Mad Men has struggled to include diversity in its story lines, but following the 1960′s advertising world and the personality flaws of its inhabitants hasn’t exactly lent itself to any depiction of the black experience.

The black characters thus far have been accessories. Among them, the Drapers’ maid Carla was on the verge of becoming a breakout role before Betty Draper unceremoniously fired her, the black girlfriend of a Sterling Cooper account executive walked away because she was just as much a prop in his life as she was in Mad Men’s cast, and Naturi Naughton’s role as a “chocolate Playboy Bunny,” was the epitome of depicting black bodies and black problems, but all through white eyes.

Still, there were black people around in late 1960′s Manhattan, and the fifth season opened up by finally delving into how racial tensions affected every American during that era. Thanks to a lame practical joke war with another firm, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (the advertising firm depicted on the series) was forced to hire a black secretary.

Enter actress Teyonah Parris, who has already brought a subtle authenticity to her role as Don Draper’s new secretary (and the firm’s first black employee) Dawn Chambers. Dawn has already endeared herself to viewers by keeping her head high in the midst of behind-the-scenes whispers from co-workers. The character was also featured in an especially illuminating series of scenes in which she both bonded with and faced prejudice from the firm’s most liberal-minded character, Peggy, demonstrating the innate prejudice of white Americans during those times. In an interview with New York Magazine Teyonah Parris opens up about how she sees her character and crafting her approach to working in the entertainment industry. An excerpt:

People have criticized the show for not having more black characters, but others think the show is just being true to the context of an ad agency in the mid-sixties. Do you have any thoughts? And since you’re playing the first black employee, do you feel pressured to have a lot of opinions about this?

I did not feel a lot of pressure. I am happy to be a part of the show. I know that this show hasn’t had an African-American in the office and I know that comes with a lot of responsibility as to how I portray this woman, but I can’t think about that. I can only go in and do what I think this woman would do. I try not to think, ‘Oh, I have to represent every single black person in the world that was there in the sixties.’ I have to tell this one woman’s story and what that was for her. I’m kind of on the fence because as a black actress, there aren’t a lot of roles out there for us, and so you see a great show and it’s like, Oh wow, I would love to be on that show. Oh, but there are no black people on it. So that part is frustrating and I understand that, but at the same time I don’t expect to be a part of everyone’s story if it’s not true to the story that they’re trying to tell.

Parris recognizing that she does not have to tell the story of every black person who was alive during that era is a sentiment that I hope Mad Men‘s writers have grasped and will continue to grasp in upcoming episodes.

Read more of the interview at New York Magazine Vulture.

Do you watch Mad Men? What do you think will happen with the Dawn Chambers character?

  • Velma

    What I am very happy about is that the role isn’t being played by a “video vixen” type…meaning that she isn’t light skinned. Brown skin sisters need to be given more jobs on television because it gives the impression to everyone on the planet that American black women only come in one complexion.

  • Kwazi

    wow really?… shouldn’t we be happy when a person of color regardless of hue is cast in a top rated show period. When/how did colorism enter the conversation?

    Ladies if we dont learn to embrace us ALL as black women and continue with this light vs dark divisive mindset we will continue to empower those (mostly men) who use it against us. Non-black people see black plain and simple not brown skin, fair skin, or dark skin…..

    Lets do better ladies… please

  • LA, California Dreaming (Ocean Blue)

    You can be happy about that, but then you are no different than the men because you are ‘happy’ about one skin color being over another.

    _______________________________________________________________________

    No, I don’t watch Mad Men.

  • S.

    I don’t give a hoot whether or not mainstream embraces women of color

    I have been set free from those shackles, thank God

  • Stephanie

    actually, everyone here is right… just depends on the situation
    …just look at the girl from Hunger games. She couldn’t have been darker than a paper bag…( intended ) … and everyone went in saying all types of racist comments about a darkie being in the movie. While the stereotype of light is right has filtered down since
    we’ve been in America, at some point we still need to acknowledge the accomplishments of all African American women, regardless of color. That being said… it is still harder for a G. Union than a H. Berry. And that needs to be acknowledged as well.

  • And Justice For All

    What Velma (and others) are asking for is, color hue diversity not devisiveness. Where are all the complaints about divisiveness when the light-brights get hired? The moment someone asks to be represented onscreen, it gets misconstrued as a negative. Simmer down.

  • QCastle

    @LADreaming

    You know men arent at the root of all evil in this world. Dam. Get a life.

  • Whatever

    The producers after many years of being criticized have finally introduced a black character. For years Weiner has been saying firstly that there weren’t any black ad men then saying there was very few. Some agencies had black “Don Drapers”… he just chose to not do his research. Anyway, interesting that they also hire the agency’s first Jew as well (covering all grounds I guess). It would have killed them to have an intelligent and witty black ad man so they gave us a secretary instead… sigh.

    I do like the show but I hate Weiner (the producer).

  • Whatever

    For much of the 20th century, the African-American image in ads was rare, subservient or worse. Blacks were disregarded as consumers, and the doors to the advertising profession were largely closed, says Jason Chambers, a professor of advertising at the University of Illinois.

    The story of how that changed – thanks to pioneers, activists, government action and business self-interest – is the story of Chambers’ new book, “Madison Avenue and the Color Line: African Americans in the Advertising Industry” (University of Pennsylvania Press)…

    A key turning point came with the magazine Ebony, first published in 1947, Chambers said. Unlike black newspapers, which often served as protest organs, it focused on entertainment, sports and general interest stories, and therefore was more appealing to advertisers.

    Over the next two decades, leading up to the mid-1960s, corporate interest in the black consumer market grew and black pioneers in advertising, marketing and public relations moved to take advantage, Chambers said. Among those pioneers were a group of African-American marketing and advertising specialists known as the “Brown Hucksters.”

    Even the growing corporate recognition of the black consumer market, however, could not overcome discrimination and the lack of real opportunity for blacks that persisted within the advertising industry, Chambers said. In the 1960s, civil rights groups, through protest and consumer boycotts, worked to bring about concessions from advertisers. Federal and state equal employment commissions – particularly in New York – also had a strong effect, he said.

    What followed was a “golden age” for African Americans in the advertising industry, between the mid-1960s and a recession that hit in the mid-1970s, Chambers said. A number of black-owned agencies emerged, and blacks also found new opportunities in mainstream agencies. The period also saw an “explosion of attention from the advertising trade press about ending discrimination in the industry,” he said.

    http://www.theroot.com/views/other-mad-men

    http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2010/09/14/in-defense-of-the-strategic-marginalization-of-blackness-within-mad-men/

  • Leo the Yardie Chick

    Thanks for letting me know about Chambers’ book. It’s now on my shopping list. :)

  • Kwazi

    @and justice for all

    “the light brights”?! How would you feel if the “light brights” started referring to browner skinned women as “the darks”?

    This isn’t unifying language and it perpetuates an us vs them type of situation that has been ongoing since slavery (house/field)…..

    Again…… Let’s do better ladies

  • Cree

    Well, to be quite honest, every SINGLE black person featured on this show has been Teyonah’s skin tone. Just like in “The help.” So the black people that suffered in the 60s were only dark brown skinned? Is this the skin tone that comes to mind when we think of civil rights?

    I am just as brown as this actress. I like hue diversity in all casting, all shows, period. If brown skinned people have a strong hold when they wanna represent racism, what does that say to the world? People lighter had it better? Don’t show the darkest of the dark, just dark enough, so people can still relate?

    I don’t want this to turn into an entire conversation. I’m just adding my two cents.

    It will be interesting to see how this character is portrayed…I am glad Clutch is covering this, and the other article about this was nice as well. I love all black people, we all should be represented. Especially as individuals. I almost think that no two black people have the same black experience, in the matrix of race/class/education/family background/skin tone/media exposure…..

  • So Over This Ish

    @ Velma…I believe most people on the planet know that most Black women don’t look like video vixens. But I do agree that it would be nice to see more beautiful brown-skinned ladies being represented in a positive way in films and TV shows.

  • let’sbereal

    “the light brights”?! How would you feel if the “light brights” started referring to browner skinned women as “the darks”?”

    they already do.

    “Non-black people see black plain and simple not brown skin, fair skin, or dark skin…..”

    actually the lighter skinned ladies saythat they are generally treated better by non-blacks.

    “This isn’t unifying language and it perpetuates an us vs them type of situation that has been ongoing since slavery (house/field)”

    funny, the lighter ladies never point this out when their skin color gives them an advantage…

  • So Over This Ish

    @ Kwazi….I agree w/you, but that is just wishful thinking. Colorism is an issue that will never go away.

    There are issues on all sides. White supremacy created this and many people continue to perpetuate it. The problems run both ways.

    Some light-skinned people are unkind to darker people, some dark-skinned folks blame light-skinned folks for all their woes in life. It just seems to be a vicious cycle with no end in sight.

    I, too, wish there could be more unity and solidarity. I believe there is in most cases, but because of racism and beauty standards and other things, the issue of colorism will always be a problem.

    Teyonah Parris is gorgeous. I wish her all the success and happiness in the world.

  • So Over This Ish

    @let’sbereal…I see both your point and Kwazi’s point.

    I don’t know where you live or where you’re from, but I’ve never heard any light-skinned woman of this generation refer to dark-skinned women with derogatory terms.

    I’m sure it happens but I’ve never heard it. Now if we’re talking about women with the mentality of the broads in the movie “School Daze”, that would make sense. Or if you’re talking about people who happen to be very ignorant and colorstruck.

    As to whether light-skinned women are treated better by non-blacks…this depends on the environment. I’ve had some white people be very kind to me, while others have been extremely racist or hateful. I can’t really speak for anybody else, this was just my experience. Some non-blacks don’t care that I am half white. They don’t care that my skin is as light as the skin of some white people. They see me as a Black woman and treat me accordingly.

    I think that when some light-skinned people say that they are treated better by non-blacks, they probably mean that it is better than how most Black people treat them, if that makes sense. Sometimes it can be difficult for a very light-skinned person to find acceptance with other Black people, contrary to popular belief.

    Just an example…if a very light-skinned person feels that they have been repeatedly shunned by people of a darker hue, they might feel more comfortable around non-blacks who are more welcoming and don’t make an issue out of their skin color. This is just an example, please bear with me.

    Kwazi is right in that colorism has been somewhat divisive since slavery. As to whether lighter skin comes with benefits or advantages, I won’t deny that there is some privilege that comes with being of a lighter hue. But the truth is that these privileges are only enjoyed by a few light-skinned people, not all. We still deal with racism just like other Black folks and we also have our blackness questioned if we don’t have a sufficient amount of melanin.

    I think there are both advantages and disadvantages. But I guess it depends on your perspective, really.

  • Whatever

    Your welcome :-)

  • http://www.pinkpantiesandleopardlipstick.wordpress.com Myisha of Pink Panties & Leopard Lipstick

    I’ve never seen one episode of this show, and with all the hype that surrounds it, I don’t understand how I’ve missed it. Reading this piece and you guys comments has mad me want to check it out even more.

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