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Nostalgia TV? Not Feeling the Love

The good old days of Mad Men, Pan Am and The Playboy Club all send a familiar message to Black actors: no positions available

Let’s see. The adventures of top advertising industry execs in the 1960s? No positions available. (Look at the industry today. Nothing’s changed.) Blacks didn’t get to make their mark as leaders in advertising until they began launching their own firms in the late 1960s. The perils and passions of flight attendants in the 1960s? No positions available. The first Black flight attendant, Ruth Carol Taylor, was hired in 1957 by Mohawk Airlines, which did not provide passenger service (she was fired six months later for getting married, a no-no for an industry known for its outrageously discriminatory hiring policies). It took years for major passenger carriers to be forced to make token hires of Black flight attendants, with major carriers like Pan Am and stewardess unions fighting integration tooth and nail every step of the way.

How about frolicking with Playboy bunnies in the 1960s? There is at least some hope on this front, one because eternal playboy Hugh Hefner consistently pushed against racial barriers both at his mansion and in his magazine, and two because sexuality has always been an area where Black women, if only on a token level, could gain limited entry into the White world, nightlife being a prime venue for such interaction. Fittingly, The Playboy Club does have at least one Black cast member, Naturi Naughton as Bunny Brenda, who aspires to become the first Black Playmate in Playboy magazine (a color-line that was actually breached when Jennifer Jackson was selected as Playboy‘s March 1965 Playmate). Will we get to meet Bunny’s family, friends, boyfriends (assuming they are Black)? Like I said, leave your resume, just in case. (A Black Playmate spin-off? Slow your roll, playa.)

At least Mad Men has earned respect by consistently telling a story that is a historically accurate representation of the racist and sexist reality of the era it portrays—just one of the reasons my Black friends like it so much, but which also pretty much eliminates all but token opportunities for Black actors. Pan Am tries to have it both ways, reportedly planning to cast a Black flight attendant on the series even though there was likely no such thing on commercial airlines back then. If true, this is literally tokenism in fact and in fiction; cowardly at best, PC pandering at worst. If you’re going to cast a show about a Whites-only profession in an era of open racial discrimination in hiring, then just do it—don’t fake the funk.

Don’t get me wrong; nostalgia has its place in the hearts of Black Americans just as it does for White Americans. But that doesn’t change the fact that when it comes to happy days, we won’t find them looking over our shoulders. Our best history is in front of us. That’s clearly the case for Black actors and the television industry in general, at least on the equal opportunity, programming-that-looks-like-America tip. So when it comes to nostalgia TV, wake me up when we get to the 1970s, when American icons like Earl Graves, Don Cornelius, George Clinton, Max Robinson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Andrew Young, Diana Ross, Berry Gordy, Althea Gibson, Susan Taylor, Jessie Jackson, Gordon Parks, Tom Burrell, Richard Pryor, Billy Dee Williams and Maynard Jackson hit the scene. Make some TV series’ about those “happy days.” Dramatize those American stories. (Of course, you might have to actually hire Black actors and put Black casting directors, writers, producers and studio execs in charge.) Until then, I’m just not feeling the love.

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  • BlackActors.net

    There are plenty of other shows to celebrate this season.

    http://blackactors.net/2011/09/black-stars-of-television-fall-2011-12-season/

    • Mari

      If you aren’t current on the show, then this uoviobsly won’t match what is going on with the offices (not to spoil it but they have new offices).My guess is that the office stretches to the other side of the elevator bay (the time life building should have central elevators to maximize window space). Over there is probably where they keep all of their accountants, ad buyers, typists, records, etc.

  • Alix Montes

    Interesting. I definitely understand your frustration with the absence of Black actors. I personally love Mad Men. I think it’s a great show. It’s historically accurate, and it’s one of the few shows that details what takes place in a corporate setting. Despite the lack of Black actors on the show, there is no place for them in the setting. Corporate America in the 1960′s didn’t usually have a place for us. I would however be interested in seeing the interaction if they decided to give Sterling Cooper Draper Price Black clients or even competitors.

    We have made some progress, and we still have room for improvement. In the meantime, it’s important for us to make sure we give ourselves the opportunities that others won’t. I also have a bone to pick with BET. I understand it’s an outlet for Black directors, actors, and artists, but I think the content is ignorant and does not do us justice. I am pretty sick of seeing movies that show Black people in prison. I think there needs to be a higher standard at BET.

    One last thought on tokenism. This month, Tony Plana, from Ugly Betty came to speak at GW as a part of Latino Heritage Celebration. He said that minorities often have to take token roles as a way to break into the industry. Although it’s a challenge, it’s a necessary evil in some cases.

  • Elle Rivers

    I disagree — Mad Men is not historically accurate. I started as a secretary in a Detroit (auto ad) agency in 1966, and worked my way up to Personnel Manager. After the riots in 1967, the company actively sought African Americans for entry level positions; it was company policy to start ALL inexperienced employees at low level positions and work them upwards through the system. That worked fine for a while until we found other agencies were raiding our talent pool. Then, we organized a group of agencies to recruit minority employees. That was very successful.
    And, I want Mad Men to understand that original Rock and Roll music was all the rage in the 60s; not that 50s stuff they play. Motown Records started about 1962. I want Mad Men to get with the program.
    I find it hard to believe there were no black female flight attendants in the 60s. After all, this was the era of The Civil Rights Movement.
    TV-One and BET have to upgrade their offerings instead of catering to the lowest common denominators. More educational uplifting shows vs. the sex, violence, guns and drug shows that glorify ghetto life.

  • Tony

    After finally watching 4 full seasons of Mad Men on Netflix over the past few weeks, I felt compelled to let the world know that not all black people were doormen, maids, elevator operators, muggers, etc. as depicted in this hit show. Here’s the real story:

    My late father, Junius Edwards, was among the first African-Americans to own and operate his own advertising agency in New York City in the 1960s after working for years as a copywriter for Ogilvy & Mather and other Ad agencies Madison Avenue. Some of his clients under Junius Edwards Inc. Advertising were Carver Federal Saving Bank of Harlem, Faberge, Ligget&Myers, Greater New York Savings Bank and more. Junius Edwards Inc. is featured in the book: “Madison Avenue and the Color Line African Americans in the Advertising Industry” by Jason Chambers.

    I would hope that Mad Men writers will get the story straight in upcoming episodes.

    Read more in the New York Times:

    http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9807EEDB133AF93BA15750C0A96E9C8B63

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