When cartoons offend "The PJs": Criticism of TV show reflects need to counteract negative stereotypes.

January 23, 1999

ASSESSING race relations, it has been said, isn't just a matter of measuring how far America has come, but how far it must go. And the nation is not yet at the point where every African American can laugh at an animated, prime-time TV show that pokes fun at imaginary black residents of a high-rise housing project.

The miscalculation that produced "The PJs" was made by a black man, entertainer Eddie Murphy. His new show has revealed a division among African Americans. Some are able to laugh at stereotypes. Others believe negative depictions of black people, even in aTV cartoon, can do serious harm.

It's tempting to compare "The PJs" to the classic TV cartoon show, "Fat Albert," which was produced by Bill Cosby. The cartoon characters based on Mr. Cosby's childhood memories were drawn with exaggerated features and communicated in ghetto language.

But "Fat Albert," aimed at children rather than an adult audience, was intended to be more than entertaining. Counseling expert Gordon L. Berry was hired as a consultant because Mr. Cosby wanted a show that could teach children proper social behavior and lessons about life.

So successful was "Fat Albert" that 15 years after it ended its 12-year run on CBS, videotapes of the cartoon are available for use by schools. Episodes like "Nobody Likes a Bully," "Mom and Pop Split Up," "Everybody's Different and That's OK!" and "Reading Is the Way to Grow" still teach important lessons.

That is not to say "The PJs" has no redeeming value. One episode of the new Fox series depicted the projects' residents pulling together to help a lonely, elderly woman. But the moral of the story was told through unflattering images of poor black people.

Television offers little to counteract these images. Buffoonery remains the primary vocation of most African Americans on commercial TV. "Home Boys From Outer Space" is gone. But "The Wayans Brothers," "The Jamie Foxx Show" and "Malcolm and Eddie" remain as modern displays of minstrel mastery.

Criticism of these shows has been muted by arguments that more black people are working in the television industry than ever before. Nevertheless, the images of African Americans on television, too few are positive.

In that context, it's neither surprising nor unreasonable that some fear an animated stereotype will be accepted as an accurate depiction of black people -- even when the stereotype is meant as a joke.

Pub Date: 1/23/99

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