Is Black Television Out Of Sync With Black America?

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, February 27, 2024

It’s Black History Month, and many of the nation’s linear TV and streaming platforms have loaded up their February program schedules with documentaries and other filmed entertainment that are Black-themed or feature Black acting talent.        

However, the stories of immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean and their descendants, who have been an integral part of the Black American narrative, have been as invisible during Black History Month as they are during the rest of the year. 

Except for the CBS sitcom Bob Hearts Abishola, which provides a comedic glimpse into the life of a Nigerian American nurse, it is rare to see a recurring main character who portrays someone with direct African or Caribbean heritage on prime-time broadcast or cable TV, even on the channels targeting Black audiences. 



This lack of representation is significant because the Black population in America is not monolithic. A recent analysis of Census Bureau statistics by Pew Research reveals that in 2022, there were 5.1 million Black immigrants, living in the United States, primarily from Africa and the Caribbean.

This is up from 2.4 million in 2000. Of the 47.9 million Black Americans, 11% are foreign-born, and when you factor in the direct descendants of Black immigrants, the percentage increases to about 20% of the total Black population or 1 in 5. 

Overlooking the stories of this sizable segment of the U.S. Black population is a glaring omission that is heightened when you consider that there are several accomplished actors on television with African and Caribbean family ties, who could add depth to their characters by identifying with their heritage.  

For example, the critically acclaimed ABC sitcom "Abbott Elementary" has missed the opportunity to have the Jamaican-American actress Sheryl Lee Ralph organically reveal her Caribbean roots in her role as the non-nonsense schoolteacher Barbara Howard.

Since the show is set in Philadelphia, the city with the fifth-largest Caribbean-American population, adding depth to her character seems justified.

Yvonne Orji of Insecure who emigrated from Nigeria to the U.S., is famous for her stand-up comedy routines that incorporate her Black immigrant experiences. Ironically, her personal story never emerged in the HBO Emmy-award winning show, although the show’s co-creator, Issa Rae (Diop), could have been sympathetic to an alternative storyline since her family ties are to Senegal.  

In the past few years, countless Americans mourned the passing of three very prominent Black actors with direct Caribbean ancestry -- Harry Belafonte (Jamaica), Sidney Poitier (Bahamas), and Cicely Tyson (Nevis). While they all received accolades for their portrayal of powerful characters and all were vocal advocates during the Civil Rights Movement, it is ironic that none of them was ever offered a significant role that allowed them to explore their own Caribbean heritage.    

Some of the streaming services -- most notably Netflix -- are aggressively acquiring content from Africa and a few others have even scheduled series that weave a non-U.S. born Black narrative into their storylines.

For example, Amazon Prime Video’s dramatic comedy "Harlem" casts one of the four female leads as having Jamaican roots.

Similarly, the Apple TV+ series Ted Lasso provided a rare view of cosmopolitan African life through the eyes of the Nigerian soccer player Sam.  Unfortunately, these are exceptions to the norm.  

It is time to correct this imbalance so that all audiences will benefit from a more diverse selection of stories that properly depict the Black American experience.

Here are a few insights and some suggestions for the relevant stakeholders in the industry.

  • First, TV programmers and advertisers should consider acquiring and sponsoring more content from the burgeoning community of independent Black TV and film producers who exist outside of the Hollywood system, including those who live abroad. Their stories can help build subscribers and customers, particularly among the underserved Black foreign-born and descendant consumer market.    

  • Statisticians at the University of Georgia, among others, have projected that U.S. Black population buying power exceeds $1.6 trillion. Therefore, it is safe to extrapolate that the Black foreign-born and their descendants conservatively controls well over $300 billion in spending power.      

  • At the same time, American marketers and their ad agencies must channel more of their media dollars toward Black-targeted and Black-owned content producers as well as supporting the dozen or more TV and OTT platforms whose African and Caribbean programming is available to Black audiences in the United States.

  • Finally, consumers must be vocal about their desire for a steady stream of diverse Black content and let both advertisers and programmers know what they want.  Researchers such as Horowitz Research, a division of M/A/R/C Research, have regularly shared findings which indicate that more than two-thirds of all Black viewers want to see content that showcases the diversity of Black cultures from around the world as well as in the United States.  

In an era where all viewers and consumer dollars matter, incorporating more diversity within Black TV programming should be a priority for all TV platforms, all year long.

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