Television in Black-and-White America

Race and National Identity

Alan Nadel

Alan Nadels provocative new book reminds us that most of the images on early TV were decidedly Caucasian and directed at predominantly white audiences. Television did not invent whiteness for America, but it did reinforce it as the norm—particularly during the Cold War years. Nadel now shows just how instrumental it was in constructing a narrow, conservative, and very white vision of America.

Nadel depicts a time when television effectively hijacked and monopolized the nations vision of itself to create a virtual but severely distorted civic space. On Cold War TVs three channels there were no double beds, no liberated housewives, no social criticism, and no homosexuality. And the few available black faces overwhelmingly belonged to athletes, musical entertainers, and actors playing menial roles. Even Americas beloved Walt Disney promoted his highly popular TV and theme-park versions of society as utterly homogeneous representations of reality.

“An informative book that delivers on its title premise; it is very much about how Cold War America was white America. . . . Its great strengths are the depth of the context it offers for those who want to understand the psychology of that era.

—H-Net Reviews

“An interesting as well as a very disturbing picture of the dramas that flickered in American living rooms in the 1950s and what and whom they excluded.

—American Historical Review
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During this era, prime-time TV was dominated by adult westerns, with heroes like The Rebels Johnny Yuma reincarnating southern values and Bonanzas Cartwright family reinforcing the notion of white patriarchy—programs that, Nadel shows, bristled with Cold War messages even as they spoke to the nations mythology. America had become visually reconfigured as a vast Ponderosa, crisscrossed by concrete highways designed to carry suburban white drivers beyond the moral challenge of racism and racial poverty and increasingly vocal civil rights demands.

Television in Black-and-White America revisits a time and space that some might miss for its simplicity and relative innocence. Nadel, however, entreats us to look beyond such nostalgia to see how, even in its earliest days, television had already become a powerful mediator of social norms that both controlled and warped our sense of reality.

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