To a child in 1968, the world seemed like it was in flames.
The prevailing imagery, inescapable even for a nine-year-old, was fire. On our TV screens and the covers of our glossy magazines, fires raged in a dozen American cities and in a strange place faraway that our parents and the old men on the evening news called Vietnam.
The issues were racial, political and generational. Our world was changing. And while it might seem like a small thing today, the introduction of a TV series centered around a strong African-American female character was revolutionary. It was also high time and overdue.
The show was “Julia,” a situation comedy starring Diahann Carroll as a young, widowed, single mother working as a nurse in the medical office of a California aerospace company. It premiered on NBC 50 years ago next Monday -- September 17, 1968.
It is considered to be the first TV series in America whose lead character was an African-American woman who held a job other than as a domestic.
Julia's husband had been killed in Vietnam. They had a young son named Corey (played by Marc Copage).
Corey's friend was a white boy named Earl J. Waggedorn (Michael Link), who lived in the same apartment building.
That in itself was ground-breaking. In the ’60s, there were still some television markets where some residents objected to “The Little Rascals” because that series of old movie shorts showed black and white children playing together.
Premiering later in the same year in which destructive urban riots had followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, “Julia” was both praised and criticized.
It won praise for presenting a strong female African-American lead character, but others felt that its portrayal of its lead character did not reflect the real lives of blacks in America.
Wikipedia quotes two contrasting reviews. The show’s “plush, suburban setting [was] a far, far cry from the bitter realities of Negro life in the urban ghetto,” wrote the TV critic at the Saturday Review.
“As a slice of Black America, ‘Julia’ does not explode on the TV screen with the impact of a ghetto riot,” wrote Ebony. “It is not that kind of show. Since the networks have had a rash of shows dealing with the nation’s racial problems, the light-hearted ‘Julia’ provides welcome relief, if, indeed, relief is even acceptable in these troubled times.”
Both takes seem appropriate. The mere fact that the show was centered on this African-American character was notably significant. But since this was, after all, network television, it was not too surprising that the life of the show’s lead character would be sanitized in some way.
Still, much was made of the premiere of this show at the time. The premiere was so notable, and our major media so pervasive and influential, that even at age 9, I was aware of it.
I even remember watching the show when it was on because, among other attractive features, it had two boys on it who were about my age.
It never dawned on me, however, that their playing together represented some sort of cultural milestone. I may have been precocious, but not that much.