February is Black History Month. And as it’s winding down, I wanted to take the time recognize some of my favorite black characters, past and present, in television.
Diversity, in all its forms, is something that should be recognized and celebrated, and is a virtue that television is still struggling with. But I have faith that it’s working in the right direction. This season on broadcast tv alone saw the introduction of How to Get Away With Murder, Empire, Black-ish, Jane the Virgin, and most recently Fresh off the Boat – all programs that predominantly star and celebrate people of color. All five of these shows have done well both critically and commercially, and not just with niche audiences made up of the people the shows represent. More is needed. More is definitely needed. But strides are being made.
So please join me in celebrating just a small portion of black excellence in television.
1. Terry Jeffords, Brooklyn Nine-Nine
There is just so much to like about Brooklyn Nine-Nine. What I had initially assumed to be a loud, crass, very rarely funny show with a dick-ish, white, male protagonist has instead become one of the best examples of inclusiveness on television today. Not to mention it’s just super funny. Now, I thought about going with Ray Holt initially, but he already gets a lot of praise, so I thought I’d spread the love around a bit and single out Sergeant Terry Jeffords. Jeffords is a man’s man in every sense of the word. He’s big, strong, tough. He could probably bench press me if he was so inclined. He could have easily fallen into the big, angry, black man stereotype, but instead Jeffords more often than not is the flustered mother hen, desperately trying to care for and support all of his detectives even when they don’t know how to act at a real grown-up party. When he gets angry it’s over missing the farmer’s market or people lying about how great Taylor Swift is. He’s gentle and sweet, fathering two twin toddlers (who he’s determined will become a presidential dynasty). He truly cares for his co-workers, and is able to walk that fine line between friend and boss. And best of all, he is truly, hysterically funny.
2. Shirley Bennett, Community
Shirley entered college as a sad, middle-aged, divorced housewife desperate for a new start. While she started college looking for a business degree in order to sell brownies over the internet, what she got was so much more. Shirley found herself at Greendale Community College. She found someone tough, someone strong, someone who could make mistakes and pick themselves up after. Shirley’s time at Greendale wasn’t always easy. Despite being just slightly older than Jeff (and significantly younger than Pierce), Shirley was always seen as the adult. Someone a little out of touch, a little too conservative, a little too low on fun. Shirley had to fight hard for her place at the study room table; she had to fight for the right to be seen as just as valuable, just as worthwhile. Shirley demanded their respect and their love. And she got it.
3. Troy Barnes, Community
Okay, it didn’t work out for me last week and it’s not going to work out for me this week either. You’re just going to have to deal with my love for Community. For me, Troy has always been the heart and soul of Community and I missed him desperately when he left. Troy started at Greendale after losing a football scholarship to a university, and he floundered a bit when he first entered. But then he found the study group and, most importantly, Abed. Troy and Abed were 100% devoted to each other and their friendship. With Abed, he found a partner in crime, someone with whom he was truly able to revel in all that his imagination had to offer. Troy is another truly funny character, but it’s his tenderest moments with Abed – the moments when he does everything he can to understand and connect with his friend whose brain functions differently than his – that make him stand out.
4. Unique Adams, Glee
Glee is one of those shows that has tried really hard to Say A Lot of Important Things. And to honest, I don’t think all of it has worked. Glee can be awfully heavy handed with some of the messages that it tried to deliver, sometime too treacly and saccharine in its quest to love everybody. But one of the best things they did was Unique Adams. This beautiful, talented, strong, brave, and terrified girl had such a story to tell of self discovery and expression – moreso than anyone else. People get gay people, even if it’s not something everyone can agree with. But being Trans wasn’t something some of her classmates could even understand. “It doesn’t matter what you see,” she snapped when her identity was questioned. “You don’t get to decide for me.” Her story got cut short when the show had to re-configure itself in season five, but I was so glad to see her back to connect with Beiste, an adult who could mentor her as she decides on her own transition. And on top of all that, let’s not forget. Girlfriend can sing.
5. Michaela Pratt, How to Get Away With Murder
Yes, this is another where maybe the obvious choice would be Annalise Keating. And she is fascinating. But I’m also enthralled with Ms. Michaela Pratt. She’s delightful in some of the worst ways: a type-A perfectionist, a snotty blue blood engaged to a man running for office. She is high-strung and bitchy and it is a joy watching her unravel in the aftermath of Murder Night. And I truly think that most people who would read that character description would assume she was a blond, blue eyed white girl, instead of the beautiful black woman she is. This is not a type of role black women are usually given, but Michaela’s blackness adds fresh nuances and depth to the character. Racial issues have not been discussed too overtly on the show so far, but I was struck by Michaela in this latest episode and just how hard she took the wrongful imprisonment of Nate Lahey, charged with a crime she herself is guilty of. “How are we supposed to be okay with this?” she asked her teacher, in a rare moment of vulnerability. “He’s innocent. And he’s black.” It was a poignant and pointed moment in light of events of the past year.
6. Alec Hardison, Leverage
I am always a fan of subverted stereotypes, big and small. And this is another show that made just one subtle choice, but it was a smart one just the same. It would have been easy to cast a large, black man to play the Hitter and a slight, glasses-wearing white guy to play the nerdy Hacker in this five season conman caper. Instead, it’s this beautiful bastard drinking orange soda from his safe hiding spot inside his beloved van Lucille, reveling in the Age of the Geek. Everyone on the team has their part to play, but Hardison’s tech savy, utilized in both recon and on-the-job emergencies, is one of the most crucial. Add in his somewhat antagonistic bromance with Elliot and his sweetly awkward romance with Parker and you have the making of one stellar character.
7. Donna Meagle, Parks and Recreation
No lie, Donna Meagle is without a doubt everything I aspire to be in life. I love her. Everyone moment she is on screen is one more moment of pure bliss. She is my hero. Donna is a woman who knows exactly who she is and what she wants out of life and she is not afraid to go for it. She loves herself completely and will not allow you to treat her with anything less than the love and respect that she deserves. She’s unapologetic for who she is, what she wants, and what she likes. Donna Meagle is a woman without guilty pleasures because she feels no guilt for anything that gives her pleasure. If she likes it, it must be good. And most touchingly, Donna Meagle has a soft spot for goofy doofus Gary (Jerry, Larry, Terry, Mailman Barry) Gergich.
8. Veronica Fisher, Shameless
Shameless is a show I absolutely adore. It has told some incredibly funny and simultaneously heartbreaking stories with a frankness and honesty that is not often utilized on television. These are people living in terrible poverty, but they are still full people with dreams and fears and ambitions and love and dignity. V has been an important fixture of these stories since day one (partly to remind us all that there are actually black people living in South Side Chicago – racial diversity not being one of Shameless’ achievements). She is a calming voice of reason for the Gallagher clan as Fiona’s best friend. She cares for those kids as if they were her own family. This season her story is particularly heartbreaking. She is a woman with two new born babies struggling to adjust to her new role as a mother. So many shows tell us that it is something that should just come naturally, that just seeing your baby should give you that instant bond. But for V it’s not working like that. She is struggling, and it’s hurting her to see just how easy and naturally fatherhood comes to her husband. V has been there for so many people, but now when she’s floundering, no one’s there to catch her.
9. Oenomaus, Spartacus
I do realize that Black History Month was conceived to specifically celebrate African Americans, but I’m going with this anyway. Because I watched all of Spartacus in four days and wanted to immediately watch it again. Be happy this is not a top ten list of the most awesome moments of Spartacus (which, let’s be real, would be ten stills of Agron and Nasir making heart eyes at each other). Oenomaus was a great character. The actual historical figure was a Gaul, but the show chose to portray him as Numidian instead. Oenomaus is a champion gladiator elevated to the position of Doctore, a gladiator teacher. He is clever and caring, fiercely loyal to his gladiator brothers and house, and desiring an honorable death on the sands above all other things. When the gladiators revolt, he is conflicted by his loyalties to the house that raised him, that gave him position and honor even as a slave, and the cause of freedom that his brothers have taken up. Oenomaus is one of the best men in the series: kind, unselfish, and honorable. And without even knowing him, his introduction is an arresting, subverted image: the black man cracking the whip as the lesser, white slaves obey his every word.
10. Charles Young, The West Wing
I don’t know about you, but when Charlie eventually runs for president I will be voting for him. Sweet, quiet, and somewhat shy when we’re first introduced – there’s been a mistake, he just wants to interview for a bike messenger job, not personal aide to the president – Charlie quickly finds himself in his new position. He is smart, kind, and driven. He puts off college so he can make sure his younger sister graduates high school first. Charlie is someone that could be easy to overlook – which, as someone who’s worked as an assistant for many years, is actually a vitally important skill – but he will make sure you notice him when you need to. Charlie is steadfast and calm, which is a good thing considering some of the high strung folks he works with. And, a few years after the show finished when he ran for office for the first time, I have no doubt he set the world on fire.
And there you have it. This was a hard list to put together since there were so, so many incredible characters I had to choose from. But these are some of my favorites: the ones I’m currently obsessed with, the ones I’m sad to be saying good-bye to, and the ones that have stayed with me for years. Which characters are you celebrating?