Sometimes it’s really not about us.

Recent commentary surrounding the absence of Black people on the 1960’s based AMC dramatic series “Mad Men” makes for a fascinating discussion around the need for Black representation versus Black entitlement. Why must every narrative, whether it’s a film or TV show, include us?

Several outlets like Black Girl Blogging and even our friends over at The Root have opened up critical discussions around the treatment of race on the hit television show. While “Mad Men’s” third season is based in a Civil Rights-era New York, Don Draper and company seems to dance around the very present racial upheaval in America. But, could it be the show’s characters are not primarily preoccupied with race at all?

After the premiere of the show’s second season, Ta-Nehisi Coates over at The Atlantic provided us with a provocative departure:

“‘Mad Men’ is a show told from the perspective of a particular world. The people in that world barely see black people. They’re there all the time–Hollis in the elevator, women working in the powder-room, the Draper’s maid, the janitors, the black guy hired at Leo Burnett–but they’re never quite seen. I think this is an incredible statement on how privilege, at its most insidious, really works.” Coates goes on to suggest “Mad Men” is but only one story among many. ” ‘Mad Men’ is one story about the 60s. It isn’t the definitive story. I don’t even know there should be such a thing.”

Our collective angst and organized resistance against narratives that don’t include us can breed an unwarranted sense of entitlement, and down right racial narcissism. Comparable attitudes have been taken with shows like “Sex and the City” and “Friends.” Even the HBO’s “True Blood” Rolling Stone cover struck a chord with some folks. But did we stop to think that maybe they wanted to profile the series’ main cast members?

This is no post-racial argument. I’m pretty clear on the exaggerated imaginativeness such blasphemy as a beyond-race America can present. But as young Black Americans seek to present broader understandings of the manifestation of race in 21st century America, it’s more critical now than ever to offer sharper and non-frivolous cases for our real need for representation in various pop cultural contexts.

We can’t just wiggle ourselves in someone else’s narrative—like “Man Men’s” Don Draper, a White man dealing with childhood trauma and a broken marriage—just because we can and because we just might have the power to do so.

That’s not an authentic call for racial inclusiveness. That’s just being greedy.

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  • sloane

    the same way they incorporated lgbt issues through a gay character (sal) in a subtle way is the same way they could incorporate black issues through black characters. the ad agency could hire someone who is passing, or they could follow carla home, or they could show don or some other character encountering black ad men from black ad agency’s in the 1960’s, because they did exist. this isn’t about invisibility of blacks in the 1960’s, this about invisibility NOW based on the lack of poc on the writing staff, and the writer’s laziness and lack of creativity regarding this issue.

  • We don’t need to be on EVERYTHING, but telling a successful story about certain main characters is the name of the game. There is a civil rights 1960’s story to tell as well, and if we want that side to be seen then we need writers and producers to get to work. Will it be as successful as “Mad Men”? I dunno. But it’s worth a shot.

  • I understand your argument here, but I’m not sure its greed. I think it can only be understood as greed if we really only take the lack of jobs for black actors and the lack of integrated narrative of the lives of people of color to be an issue of “representation.” I am not sure this is 100% about representation but more about how do narratives of U.S. American life get proliferated, regurgitated, and repeatedly understood as always white. “Representation” is not the answer to that problem. The answer to that is how do shows, films, etc. get produced in ways that leave people of color out as an inevitability. (i.e. “We can’t just wiggle ourselves in someone else’s narrative”) Of course not, but whose narrative gets to be the narrative on primetime TV?

  • shan

    I think that they do fine incorporating black people considering the people here are upper class and probably really didn’t give civil rights much thought.

    Anyways in the 1st or 2nd season, Kinsey was dating a black girl but they eventually broke up when we wouldn’t go to a protest or something of that nature.

    Although Carla is never followed home, you always get a feeling of what she’s thinking/feeling. Especially last season. I think there was an episode where Martin Luther King Jr. died and Carla was upset and I think Betty let her go home but also made a dumb comment to the effect of maybe black people shouldn’t make such a big deal or something like that. Carla’s face… tells you everything she’d feeling.

    At some cool downtown party that Lesbian Jane brings Peggy to, TONS of black people.

    Last nights episode you have some I guess “political” dude telling Peggy about one of SCDP’s accounts and how they won’t hire Negroes so there is a boycott or something. 1) Peggy didn’t even know about it, 2) at one point she said “well, a lot of thing Negroes can’t do, neither can I” and then other guy is like “Well they’re not trying to lynch you either!” But Peggy’s comment, i think sums up why most women may not have thought of civil rights as much because they might not have been able to do some of the same things and so for them it was “not that big of a deal, clearly I’m not racist because my maid is black”

    Anyways, she later has a meeting at work and they’re trying to figure out who can sing the jingle for the company not hiring black people and so she suggests Harry Belafonte for the jingle because everyone likes him. And when they’re all like “Uh…. no… I don’t think that will work” she asks why are we doing business with a company like them and Don says “Our job isn’t to make the company like Negroes, it’s to make people like them” or something to that nature that justifies (in their mind) why they do business with them.

    All this to say that for who the show is about and what its about, I think they incorporate black people just fine and I feel as the series progresses, black people will be involved more. I mean, to be honest, all the main characters work at the office. We barely see Betty since Don and her divorced. So until there is a black person working at the office or someone is dating one, it will be awhile before we see more black folk.