Black Elites+Soap Opera=TV Gold (5/19/2021)

High society, cotillions, and wealth, oh my! These concepts and more are coming to a television and streaming screen near you this fall through Lee Daniels’ and Karin Gist’s new FOX television production, Our Kind of People. Based on the 1999 non-fiction book sharing the new show’s namesake by late author Lawrence Otis Graham, the life of black elites will be broadcast across our screens, all while styled to the musings and characteristics of a classic nighttime soap serial.

As a Heritage Studies and African American history major, I am both excited and intrigued by the idea of bringing this concept to life via a television series. Over the past few years, there has been a lot of interest and a sort of resurgence of shows and films that highlight, examine and often bring to light historical and period pieces that reflect African American life during the 19th and 20th centuries. And although specific topics have been leading the discussion, there is always room and desire to show more diverse and little-known stories both found and hidden in American history.

But in this case, Daniels and Gist are adding to television history portrayal of black elites with this upcoming production. Who else has fallen into the category in the past? About two years ago, The Root article, The Wealthiest Black TV Characters of All Time by Michael Harriot, examined the history of the black elite portrayed in American television history. By combining the character’s backstories and familial wealth with the currency rates of 2019, many of the characters on the list fall succinctly under the category of the black elite. Naturally, some common character names like The Cosby’s, The Greenleafs, and Dominique Deveraux of Dynasty made the list. But there were a few surprises. However, their creation and portrayal had to be inspired by actual life instances of black elites.

Historically, black elites are linked to various aspects of both American History and Culture. According to the journal article found in Phylon, Ebony Elite: America’s Most Influential Blacks by Charles P. Henry, black elites often occupied varying wealth status facets based on the geographical location and regional product influence. Identifying them as the “Eastern Elite” and the “New-Rich Southern and Western Elite,” Henry states that “the eastern elite derives its wealth from the great corporate and financial institutions established in the nineteenth century. The latter and more recent fortunes are attributed to oil and gas exploration, real estate, and the aerospace and defense industries” (Henry 1981, 124).

History also informs us that many of America’s HBCUs and organizations formed through HBCU initiatives were often occupied and attended by black elites. In this case, the lineage of elite wealth stems from generational family occupations from law, politics, education, and medicine. Granted, there are many other aspects and debates regarding the black elite in America omitted from this post discussion. However, it will be interesting to see how the black elite storylines incorporate these dichotomies and nuances into the plotline. In addition, I am excited to see how the characters will align with today’s issues centered around the family history of wealth and status.

While we wait for “Our Kind of People” to premiere on FOX this fall, I highly recommend checking out historical references of black elites as well as either getting a copy or digitally reading Our Kind of People here. I purchased my copy, and I am currently waiting on its delivery. In the meantime, find out more about the topic of Black Elites in an interview featuring the late Lawrence O. Graham here. So far, according to a few sources, the actors announced to portray roles on this new series are Morris Chestnut and Yaya DaCosta, and currently, the show will air on Tuesday nights in the 9-10 pm time slot. In all, it looks like the Fall 2021 television lineup is going to be so serious across the Big 4 this year!

References

Harriot, Michael. “The Wealthiest Black TV Characters of All Time.” The Grapevine, October 17, 2019. https://thegrapevine.theroot.com/the-wealthiest-black-tv-characters-of-all-time-1839143625.

Henry, Charles P. “Ebony Elite: America’s Most Influential Blacks.” Phylon (1960-) 42, no. 2 (1981): 120-32. Accessed May 19, 2021. doi:10.2307/274717.

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