We currently have amazing shows that revel in the complexity of Black culture like Atlanta, black-ish, Insecure, and dramas like Power and Queen Sugar. Teens have also enjoyed their pick of phenomenons like Pretty Little Liars and 13 Reasons Why, in addition to the introduction of Riverdale, and even more recently, the series Cloak & Dagger. But there aren’t any shows that are for or about Black teens.
There are shows that feature Black teens. Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi), the central character on grown-ish, is the first example that comes to mind. African-American Tyrone Johnson (Aubrey Joseph) is the Cloak in Cloak & Dagger. Aisha Dee plays Kat, the biracial social media director at a fictional magazine, on The Bold Type. All of these main characters exist alongside a bunch of other leads who are not Black, and I would argue that none of those titles constitute Black shows. It would appear that there's a hole in the television market for shows geared towards Black teen audiences. And, if such a void exists, why aren't programmers rushing to fill it?
In the late '90s and early '00s, there was a surge of programming that focused on the lives of Black teens. Nickelodeon’s Keenan & Kel hilariously followed the lives of two Black boys in Chicago. Sister, Sister, the show that helped twins Tia and Tamera Mowry become household names, had two Black high schoolers at the centre and explored Black family life. Moesha was the quintessential sitcom about Black girlhood, which resulted in spin-off The Parkers, starring Countess Vaughn and Mo’Nique. Even Romeo Miller had his own show, called Romeo!. Who can forget the legendary TGIF lineup on ABC? It included shows like Boy Meets World and Full House but it also proudly aired Family Matters, the Chicago-based show that introduced the world to Steve Urkel, and Hangin' with Mr. Cooper. From My Brother & Me and Cousin Skeeter to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and A Different World, Black teens had their own lane on the small screen.
However, it’s a lane that seems to have disappeared.
Kim Bass, the creator of both Keenan & Kel and Sister, Sister, had this to say about the current Black teen TV landscape: “I think there are some very good shows that appeal to Black teens in a way shows in the past perhaps did not,” he explained in an email. “As society changes, so, too, does the outlook, understanding, and acceptance of those in society, especially the youth who are often the drivers of that change. Black teens are no exception.” Bass admitted that television still has a long way to go in terms of diversity, but he thinks that the industry is generally headed in the right direction.
It was surprising to learn that Bass did not create either of the aforementioned shows specifically to reach Black teens. Instead, he conceived his characters from personal history. “The fact that the main characters were young African-Americans was an organic occurrence. The themes and weekly situations of the shows were universal, which, I believe, accounted for their broad appeal, popularity, and longevity.”
Bass’ perspective raises more questions than answers. How is it that the Black teen shows of that era were so hugely popular, and the television industry is making strides to be more diverse following vocal cries from young people, but we’re seeing fewer shows that target Black teens specifically?
Another look at the casts of today’s young adult shows likely has the answer. Shows like grown-ish and Cloak & Dagger have Black characters appearing alongside people of varying racial backgrounds. This is also true of Riverdale. Josie (Ashleigh Murray) and her band of Pussycats have included Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch), who is white, and Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes), who is Latinx. 13 Reasons Why has a similar ensemble cast with characters of varying racial identities. The lead character of Netflix’s On My Block is Monse, a biracial girl played by Afro Latina Sierra Capri.
Today’s young people have bought into an idea of diversity that has evolved beyond a Black and white binary. Multiculturalism and racial ambiguity as a show of heterogeneity are at the centre of the current roster of young adult shows. Where millennials may have been on the fence about whether or not a post-racial America had arrived or was even desirable, the content that Generation Z consumes makes it a reality. Take Freeform for example, the network that is at the forefront of programming for young adults. It's clear from their lineup is that they are constantly seeking to represent diversity, not only across racial boundaries but sexual, ability, and gender lines as well. For them, that looks like a gaggle of shows sprinkled with a little bit of everything instead of a roster of shows that each appeal to different groups.
This strategy is aligned with something else Bass had to say about Black teens themselves. “Black teens are just like all other teens except how and where they are not. And how and where they are not, often times, has to do more with perception, pride, and placement than any particular penchant for any particular programming.” He's right. Hollywood woke up a from a really white slumber in the '70s and '80s when revolutionary shows like The Jeffersons and The Cosby Show offered real diversity in television. They opened the floodgates for all of the later Black programming previously mentioned. Shonda Rhimes popularised the concept of colourblind casting that gave us Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) one of the most popular Black female leads in history. Hollywood is woke now. They aren't pressed to give Generation Z Black shows, because they aren't revolutionary or progressive to a generation of young people who have grown up watching these programs in syndication. Black teen stories being everyone's stories isn't a new concept for this generation.
As a Black millennial, I miss Moesha’s (Brandy Norwood) diary entries and Tia and Tamera constantly telling their neighbour (Marques Houston) to “Go home, Roger!.” Those pop culture moments have transitioned into Issa Rae’s mirror freestyles on Insecure and Earn (Donald Glover) trying to figure things out with his baby mama (Zazie Beetz) on Atlanta. Young people are speaking up for what they want to see: Themselves on an equally visible playing field with everyone else.