Melanin without tokenism: black people are slowly being allowed to be normal on TV

In her first column on television and pop culture, Bim Adewunmi explores the progress made by non-white characters on British telly.

Last Sunday night I felt, like Obi Wan before me, a great disturbance in the Force. No one had died, thank goodness, but my Twitter feed was abuzz with activity. The euphoria was evident: “What's this advert??” tweeted a friend. “Never seen so many black people in a prime-time advert in my life!!” Another replied to the post with: “British peak time ad full of black people. #WellINever”. My favourite was: “Listen... the way I almost snapped my neck, by doing a double take cos there were still black faces on the second time I looked up!”

Yes, there was an ad, full of black people, on terrestrial British television, during one of the most watched programmes on a Sunday night. The Force was properly disturbed.

The advertisement – starring singer Janelle Monáe and a coterie of attractive, well-dressed people, hanging out – was for Sonos. I have only a vague idea what the product does, despite the ad being about a minute long. But more importantly (for me, not Sonos) the ad was a small thing highlighting a much bigger thing: the – slowly – increasing presence of people of colour on television. Let me qualify that: we (or at least one version of us) have been on telly for a long while now. I’ve watched a lot of television, and I remember that much. What I’m talking about here is the evolution of people of colour on television. Things are still far from perfect, but that have got so much better than when I was a child or even a teenager. Back then, spotting brown people was like a game of Where’s Wally? except instead of the distinctive striped jumper of our cartoon hero, they were sporting assorted stereotypes, from aggressive criminal to street kids in need of a hot meal and a chance meek ‘model minority’ – tokenism at its purest.

I remember reading a Sidney Poitier interview in which the Oscar-winning actor spoke about his role in Stanley Kramer’s 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. He spoke of the character Dr John Prentice’s qualities, and the thinking that he had to be perfect in the context of the movie. Not merely "very good", but absolutely perfect, a paragon: a highly-educated and qualified doctor, and a world traveller (stopping off to give talks at the UN, as you do). I read later that he was going to be written as divorced, but it was decided to make him widowed, to complete his "perfect" image. He had to be utterly above reproach in order for white audiences to embrace him as an equal. But more than that, he had to counter the prevalent representation of black people onscreen.

Here and now, in 2012, we’ve reached the latest stage of our evolution onscreen: we are "normal". We are just like everyone else. We’re not over what I call the "Poitier Exemplar" just yet, but we are slowly moving past it. Monáe – hanging out and listening to music with friends – did not look entirely dissimilar to me and my life (pompadour and expertly tailored suit notwithstanding).

That’s what struck me the most about seeing it – in a world where the default experience of "normal" is "white", and more and more people of colour are finally being seen as possibilities when casting the default. Seeing that ad was seeing a reflection of what my life looks like. At the start of the ad, it was Janelle Monáe and friends, evolving into a black woman and her friends, and ending on just a woman and her friends. It’s the normalcy that strikes. Finally.

And most fantastic of all, it’s all over telly. My current favourite black woman on television is Vod (played by Zawe Ashton) on Channel 4’s Fresh Meat, a role that has almost nothing to do with her melanin. She is a fully-formed character, written as a rounded individual, and a full part of the world she inhabits. In US TV (and also on More4 at the moment), Kerry Washington is kicking arse and taking names as Washington power player Olivia Pope in ABC’s Scandal. Keeping her company is Mindy Kaling’s new comedy on Fox as well as Brit-doing-an-accent-and-wielding-a-baseball-bat Archie Panjabi in the superlative The Good Wife on NBC. Other casts with a dose of melanin that sidesteps tokenism include the very funny Happy Endings (will it ever return to E4?)and New Girl (Lamorne Morris’s Winston is fantastic if somewhat underused).

Some Girls. Source: BBC

But wait, there’s more! BBC3’s new comedy Some Girls follows four teenage girls and has a black lead in Adelayo Adedayo. The rash of ads in the run up to the orgy of consumption that is Christmas has yielded a bumper crop of "normal" brown folks too. Sainsbury’s has a black family with the little boy doing the dishes to the surprise of his parents, and Tesco’s campaign also makes use of another, sipping on champagne in the kitchen on Christmas Day. Baileys’ Blondie-soundtracked ad features several hues and shades. As a lifelong telly addict, I can’t lie: it’s all kind of thrilling.

There is still a need for the Poitier Exemplar, for we are not yet at the Promised Land in terms of the narrowness of our represented reality (hello, Top Boy). But what struck me the hardest about Sunday night was that we’re firmly on the way, and that is A Good Thing.

Viva from Some Girls. Source: BBC

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge