If mainstream journalism were to be believed, healthy black families are rare enough to seem near-mythical. While it’s true that the nuclear family model isn’t as common as the single parent household, the press has historically under-explored healthy, nontraditional family models. We hear little in the news about healthy co-parenting situations where the two (or more) adults who serve in primary parenting roles are not a mother and father, but instead two grandparents, a mother and her brothers, a father and his sisters, one parent and his or her best friend, or the child’s godparents, foster parents, or a single adoptive parent. Like anything else in life, there may be a “best” or “ideal” way to approach a situation, but that way is rarely the only successful approach.
One form of media which has always seemed to have a unique grasp on that concept has been television, and more specifically, the situation comedy. While sitcoms have provided us plenty of traditional two-parent household models (perhaps more than news outlets even believe exist), they’ve also afforded us a good deal of perspective on nontraditional models. That trend dates all the way back to 1968’s Julia, where Diahann Carroll plays widowed single mother to a young son. Later, Mabel King would play divorced single mother to a teen son and young daughter in What’s Happening? The next decades would offer us shows like Sister, Sister, where two single adoptive parents move into together after realizing they’ve been separately parenting twin girls, and The Bernie Mac Show, where Mac and his wife take on his drug addicted sister’s three children. We also had the long-running Fresh Prince of Bel Air, where a single mother sends her teen son across the country to live with her sister’s family in hopes of providing him with greater long-term opportunities.
It’s always been great to see strong representations of nuclear black families on the small screen. The Cosby Show, Good Times, The Jeffersons, My Wife and Kids, Everybody Hates Chris, among other shows, have served as counter-measures to long-held ideas about the overabundance of fatherless black families. But just as important have been the shows mentioned above, which serve as their own response to the idea that a family can’t find ways to be healthy outside of a two-biological-parent household.
It would appear that, these days, those more diverse models are no longer as welcome with networks. This year’s black sitcom offerings have trended back toward the Cosby archetype, with TV Land’s The Soul Man and NBC’s forthcoming Men with Kids. But alternatives to the traditional model are still present. Both BET’s Reed Between the Lines and the just-inked Nick at Nite show, Instant Mom, deal with single-parent remarriages and the new family’s adjustment to step-parenting. Maybe there’s room for more than one kind of black family to thrive, after all.
What do you think? Should networks hard-sell nuclear black families in sitcoms to counteract the news media’s representations? Should diverse black family models continue to be celebrated on television?