Where are the black people on 'Mad Men'?
By Geneva S. Thomas
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 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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