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  April 16, 2001 This month in Lingua Franca  

The Black Box

Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television
by Donald Bogle
520 pages, $30 (hardcover)
published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux

After the networks announced their fall programming early last summer, the air was filled not only with the usual media hype, but also with charges of racism. The NAACP wanted to know: Where are the African-Americans? Of some thirty new shows, only a handful had black characters. Under the threat of a boycott, the networks scrambled, rewriting scripts, adding a role here, a supporting character there.

Donald Bogle's massive new survey, Primetime Blue: African Americans on Network Television (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), could not be more timely, then. Bogle is a noted historian of black media, and his study aims to be nothing less than complete. His vision is generally bleak. While he sees some grounds for hope, he is often critical of TV's stereotypical representation of blacks. Such stereotypes, he believes, are just alive today as they were in the era of Amos n' Andy. As one would expect, reviews of the book were mixed.

In The New Republic, linguist and social critic John McWhorter penned a spirited attack on Bogle's despairing chronicle. "In Bogle's doctrinaire framework, it is all but impossible for any black performance to past muster," McWhorter wrote. "Instead, the analysis of every black character is a 'damned if they do, damned if they don't' exercise designed more to feed the flames of indictment of the white man than to illuminate any actual truths" The Nation's John Anderson was also skeptical: "There's the sense that every opportunity given, majestically, African-Americans on TV (itself a repulsive patriarchal concept) should be used to promote a positive political message.....Sure, Bogle can cite hundred of examples of African Americans being portrayed in a patronizing or demeaning fashion, but how many real white people ever show up on the tube?

By contrast, Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly noted that "Bogle avoids the usual trap of this kind of cultural criticism—praising earnest, 'serious work' over the truly subversive stuff (he ultimately rates The Jack Benny Show a bolder effort than, say, a mawkish Emmy-winner like TV's In the Heat of the Night)." Still, "the structure of Primetime Blues— describe a show's premise and stars, note its success or failure as a depiction of the black experience—becomes repetitive quickly."

Other reviewers were more favorable. In The Boston Globe, Renee Graham praised Bogle for his "prodigious command of this subject." She enthused: "Primetime Blues, at more than 500 pages, swells with detail and analysis. " And Julie Salamon, writing for the New York Times Book Review, while mildly critical, found much to value in Bogle's account: "With [a mixture of] appreciation and apprehension, Bogle examines African-Americans on television decade by decade, show by show, sometimes episode by episode. He not only measures the shows aesthetically and sociologically, he aims to explain the influence of ratings and Hollywood politics on how blacks have been represented. He also provides brief biographies of many of the dozens of actors whose work he describes. That's a lot of detail, and the book sometimes is dragged down by the voluminosity of its own authority -- and by Bogle's lapses into academic jargon." Nonetheless, she considered Primetime Blues "a valuable chronicle."

Matthew Price

Critics cited:
John McWhorter, The New Republic
Julie Salamon, The New York Times Book Review
Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly
John Anderson, The Nation
Renee Graham, The Boston Globe

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