A few weeks ago, Fox premiered its new show Empire. It was directed by the same guy who brought the movie Precious to the world, if that tells you anything. The show features a black family who has been enriched by the entertainment industry. It's headed up by a sassy black mother who has just done many years behind bars. From what I've read about the show, she is the classic sapphire stereotype, snapping her way through every scene.
Then you have the pimpish black father played by Terrance Howard (a person who has made his distaste with black women glaringly clear in the past, but of course black women are quick to forget). He is the classic stereotype of a trifling black father who abuses his family, and of course now that he's rich he is involved with a white woman. The rest of the family is a ball of dysfunction, including a gay son who was apparently thrown in the trash as a baby. Family members are fighting each other for power.
I get it -- this is basically a juicy urban book wrapped into a multi-season mainstream TV show. Black people love these types of stories because there's drama, sex, money and drugs.
But there's something deeper and more insidious behind Empire that is the reason why I can't and won't support it -- Fox's decision to air it head to head with ABC's new show blackish on Wednesday nights.
I believe that the Fox network, headed up by the notoriously conservative Rupert Murdoch (the same network that is responsible for Fox News), has reasons behind airing this new gangsta black family that (presumably from the storyline) hates each other against a show about a professional black family that loves each other. I believe that this can be seen as a calculating move made to "put black people in their place." I think of it as TV's way of showing the world what the black American community of today is REALLY all about, what we worship, where our priorities are, what we value. And it's embarrassing.
While black people are out on the streets screaming that black lives matter, many still seem oblivious to how the black IMAGES we see and support every day in media can effect how we're treated by and in society.
A Different World
The executives at Fox knew exactly how to capture the attention of most black viewers, and it worked with flying colors. The show now has over 11 million viewers compared to ratings that have fallen for blackish (now at about 3 million according to the latest numbers). They have succeeded probably beyond their wildest dreams at this point. Let's not even talk about how many non-black people are watching this show quietly and eating it up. This IS Fox, a mainstream channel, after all.
Just recently I watched a mini marathon of a show I used to love as a girl called A Different World. It was one of the shows that pushed me to value my education. It taught me work ethic and sisterhood. I also remember that around that time I was exposed to a number of other fun, light-hearted shows featuring everyday black people making a way, including Living Single, Martin and NY Undercover.
Shows like Empire have their place on TV. Mindless soap operas have been around for decades. But here's the problem: nowadays we don't have a good variety of smart black shows to offset shows like Empire. Other than Empire, blackish and Scandal, we mostly see black women and men fighting on reality TV. Every reality TV show isn't horrible, but they all play on the line and tend to perpetuate negative stereotypes.
Get Ready for More
Now that black people have shown network executives how much they LOVE Empire, get ready for plenty more shows like it on mainstream TV. Maybe the next one will be about a drug dealing black family -- a black mother on crack and the Kingpin father who beats her senselessly while running his "empire." Or a black family that boosts together, because you know that's all black people do is steal and commit crimes for profit. (That line of thinking is also what helps whites justify killing black people in the streets as if they're rabid dogs).
Also get ready for even more debased and questionable story lines on Empire that will have black people second guessing whether it's something they really want to support.
Finally, I wouldn't be surprised if blackish eventually went away quietly. It's probably one of black America's last chances for putting forward a positive image for black kids to see. It was finally a new show that might encourage a black child to be a working professional who OWNS something instead of chasing hoop dreams or ending up in jail for trying to mimic the lifestyles of Jay Z and Meek Mill.
The success of Empire proves the point that black people have to stop blaming others for our problems. Many black people willingly participate in their own slander.
Black parents, please do everything you can to expose your young kids to a wider variety of black images. Centric and TVOne are a start. Support smart web series that put forth diverse stories about black people so that they can one day reach television. What young children consume regularly does matter when it comes to the choices they make and future steps they take.