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The Great American Soap Opera


Every soap opera has one element in common: conflict.

Conflict, internal or external, is the engine that drives all great dramas, all great rivalries, all great love stories, indeed all great passions from affairs of the heart to affairs of state. The great dramatic conflict that has threaded the entire fabric of the history of the United States has been the relationship between this great country and it's citizens of African descent.

This is not to belittle the struggles and triumphs of any other groups who have felt the sting of discrimination or oppression throughout the course of American history. Obviously, people of various ethnic and religious backgrounds have their own tales to tell. Women have unique testimonies to share. Japanese Americans were unfairly and unjustly treated by the American government during World War II, having since been granted reparations. No one can dispute with any shred of credibility the shameful horrors visited upon Native Americans, casino revenues notwithstanding.

If you think this is the part where I go into a lengthy explanation of how and why African Americans are unique as an aggrieved class, think again. Intellects far superior to mine and history itself makes a far more compelling argument than I can. Besides, Daytime Confidential is not the appropriate forum for such a discussion to take place either. As an African American man on the cusp of middle age who has loved soaps for the bulk of my life however, I feel there are a few salient considerations to be made of the importance between soaps and the inauguration of the first African American president in this nation's history. In order to look forward, I must first look back.

The small town I grew up in southern Arkansas had a population smaller than many apartment buildings. Although my community was close, it was also segregated with a large pond (in)conveniently separating whites from blacks. For as far back as I could remember, "racial incidents" were few and far between, and the few that did pop up in between were extinguished almost as quickly as they began. For the most part in our daily lives, we truly lived separate but equal; even our only diner was literally divided in half with different entrances for blacks and whites and not too many people openly questioned much of it.

As it so happens, the more things stayed the same, the more they changed. Our separate school districts merged in 1971 and my class was the first to be fully integrated from first grade through graduation. I grew up with friends on both sides of the racial equation. My household, though traditional in many respects, was an open and hospitable environment where everyone was welcome and treated with respect and dignity. My parents, themselves products of Jim Crow and the civil rights movement, encouraged those qualities in me and I have carried within me those principles ever since. Nonetheless, a small town is a small town no matter it's racial makeup. Sometimes a large city can feel like a small town too, depending on what and who you do and do not know. Although it is less true today than in years and decades past, many people never get to know people much different from themselves and/or cling to stereotypes despite the changing world around them. It's not that hard to live in a self-imposed bubble whether you grew up then or now. Therefore, if you haven't always known or socialized with people who didn't look like you or lived like you it might be a bit easier to not see a wider world beyond your own.

Soaps, among other influences, helped me imagine a world beyond my small town existence. Entertainment can offer a broader perspective on the human experience; how other people live (however unrealistic the portrayal might be) and, at their most successful if they are of noble intent, alter preconceptions that are based on lies, half truths and prejudices. Soaps, for all of their melodrama and stereotypical silliness, have always provided audiences wider windows to the world and fictional acquaintances with people we may never ever meet, but whom we feel we intimately know. (continued)

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).

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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)

In the following years, soaps featured other romances told with richness and complexity which became hugely popular with audiences, including Jessica and Duncan on As the World Turns and Tom and Simone on General Hospital. Soaps introduced Black characters and families with their own storylines, many of them professional, intelligent, and sometimes just as messed up as their white counterparts. Every once in a while, black characters were allowed to be villains; Generations had a cast and crew that was 50% Black and featured its own "black Alexis Carrington" in the form of uberbitch Doreen Marshall. During their entire nine year run, the Russell family was allowed to be just as psychotic as any other family on Passions. It goes almost without mention that The Young and the Restless has regularly featured Blacks in front burner stories for many years. In their own ways, soaps allowed many Blacks and other people of color to, if not know whites outright, to at least feel they could know them; as for whites, the few Blacks that were allowed on soaps at a time had the same effect over time.

None of this inclusion has been perfect nor has it been consistent from show to show (not even Y&R all the time), but progress has been made on soaps, just as it has in real life. With every attempt to expand the racial and ethnic scope of the collective soap canvas, daytime dramas undoubtably have influenced millions of viewers to broaden their own horizons, if only just a little. Today, people of Latin and Hispanic descent are a regular part of almost every daytime serial compared to when they were barely seen or heard prior to the 1984 premiere of Santa Barbara. In 1983, All My Children provoked a firestorm of criticism and intense viewer backlash when Devon admitted her crush on lesbian psychiatrist Lynn, but in 2009 fans are openly and defiantly cheering for Bianca and Reese and Guiding Light's Natalia and Olivia. More astonishing, large numbers of fans are vocal and angry that a network didn't feature a love scene (sex!) between two gay male characters on As the World Turns, Luke and Noah. Lest we forget, strong, independent, forceful women are in; the put upon female victim has been out of fashion for quite some time.

The changes in our society force soaps to try to catch up with the times, but many times soaps have led the way in helping to chip away at barriers of the topical or social kind. Without Devon and Lynn, there would be no Rianca. Without ATWT's Hank Eliot, there would be no Nuke. Without David and Valerie, we don't think twice about Marcus and Steffy on B&B. We demand Days' Abe and Lexie have a quality story of their own and we hope for the return of suave, sexy and slightly dangerous RJ with his long, distinct and decidedly ethnic locks on One Life to Live. Am I arguing that The Gannons of OLTL, the Grants of GL, or the Fry's of AMC led directly to the election of Barack Obama? Of course not. However, since there are scholars who argue The Cosby Show and 24 with its fictional African American President David Palmer helped pave the way for the election of the real life first African American president, it would seem that daytime dramas — which have reached millions of more viewers of all races and ethnicities for decades longer before and after the reign of the Huxtables — deserve a little influential credit themselves. I would like to think that in their own way, soaps have helped millions of fans see beyond the surface of preconceptions or stereotypes and opened more minds than they left closed. (continued)

The world has never been completely lily white nor our country completely a mythical melting pot and the issue of race is harder and harder to pin down, but sometimes perception makes reality as much as the reverse holds true. Many people still see "race" as a continuing problem in this country and many others see it as nothing more than a destructive preoccupation with compelling arguments on each side. In the years ahead, class and economics will come into sharper relief as the national narrative that drives us forward. Sexual identity equality is, in many respects, the new civil rights movement even as Latinos and Blacks continue to guard or secure their own. Among other issues, religious versus secular battles still loom ahead.

Nevertheless, in as much as "race" is becoming less important a consideration in the national conversation, the future of a fully colorblind, post-racial society is still a long way off. History runs deep in the souls of people, even when other considerations demand their attention. All the same, our great national soap opera is about to make a permanent, official plot twist with the inauguration of Barack Obama. For a nation founded upon the deep and fundamental contradiction of the wholesale holding of black human beings as slaves versus its claims of the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, this is truly one of the greatest moments we will ever see in our lifetimes.

Unfortunately, there are many people of all backgrounds — some of whom have posted here at Daytime Confidential — who do not see the importance of this moment in our nation's history. This is their right, of course, and I have no intention of changing their minds. In fact, there is a perverse and elegant element of progress in their view as well, regardless of their feelings, motives or intent. Their views notwithstanding, I would hope to convey to them why, for millions of Americans of all ethnicities and for African Americans in particular, this moment in time is worthy of all the pomp, circumstance and excitement this particular inauguration brings:

The promise of America has always been that in this country anyone could grow up to be anything they wanted to be. I was taught this creed from a young age, as were millions of men and women before and after me. In general, Black people have always believed this was essentially a lie in one particular and specific regard: we could grow up to be anything except President of the United States; too much history lingered; too many lynched Black men had swung from trees; too many stereotypes had to be overcome; too many self-inflicted pathologies needed to be corrected. For a lot of reasons (some of their own making and some not), many young Black men and some women have given up on the notion of being anything at all. In addition, far too many whites, especially in the South, made it plain through word and deed that they would never accept an African American as President of the United States. Younger Americans of all backgrounds might have seen a person of color or woman rise to the Presidency as inevitable, but few would venture that it would happen so soon. Even among those of us who knew this day would come, many of us assumed it would be a woman first and others — myself included — did not think we would ever live to see this day. Regardless of anyone's opinion about Mr. Obama's politics, he proved a great many of the more skeptical and cynical among us wrong.

There will be post-mortems on the 2008 election from here to doomsday about how and why Barack Obama won this election. Did George W. Bush wreck everything so badly that anyone was a good replacement? WasHillary Clinton too polarizing as an individual? Was Sarah Palin the ultimate deal breaker that even rank and file conservatives could not stomach? Was Obama simply the right man at the right time? No matter how right, wrong or far off we were on either side of the debate or political fence, the fact is Mr. Obama will be sworn in as the 44th President of the United States of America. He may turn out to be a great president, a bad one, or in between. Still, in this moment while we may not have cut the Gordian Knot of race in America, we certainly have crossed our national Rubicon. This is why you see little Black boys and little Black girls and indeed children of all races and backgrounds jump for joy about Barack Obama. They may never grow up to be President themselves, but they now know that America's great promise for everyone is no longer a promise to white men alone. That is why, given the history of this country, the inauguration of Barack Obama is a seminal moment in this nation's history. (continued)

There will never be another first African American President. When the time comes, there will not be a first woman president or a first openly gay president, either. When those days arrive as they surely will, I hope to be around to see them. Each milestone should be celebrated, as is this first, as another moment when enough citizens of this great country cast aside lingering bigotries, prejudices and biases to simultaneously transcend that candidate's racial, gender or sexual identity and embrace them at the same time. January 20th will be a great day; it would be nice if we could put aside our political or other differences to celebrate this achievement in our nation's history. One of Barack Obama's heroes sums it up best:

"The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country." - Abraham Lincoln, 1862

I am not the spokesperson for "Black America" in this matter or any other. The views expressed here are purely my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Daytime Confidential, its generous and exceptional staff or its fine community of bloggers. Like each of you, I am a fan of soaps and continuing drama. I love a great narrative, full of human foible, folly and hubris; operatic tales of love, honor, passion and grand emotion; populated with heroes, villains, lovers and everyday people caught up in forces bigger than themselves; narratives chock-a-block with contradictions, resolutions and unexpected plot twists with long-awaited payoffs — all them leading into the next tense, suspenseful, exciting chapter that spins off in directions we may or may not have anticipated. Ultimately, we hope that good will triumph over evil and that if happily ever after doesn't come today, we might still search for it tomorrow. That is the bright promise of every show we love as fans, even if they don't always live up to our expectations. In a way, this is also the promise of our country.

It is the continuing story of The Great American Soap Opera.