Spy.” Cosby played the role of Alexander Scott, a secret agent who worked alongside his white partner, Kelly Robinson (Robert Culp). Cosby’s portrayal of a smart and capable character was groundbreaking at the time and helped to challenge negative stereotypes about black people.
Another significant black character in the 1960s was Julia Baker, played by Diahann Carroll, on the show “Julia.” Julia was a nurse and the single mother of a young son, and the show focused on her struggles as a black woman in a white-dominated world. Julia was a groundbreaking character for the time, as she was shown as an independent and successful woman, rather than being portrayed as a servant or a subservient character.
In the 1970s, black characters continued to make their mark on television, with shows such as “The Jeffersons” and “Good Times” featuring predominantly black casts. “The Jeffersons,” which aired from 1975 to 1985, followed the lives of a wealthy African American couple, George and Louise Jefferson, as they navigated life in New York City. “Good Times,” which aired from 1974 to 1979, focused on the lives of an impoverished black family living in the inner city. Both shows helped to challenge the negative stereotypes often associated with black people and provided a more nuanced portrayal of the African American experience.
In the 1980s and 1990s, black characters continued to make their presence known on television, with shows such as “The Cosby Show,” “A Different World,” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” featuring predominantly black casts. “The Cosby Show,” which aired from 1984 to 1992, followed the lives of the Huxtable family, a middle-class African American family living in Brooklyn. The show was groundbreaking for its portrayal of a successful and loving black family, and it helped to challenge negative stereotypes about black people. “A Different World,” which aired from 1987 to 1993, focused on the lives of African American college students at Hillman College, and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” which aired from 1990 to 1996, followed the life of a young black man from Philadelphia who moved in with his wealthy aunt and uncle in Beverly Hills.
In more recent years, black characters have continued to make their mark on television, with shows such as “Black-ish,” “Scandal,” and “Insecure” featuring predominantly black casts and tackling issues of race and representation. “Black-ish,” which has aired since 2014, follows the lives of an upper-middle-class African American family living in Los Angeles, and “Scandal,” which aired from 2012 to 2018, focused on the life of a black woman who worked as a political fixer in Washington, D.C. “Insecure,” which has aired since 2016, follows the lives of two black women navigating their careers and relationships in Los Angeles.