The Great American Soap Opera



The advent of television and the American soap opera came just at the time of the modern civil rights movement was gaining steam. Much more of America was still rigidly segregated like my hometown. Women were considered little more than mere housewives to whom advertisers could sell detergent, and gays and lesbians still were hiding in the nooks and crannies of various closets. Even if real life didn't conform to that exact reality, prime time television by and large reinforced it for millions of viewers; daytime soaps, for the most part, did so as well. However as the civil rights movement thrust a mirror filled with boycotts, marches, police dogs and firehoses turned on Black citizens into the collective national face, soaps — which have a history of cautious progressivism — responded with conservative (some would say timid) yet nonetheless important steps in breaking class and color barriers.

Prime time television had "experimented" with featuring Blacks for many years. There was Ethel Waters' one shot variety show in 1939 when TV was nothing more than a novelty; The Three Flames hosted another variety show in 1949; the beloved-by-some/reviled-by-many Amos n' Andy show in '51-'53; Terry Carter was featured on The Phil Silvers Show from 1953-1959; and most famously Nat King Cole's failed variety hour in 1956. If there is one thing these and practically all other shows that periodically featured Blacks of the period had in common is evident in the descriptions above: the vast majority were musical variety hours or comedies.

From the start daytime serials did things a bit differently, mainly because they were a dramatic medium devoid of the comedy and musical acts we so routinely see on soaps today. In 1962, Procter & Gamble's A Brighter Day introduced soaps' first featured African American in a dramatic contract role, film and stage actor Rex Ingram. Before NBC launched the groundbreaking Julia starring Diahann Carroll, The Guiding Light in 1966 signed Billy Dee Williams and Cicely Tyson (and later James Earl Jones and Ruby Dee as recasts!) as Dr. Jim and Martha Frazier, professional characters who predated The Cosby Show's Huxtables by 20 years. Prior to Julia's debut in 1968 featuring Carroll's titular character as a noble nurse, One Life to Live premiered a few months earlier and had as one of it's first stories, the edgy saga of Carla Benari (Grey), an African-American woman played by Ellen Holly passing herself as white in daytime's own version of Imitation of Life. In 1975, Days of Our Lives embarked on an ill-fated interracial romance story with the popular characters of David Banning and Valerie Guthrie, a union that so enraged viewers that the character was shipped off to Sweden (!) and actress Tina Andrews was fired.

By the time I started watching soaps, Black characters were as scarce on daytime as they have been in the 20-plus year history of The Bold and the Beautiful. One new emerging supercouple was on deck on a show I had just started watching regularly called All My Children. I was absolutely captivated by the developing love story between young, street tough Jesse Hubbard and a down on her luck white girl named Jenny Gardner (Kim Delaney).

Oh yes, gentle readers, Jesse and Jenny. AMC legend and yore would have us believe that Angie Baxter had always been the apple of Jesse's eye and that Jenny and Greg Nelson (Laurence Lau) were the show's sole Cinderella story. I remember the time before Angie appeared on the scene, when Jesse and Jenny's burgeoning relationship in New York caused quite a bit of controversy in the early 80's. Theirs was clearly a story of two people of different racial backgrounds united more by what they had in common (their poor economic roots and hard scrabble lives) than the color of their skin. The closeness between the young, "dangerous" street tough and the beautuiful white girl was too much for some.

Too often we forget that the mere thought of interracial dating in some parts of the country was seriously frowned upon as late as the late 70's and early 80's. Personally I was thrilled by the story, but if I correctly recall the news from the soap magazines at the time, large numbers of viewers and a few Southern affiliates did not share my enthusiasm. So, Jenny and Jesse "decided" to be be friends and AMC brought on snooty/upper middle class Angie and her of their well off-family. Instead of ditching Jesse altogether as Days' had done with Valerie, AMC managed to created two immensely popular unions with classic "wrong side of the tracks" themes and Angie and Jesse made a bit of history of their own as the first Black supercouple on daytime. (continued)


Comments

daisyclover1938's picture
Member since:
14 November 2007
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3 years 50 weeks

Great post Bernard. As usual you've given me a lot to think about.
Some random comments/observations:
*I don't read political blogs/threads on DC or elsewhere, so I was surprised when you mentioned that some people (inclduing DC posters) don't see the importance of Obama being elected. That just boggles my mind. How can anyone deny the significance of it?

*And it's interesting that you stated you thought it was more likely that a woman would be elected president before an African American would. For my entire adult life I've been sure that an AA man would be elected before a woman, and that it would happen in my lifetime. I'd love to see a woman elected as President someday, but we'll see...

*I've always appreciated that Y&R has had African American characters that are so interesting/complex and who where important to the show, not just insulting "tokens." But I always felt that *romantically* they could have been better integrated into the show.

*I have this theory (I've mentioned it before), that one reason TPTB are reluctant to introduce AA characters is because they still consider interracial romances (particularly white/black) 'taboo'. By bringing on an AA character, they may feel 'limited' in who they can pair that person with...

*I LOVED Doreen on Generations. She is one of my favorite soap characters. She was a total b*tch but could cry like no one's business (I still remember that trembling chin of hers, lol). And the famous catfight between Doreen and Maya was awesome Smile

*I've read about the Carla story on OLTL, but it's always reminded me more of "Pinky" than "Imitation of Life". Maybe just because of the whole -falling in love with a white doctor- aspect of the story...though "Imitation" was the more soapy film, lol

Anyway, thanks for another interesting and thoughtful blog Bernard!

Member since:
8 May 2008
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6 days 22 hours

Hey, Bernard, another great piece and a great way of how Barack being the first African American president and how soaps should be diverse in daytime and primetime is a first start to making it work. I feel that the industry does not feel that blacks matter, but I hope that this is the change that will start being in the entertainment industry that will be more diverse on screen.

siomonstuart2003

Member since:
10 July 2008
Last activity:
2 years 27 weeks

"that man" is not fully Black, he is 1/2 black so thier for not the first african american president..

GL/AMC/ATWT/GH/Y&R Fans!!!!!!!!!
Ashamed RC/BF's let Todd get of the rape charge!

J Bernard Jones's picture
Member since:
9 September 2008
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14 hours 33 min

I was going to add a part about how the debate over whether Obama is "Black" or "bi-racial" is a dusty canard with no relevance.

There are very few, if any, "fully Black" black people in this country, as the vast majority of us are something mixed with something else. It is an age old debate about identity but in this case, Obama himself proves the argument moot:

Born to a Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas, Obama has more of a claim to being literally "African American" than many of those of us who are black in America.

Even that is somewhat beside the point. After all, Obama embraces ALL of who he is: American, black, African, white, African American and everything those shadings imply. To claim that he is not something that he clearly embraces on his own terms is to devalue the man and those whose blood run in his veins.

He is a man comfortable in his own skin and that is what counts.

season1217's picture
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23 July 2008
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31 weeks 5 days

Bernard, you're a beautiful, beautiful man!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Pushing Daisies - You will always be in my heart!

Member since:
22 January 2008
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45 min 51 sec

One drop of African blood makes you black, just like one drop of Jesus's blood makes you Holy.

season1217's picture
Member since:
23 July 2008
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31 weeks 5 days

I don't agree, Jamey. Two words. Mariah Carey. Tongue I kid! I kid!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Pushing Daisies - You will always be in my heart!

Member since:
22 January 2008
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45 min 51 sec

Tongue Season! LOL

SoapSnob's picture
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1 July 2008
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3 weeks 5 days

Exceptional piece, J. Bernard. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Member since:
14 December 2008
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20 weeks 3 days

Excellent post. I didn't know about Jesse/Jenny and the backlash against them and all the other interacial couples and while I really shouldn't have been, I was surprised. Guess I'm a product of my generation.
Thank you again for your powerful words.

Member since:
15 October 2008
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38 weeks 1 day

J.Bernard it is always a treat to read your blog posts and this one I couldn't agree more with you.

Member since:
10 March 2008
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3 years 20 weeks

This was a very nice read. It was good to read the honest examination of Jesse/Jenny. Jesse and Jenny would've made a good couple but I think they made great friends. Was it "settling" on the part of the writers? Yes. But I consider J/J one of the best friendships in the history of soaps and it led to Jesse/Jenny/Angie/Greg/Tad, a perfect five point star of friendship and love. JMHO.

Unfortunately Mr. Jones - and I say this with much respect - I feel like you've let current soaps off the hook a little bit with this piece. Of course, this is a historic day so perhaps it's best to concentrate on how far they've come but I hope that one of your future entries will take a less...sentimental look at what soaps bring to the global entertainment marketplace because I think this has a lot to do with what has killed the genre.

david46208's picture
Member since:
15 January 2009
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1 day 14 hours

Thanks as an African American male I enjoyed this. I too think that soaps need to diversify their cast in Daytime and Primetime. I have been so passionate about this in my online video's as many may know. If there is a race-o-meter for the soaps then I must be one taking the most notes and quantifying with others. So I am putting my power to the pen and i have started my own online drama called Time After Time. Why don't you and Soap opera Confidential folks and readers alike check it out at http://www.timeaftertimeonlinedrama.webs.com Thanks again!