- African Americans in Television: Behind the Scenes by Gregory Adamo
Gregory Adamo's African Americans in Television is a text of interviews that unmasks how African Americans who are a part of the television production industry respond to being "othered," how they define themselves as producers of content, and how they manage their professional and ethical responsibilities. One of the author's projects is to highlight the complex manifestation of media images informed by perceptions of black cultural identity and acknowledge the images that African Americans seek to project. The author notes that in the 1990s with black presidential forerunners, the emergence of hip hop, and the rise of black middle class families, African Americans sought television run by themselves. This urge would assist the United States in upholding its multicultural image. However, black production company executives had to act as cultural ambassadors to have their vision understood by white, corporate executives. In 1999 there were no blacks in leading roles among white shows and there were mainly white writers for black characters until networks signed diversity initiative agreements. The author discusses how networks use black stars as exploitative evidence to prove they are not racist (71). He also writes about how blacks who work in the television industry are often perceived as militant or professors of black cultural issues when speaking out against racial stereotypes presented in scripts (81-83). This book exposes executive decisions that allow for very few black writers and producers to script shows, and it encourages individuals to advocate for more racially colorful representations of African Americans in television on and behind the screens. Adamo takes a semi-postcolonial approach to his writing being that the subjects are given the dominant voice. They argue for a "decolonized" representation of themselves—one which allows them to choose which projection of African Americans is authentic to their experiences instead of perpetuating stereotypes.
The chapter entitled "Getting In and Staying In" is not only useful for African Americans in television but for any person pursuing a career where the chances of remaining employed are slim. Adamo writes that the power to create media images lies in education and internships—mediums to which blacks were historically denied access. He argues that the more prestigious the institution, the more interested the production company is in hiring a particular individual. Networking, receiving mentorship, and serving as a mentor are crucial, especially for those who seek to gain footing in the television industry and to control their representations on the screen. Adamo charts the legacy of black mentoring in the television industry through Felicia Henderson, a scriptwriter for Sister Sister, Moesha, and The Fresh Prince, who was mentored by Vida Spears and Sara Finney, co-producers of Family Matters and creators of Moesha.
Despite his will not to dominate the discussion of African Americans in television, the author's own perception of respectable presentations of blacks seeps into his writing. He favors a post-Cosby, middle class image of blacks versus more comedic shows such as Martin and even considers such shows "disasters" (4). However, when one considers those shows in conjunction with more sophisticated images of blacks, the breadth of African American personas can be glimpsed; this breadth is what the book originally intended to support. His assertion is also bold considering Martin held some of Fox's higher ratings during its five-season run. Despite some episodes being considered stereotypical (with [End Page 205] the star of the show transforming into numerous characters including "ghetto fabulous" Shenene, the downtrodden pimp Tyrone, and the snotty-nosed kid Roscoe), the overall message of many of the episodes has become a household topic among many black viewers who relate to the experiences enacted.
Later, Adamo writes that Vida Spears left Moesha after a gang episode was proposed but fails to discuss or question the intended message of that script. He sides with Spears in attempts to promote a cleaner, more respectable version of black life despite gang violence being a prevalent circumstance that ails many African American communities. The book may have benefited...