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An Ode to Black TV Icons

Before there was Insecure and Harlem, there were innovators insisting that Black-led shows had a place in the American sitcom canon. Journalist Erin E. Evans pays tribute to the creators who lit the way for today’s brightest television stars.

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There are more diverse stories being told on TV than ever before. And while there’s still plenty of room for progress, much of the gains made are the result of Black creatives who didn’t just make it in the industry, but made a point to usher in a new guard of talent, on and off-screen.

Erin E. Evans, a senior editor at HuffPost, has been watching and obsessing over Black sitcoms for more than 25 years, always keeping an eye out for its evolution.

“One of my favorite tricks is being able to spot Black actors in a new TV series or movie and remember precisely the first time I saw them on a Black sitcom from the '90s,” she says.

“In recent years, it has been especially lovely to see actors like Brandy, Queen Latifah, Tichina Arnold gracing us with their presence on the small screen once again,” Evans says. “And watching new shows, like Courtney A. Kemp’s ‘Power’ universe and Issa Rae’s ‘Insecure,’ always reminds me of the behind-the-scenes innovators like Mara Brock Akil and Felicia D. Henderson who laid the foundation for so much on-screen excellence.”

At HuffPost, Evans covers race and pop culture, and has overseen features that explore the world of ‘Insecure,’ as well as one on the state of America, as told by Black teens.

Here, she offers a guide to essential Black TV icons, from Jackée Harry to the man behind some of your favorite show theme earworms.

Image by Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer

A Different World: Dwayne Interrupts Whitley and Byron’s Wedding [WATCH]

Diahann Carroll

Erin E. Evans: “Diahann Carroll is a historymaker. She was the first Black woman to star in a TV series—in a non-servant role—when Julia aired in 1968. Carroll had a long career in Hollywood, but one of my favorite on-screen roles is Carroll as Whitley Gilbert’s mother on A Different World. This scene when Whitley is at the altar with Byron is priceless.”

Art & Soul featuring Felicia D. Henderson


EEE: “Felicia D. Henderson is a true unsung hero of Black TV. She worked on Family Matters, writing jokes for Steve Urkel, and then did something completely different and groundbreaking with the seriously sexy drama Soul Food on Showtime. Henderson paved the way for Black showrunners like Shonda Rhimes, Courtney A. Kemp, and so many others.”

Kurt Farquhar, the King of Black-Sitcom Music, on His Best and Biggest Theme Songs

Jumi Akinfenwa

EEE: “You can’t talk about Black sitcoms without talking about the theme songs. It’s almost a lost art today (aside from the Power universe’s banger ‘Big Rich Town’ by 50 Cent and Joe.) Kurt Farquhar was the ultimate theme song maestro in the ‘90s and 2000s and every single song he created is still an earworm. ‘Mo to the, E to the, MOESHA.’ And now that the Proud Family reboot is on its way, I can’t wait to hear how he tops himself.”

Strong Black Legends: Jackeé Harry [WATCH]

Still Watching Netflix

EEE: “I’m obsessed with Netflix’s Strong Black Legends series. Obviously Jackée is a TV icon, full stop. She could steal a scene on 227 like none other, and has the Emmy to prove it. I see a lot of her in Janelle James, who stars in new workplace mockumentary Abbott Elementary as Principal Ava Coleman. She reminds me so much of Jackée with her biting comedy on the series.”

How ‘In Living Color’ won the 1992 Super Bowl

Ericka N. Goodman-HugheyCharlotte Gibson

EEE: “The Wayans were everywhere in the ‘90s and early 2000s: Damon Wayans in My Wife and Kids, Shawn and Marlon Wayans in The Wayans Bros, and of course, damn near the whole family was part of In Living Color. That series set the stage for other sketch comedy shows to come such as A Black Lady Sketch Show and Astronomy Club.

Mara Brock Akil Broke The Mold For Black Characters On TV—And She Isn’t Done Yet

Taryn Finley

EEE: “My colleague Taryn Finley wrote this wonderful profile of TV creator Mara Brock Akil, the mastermind behind Girlfriends and Being Mary Jane. Her most recent series, The Game, is a bit of a Hollywood rarity: The show has spanned three decades and three networks since its launch in 2008. She’s even passed on the torch to showrunner Devon Greggory who now runs the series on Paramount+.”

Erin E. Evans

Erin E. Evans is a senior editor at HuffPost, where she covers race and pop culture. She has worked for NBC News, Mic, BET and The Root. A Texas native, Evans lives in Brooklyn and spends way too much time watching TV and scrolling on TikTok.