While proper representation of people of color is usually hard to find on television and in movies, (something feminists and activists alike have long battled to change) a few black characters from our favorite childhood cartoons, sitcoms, and movies have stuck around in our memories for years. Not only did these characters ALWAYS represent people of color in positive ways, they were also very often the main characters or obvious backbones of the show. Most of the time, these shows probably wouldn’t have been as memorable or as great without them. From Raven Symone’s politically important performance of a teen psychic, to Keke Palmer’s legendary portrayal as a young, black business woman on True Jackson VP, these characters are remembered fondly for both making us laugh and for being icons to young audiences who desperately needed them!
1. Taylor Mckessie from High School Musical
Let’s kick it off with Taylor McKessie! An ambitious character portrayed by Monique Colemon who was not only class president but also captain of the scholastic decathlon team at East High! As far as Disney Channel Original Movies go, she was the epitome of black excellence! Throughout the musical trilogy, it was stated that she had aspirations to be the president of the United States one day, that she graduated with honors, and that she was planning to major in Political Science at Yale. Taylor was such a good role model for young black audiences by inspiring with her larger-than-life goals. Even though she didn’t get as much screen-time as our other East High alumni, she definitely left an impression on young minds. And I don’t know about you….but she’s definitely got my vote! #TaylorForPresident2016!
2. True Jackson from True Jackson VP
Queen Keke Palmer played True Jackson, a young business woman, on Nickelodeon for three years- from 2008 to 2011. The show broke network records during it’s premiere for those aged six to eleven. True was a fifteen year old who landed an internship at her favorite fashion company. As the first episode progresses, True finds herself holding the title as the vice president of the company. This particular character and show in general was important because I feel like it came at a time where it was most needed. It very accurately portrayed young black women in America as hard workers, with loads of intellect and ambition. True was also not your standard actress on the channel as it ran during the same time as iCarly, Victorious, and Big Time Rush. While the main characters of these shows were predominately white, True stood out as a reminder that beauty comes in all shades. True Jackson V.P. also seemed to have set a precedent for later shows on the network as Nickelodeon has included more characters of color since the show’s finale in 2011.
3. Denise & Teddy from Full House
Denise was Michelle Tanner’s best friend, along with Teddy, on everyone’s favorite sitcom Full House. The friendships between these three were significant because of the genuine innocence of it all. They all unabashedly loved each other, stood up for each other, shared with each other, and helped each other. I think it opened up a lot of people’s eyes and made them realize how much easier it is to be accepting with a child’s heart. Michelle didn’t care if her two best friends were black. Her two best friends didn’t care that she was white. The biggest concern between the three of them seemed to be who got the peanut butter and jelly sandwich at lunch time and who got to sit next to who. In a time where racial tensions seemed to be high and only growing, these three were a nice reminder that you can find unity and peace in the person next to you if you really try.
4. Tia and Tamera from Sister, Sister
Tia and Tamera played themselves on a fictional sitcom where they were separated at birth and then reunited during their teenage years. Though the show had a rocky start, it stabilized after being picked up by ABC and Warner Brothers Studios and aired from 1994 to 1999. The show featured a cast of almost all black characters and reigned on the network channel. Sister, Sister easily became everyone’s favorite because of the strong duality of personality between Tia and Tamera. Where one was intellectual and obedient, the other was fun and impulsive. The twins made a show that had comedic undertones all while showcasing an all-too-real bond between a family who truly loved each other. They were also somewhat of a glaring opposition- and a brilliant alternative for black audiences- to the white-washed neighborhood of the Sweet Valley High twins. They unintentionally proved that maybe there was more than blond hair, blue eyes, and rich parents out there and that there was an audience willing to watch it! Sister, Sister brought a much needed diversity to the nineties and I’m almost certain that television would not be the same had it not premiered.
5. T.J. from Smart Guy
It wouldn’t be right to talk about the Mowry sisters without mentioning their little brother (Tahj Mowry) and his very own show. Smart Guy centered around a ten year old boy who possessed a high intellect level and skipped from fourth grade straight ahead to tenth grade. They follow T.J. as he tries to assimilate into high school as a child and cope with befriending people older than him. While his intelligence gives him an advantage, it also gives him a disadvantage in terms of fitting in. The coolest part of the show is that it’s all about focusing on the intellect of this young black boy rather than being a show that portrays black men as “thugs” or criminalizes them. Again, at a time where racial tensions were high due to the War on Drugs, this show was a positive light in dark times.
6. Penny from The Proud Family
Penny Proud was one of my favorite characters on the Disney Channel growing up. Her zany but close knit family always kept audiences laughing but her good-nature and loyalty to her friends is what kept us coming back. Voiced by Kyla Pratt, Penny goes on (mis)adventures with her friends, tries to date despite her dad’s strict rules, and is an overall average teenager. The brilliance of her character and the show itself is the subtle yet perfect allusions to goings-on in the black entertainment community. From “Fifteen Cent” to “Wizard Kelly” the show gave us slightly altered versions of real life celebrities, Magic Johnson and Fifty Cent. The Proud Family was very culturally conscious, proven in an episode where Penny befriends a Muslim family while learning about culture for a school project. Penny Proud was the face of cultural education for Disney Channel and will be remembered for generations to come.
7. Raven Baxter from That’s So Raven
Let’s leave it where it all begun for some: Raven Baxter. While some of us may disagree with Raven Symone’s opinions on activism, we can’t deny that this show made our childhood. The teen psychic made waves on the channel and was one of the networks longest running shows, had higher rated episodes than any other show, was the only show at the time to hit the hundredth episode mark, and was nominated twice for an Emmy. Keke Palmer has even been cited to say that she was here only because of That’s So Raven. The show undoubtedly broke barriers, pressed controversial issues, and made it a point to not white-wash Raven by using popular black vernacular, and by producing an episode in which Raven exposes a racist store manager. The character and show became iconic to so many because of the genuine feel of the characters, the family, and the portrayal of real life issues. Because of this show, many found confidence in who they were during their pre-teen years. Because of this show, many similar sitcoms were able to follow. The significance of That’s So Raven will never be overlooked, forgotten, or drowned out.
These characters all have a cultural significance for all communities. They all taught us lessons in our childhood that we never learned in books. Congratulations Mainstream Media, you did something good for once.