yes, i know it's been a while...

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but, not quite a year, which was what i feared...

I've been having a hard time wrapping my head around the current state of serialized storytelling, which has left me both overwhelmed, and frankly, depressed, since I last posted. Not much in the mood to write.

So, I was delighted when I came across Aaron Foley's recent piece in The Atlantic, The Unsung Legacy of Black Characters on Soap Operas. Of particular note to me was the paragraph re Irna Phillips, specifically, the last sentence: "Many of her soaps only featured blacks in supporting or recurring roles well into the 1970s." As is the case with so much about Irna's life, her efforts to integrate her shows have gone unnoticed.

In a letter dated 2 June 1965, actress Frances Foster, chair of CORE's (the Congress of Racial Equality) arts chapter (she would later play Grace Trainor on One Life to Live and Vera on Guiding Light), sent a thank you note to Irna Phillips. Enclosed was a photocopy of a 12 May 1965 Variety article about Phillips' appearance on Irv Kupcinet's radio show in Chicago on 8 May. The reason for this very rare media appearance was her unhappiness with Proctor & Gamble's refusal to allow "significant Negro portrayals" on her soaps.

According to Variety, Phillips had "proposed the idea of looking at divorce through the eyes of a Negro youngster, though not a particularly racial viewpoint. P&G wouldn't brook it." She went on to say, "I would like to integrate my show, but I will not use Negros for filler. I have no Negros now because I can't use them as I want to."

A year later, Billy Dee Williams was playing intern Jim Fraizer on Guiding Light, while James Earl Jones was playing another physician, Jerry Turner, on As the World Turns. Jones left ATWT to develop The Great White Hope at the Arena Stage in Washington. He would later play Jim Fraizer on GL. Fraizer's wife Martha would be portrayed by both Cicely Tyson and Ruby Dee.

Foley was certainly correct in noting that the P&G "soaps only featured blacks in supporting or recurring roles well into the 1970s." However, it wasn't because of lack of effort on Irna's part. A few years earlier, Rex Ingram became the first African-American contract player on a soap, The Brighter Day in September, 1962. Irna created the radio show for P&G in 1948, and oversaw its transfer to television in 1954. In 1961 P&G ceded production of the show to CBS. The show had been struggling in the ratings: a Summer 1962 time slot switch only exacerbated things and the show was cancelled just two weeks after Ingram debuted. Ironic optics, to say the least. But the fact that it was CBS that signed Ingram to a contract seemed to confirm Irna's position that it was P&G thwarting her efforts to integrate her shows.

He was also correct in noting that when Irna said, "as a writer, there isn't a black or a white, or a square or a bad joke ... We're all brave. None of us are either black or white, or bad or good." she wasn't referring to race. What she was describing was the ethos of her storytelling, which, according the late critic, Robert LaGuardia, forced viewers, "to grieve over the heartbreak of the human condition rather than hang o to a fixed value judgement."

irna and me: two authors in search of a character...Where stories live. Discover now