Some of you may be old enough to remember the ABC show Gimme A Break, which aired from 1981 to 1987. At the time that it aired, I watched it religiously and absolutely loved Nell Carter, who played the role of Nellie Ruth “Nell” Harper, the housekeeper to the White Kanisky family. It seems that Nell was a good friend to Margaret Kanisky, the deceased wife of police chief Carl Kanisky. On Margaret’s deathbed, she asked Nell to take care of her family. For six seasons, Nell Carter played the role of housekeeper, and friend (read: wise negro mammy).
Why am I writing this so many years after this show has left the air? Well, I think it is important to recognize the perseverance of the mammy stereotype and to examine the fact that we have not grown from the time when we found it acceptable to reduce Black people regularly in prime time.
As a child, when I watched this show, I had no idea of the political implications and what it meant as a female child of colour. Today, looking at the show with new eyes, I don’t see a harmless comedy anymore, but yet another manifestation of how easy it is to slot women of colour into the role of caretaker for White people. Much of these isms continue to perpetuate today in the form of comedy. Marginalized people are told that it is just a joke, that we are being to serious, and don’t know how to laugh at ourselves, when negative stereotypes are played upon for laughs. In many cases, this supposed humour takes the form of shows like Gimme A Break, and not are we expected to laugh, but we are expected to be thankful for mainstream exposure. This show gave Whiteness the opportunity to claim that it was inclusive, because of having a Black star in prime time however, the show functioned to reduce women of colour and therefore, functioned to maintain White supremacy.
For many years, there were few employment opportunities for Black women. White women of middle to upper class women often hired (and in fact still do) a woman of colour to free up time for them. While they were out fighting for their rights, it was often the woman of colour who freed them from the scourge of domestic labour. Some may argue that Carter broke the model, because she defended herself when attacked by Carl Kanisky however, accepting this as a justification would mean ignoring the race and gender dynamics between the two of them.
There is also the issue of Carter singing and dancing on the show, which at times was reminiscent of a minstrel show. Unlike shows like All In The Family, her characterization did not in anyway challenge dominant ideas about how minorities were constructed. In fact, Gimme A Break has more in common with Benson, than a tradition of speaking truth to power that is a longstanding aspect of the Black community.
Media corporations have a tendency to put their most racist programming in the vault in an attempt to pretend that they were never made. Warner Brothers did just that with their racist cartoons that attacked Asians and Blacks. Today, the very overtness of those videos would be deemed highly offensive but the covert nature of shows like Gimme A Break make it a great candidate for syndication, allowing a whole new generation of kids to embrace the stereotype of the magical negro that lives to take care of White folks.
Even though Gimme A Break ended in 1987, we can see the subservient Black person or the magical negro every night on television. In a recent episode of New Ordinary Family, George St. Cloud played by Romany Malco, actually begged to be the sidekick to the super strong Jim Powell, played by Michael Chiklis. My skin chaffed during this scene as I watched a Black men beg a White man beg to be allowed to help. In the popular sitcom Mike and Molly, Officer Carl McMillan, played by Reno Wilson, is the sidekick and quite often the butt of the show. The Black characters quite often drop by to give snappy quips and then quickly disappear. Cleo King, who plays Carl’s grandmother on the show, only appears when it is time to dole out advice to the often awkward White officer Mike Biggs. Then you have The Office which of course has characters of colour but they are all secondary roles. Popular comedies like How I Met Your Mother, Two and a Half Men, and Shit My Dad Says, have all White casts and are therefore able to dispense with the character of the Black servile sidekick. Just like Gimme A Break, these shows all appear during prime time hours — which gives rise the question of how post racial are we — when the same racist charactization that we found acceptable in 1981, are alive and flourishing today, when Black characters are included in comedies?