The Great American Soap Opera
The advent of television and the American soap opera came just at the time of the modern civil rights movement was gaining steam. Much more of America was still rigidly segregated like my hometown. Women were considered little more than mere housewives to whom advertisers could sell detergent, and gays and lesbians still were hiding in the nooks and crannies of various closets. Even if real life didn't conform to that exact reality, prime time television by and large reinforced it for millions of viewers; daytime soaps, for the most part, did so as well. However as the civil rights movement thrust a mirror filled with boycotts, marches, police dogs and firehoses turned on Black citizens into the collective national face, soaps — which have a history of cautious progressivism — responded with conservative (some would say timid) yet nonetheless important steps in breaking class and color barriers.
Prime time television had "experimented" with featuring Blacks for many years. There was Ethel Waters' one shot variety show in 1939 when TV was nothing more than a novelty; The Three Flames hosted another variety show in 1949; the beloved-by-some/reviled-by-many Amos n' Andy show in '51-'53; Terry Carter was featured on The Phil Silvers Show from 1953-1959; and most famously Nat King Cole's failed variety hour in 1956. If there is one thing these and practically all other shows that periodically featured Blacks of the period had in common is evident in the descriptions above: the vast majority were musical variety hours or comedies.
From the start daytime serials did things a bit differently, mainly because they were a dramatic medium devoid of the comedy and musical acts we so routinely see on soaps today. In 1962, Procter & Gamble's A Brighter Day introduced soaps' first featured African American in a dramatic contract role, film and stage actor Rex Ingram. Before NBC launched the groundbreaking Julia starring Diahann Carroll, The Guiding Light in 1966 signed Billy Dee Williams and Cicely Tyson (and later James Earl Jones and Ruby Dee as recasts!) as Dr. Jim and Martha Frazier, professional characters who predated The Cosby Show's Huxtables by 20 years. Prior to Julia's debut in 1968 featuring Carroll's titular character as a noble nurse, One Life to Live premiered a few months earlier and had as one of it's first stories, the edgy saga of Carla Benari (Grey), an African-American woman played by Ellen Holly passing herself as white in daytime's own version of Imitation of Life. In 1975, Days of Our Lives embarked on an ill-fated interracial romance story with the popular characters of David Banning and Valerie Guthrie, a union that so enraged viewers that the character was shipped off to Sweden (!) and actress Tina Andrews was fired.
By the time I started watching soaps, Black characters were as scarce on daytime as they have been in the 20-plus year history of The Bold and the Beautiful. One new emerging supercouple was on deck on a show I had just started watching regularly called All My Children. I was absolutely captivated by the developing love story between young, street tough Jesse Hubbard and a down on her luck white girl named Jenny Gardner (Kim Delaney).
Oh yes, gentle readers, Jesse and Jenny. AMC legend and yore would have us believe that Angie Baxter had always been the apple of Jesse's eye and that Jenny and Greg Nelson (Laurence Lau) were the show's sole Cinderella story. I remember the time before Angie appeared on the scene, when Jesse and Jenny's burgeoning relationship in New York caused quite a bit of controversy in the early 80's. Theirs was clearly a story of two people of different racial backgrounds united more by what they had in common (their poor economic roots and hard scrabble lives) than the color of their skin. The closeness between the young, "dangerous" street tough and the beautuiful white girl was too much for some.
Too often we forget that the mere thought of interracial dating in some parts of the country was seriously frowned upon as late as the late 70's and early 80's. Personally I was thrilled by the story, but if I correctly recall the news from the soap magazines at the time, large numbers of viewers and a few Southern affiliates did not share my enthusiasm. So, Jenny and Jesse "decided" to be be friends and AMC brought on snooty/upper middle class Angie and her of their well off-family. Instead of ditching Jesse altogether as Days' had done with Valerie, AMC managed to created two immensely popular unions with classic "wrong side of the tracks" themes and Angie and Jesse made a bit of history of their own as the first Black supercouple on daytime. (continued)