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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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