- Watching While Black: Centering the Television of Black Audiences ed. by Beretta E. Smith-Shomade
Beretta E. Smith-Shomade has assembled a timely, necessary contribution to and intervention within the literature on television and blackness. The chapters in Watching While Black take over where the studies of Roots (ABC, 1977) and The Cosby Show (NBC, 1984–1992) left off in the 1980s and 1990s: they document the (often arrested) development of black representation on television across a range of outlets, bridging the gap between the land of traditional, prime-time network programming and the brave new world of digital, mobile television options. I do not have the space here to do justice to all of the work represented in this book, but I will try my best to put it into context and celebrate the contributions I believe it makes to media studies.
What was imperative about the spate of studies done on Roots and Cosby in the 1980s and 1990s was that they attended to critical, industrial, and audience reactions to those landmark programs that were, at the time, nearly “onlies” in the network television world, a world still premised on satisfying a majority white audience. What is crucial about this collection is that Watching While Black offers analysis of the much-changed television world wherein niche “ethnic” (read, “people of color”) audiences as well as “mainstream” (read, “white”) audiences are in play when programmers and producers make decisions about where, when, and how to incorporate black images. Smith-Shomade and her colleagues focus on those programs that implicitly or explicitly signal themselves as “black” (regardless of whether black writers, directors, or producers are part of the process), offering an intriguing [End Page 164] and necessary departure from studies of race and television that often overlook the expanded ability of black audiences to seek and find a wide array of black-themed (and often black-authored) television content.
By focusing on television created with (primarily) black audiences in mind, the book’s contributors give us insight into the continuing paradoxes of black representation and absence in different swaths of television. As Smith-Shomade emphasizes in the introduction, in a time when folks are declaring a “postracial” America, many people still fail to “see” black humanity. We need, quite seriously, to grapple with the fact that Americans of different races have different ways of seeing that “impact our ability to imagine the world in any other way than it exists right now. And that, to put it quite simply, is untenable.”1 Failing to investigate and understand race in television, now that producers are allegedly utilizing “color-blind casting” to populate shows, is to ignore the ways that our real-life experiences (and public policy) continue to illustrate the impact of race in the United States. Watching While Black asks us to engage with the televised versions of blackness being offered today, in part because television remains an important cultural barometer, and thus reflects at least some facets of racial identities, relations, and understandings.
Each chapter in the book attends to a different face of the multifaceted, multichannel means for consuming blackness on television. The first three give readers an important, detailed look at the behind-the-scenes logic of network television, with chapters on Roots, A Different World (NBC, 1987–1993), and City of Angels (CBS, 2000). These chapters underscore the importance of the viewpoints, experiences, and power of producers, showrunners, and schedulers in determining which black experiences are televised and how their decisions have ripple effects that can last for decades. For instance, the transition from a white female showrunner on A Different World to a black female graduate of a historically black university made all the difference, both by making the show a breakthrough hit with attention to the culture and diversity of black college life and by fostering a bevy of new black talent in the long term. As Robin R. Means Coleman and Andre M. Cavalcante remind us in their chapter, when...