The 1955 television program “I Love Lucy” became a defining moment in American culture, and even though many who tuned in were primarily young people of color, it grew a reputation for being something that would appeal to their most dominant minority group. As a person of color who grew up watching the show as a young child and lived the experience firsthand, I have rarely, if ever, experienced a saturation of racism so much as I experienced during that time.
My interpretation of “I Love Lucy” as an instance of both the accepted and sometimes powerless condition of being a person of color has fueled my fascination with the series, and also intrigued me in a broader way for the way in which everyone else, including myself, has written about the show.
I always liked the series, despite the racism, sexism and even its absurdity, so I was grateful when Simone Biles wrote about it in “Simone Biles, Olympian Champion” for “The New York Times.” “The overall feeling I had watching the show was pure nostalgia for a far, far simpler time,” she wrote, before citing “I Love Lucy”’s first 30 episodes and how they captured the era of the Roaring Twenties: “During those early days the beautiful faces and wide-open smiles of the occupants of the Abbott family, the Ricardos, were a balm for young hearts scarred by the depression.”
The above words prompted me to pick up a copy of an article excerpted from Columbia Journalism Review the week before. “Being the Ricardos” by Jeri Laberge examined a period in “I Love Lucy” that often went unnoticed. In the 18 episodes from the first two seasons of the show, which all came to air on Sept. 7, 1955, the Ricardos, who are Italian-American from Rhode Island, were the focus of seven episodes featuring the young protagonist, Ricky Ricardo. Among the latter episodes, “Lucy Ricardo, Grandma’s Nutcracker Dancers” on Sept. 3, 1955, was described as “the Ricardos’ story, told largely through comedic set pieces.”
I found it interesting that many of the characters of the Ricardos were said to be playing the “typical and stereotypical” roles that were promulgated by the television industry at the time. It was not until Biles’ article that I realized how black, women of color, and they alone were depicted in these depictions. If you were watching “I Love Lucy” when it became the top-rated show in television history, I would advise you to watch that episode and recall the resemblance between Lucy Ricardo’s mother, Mamie, played by Nannie Wadsworth, and your own mother — your mother’s look and mannerisms were so very similar. The episode also confirms my hypothesis that “I Love Lucy”’s depiction of characters was based off racist stereotypes — Mamie left two things from the Dominican Republic at the end of the episode: the Dominican nationality and the good clothes.
According to the article, the most enduring image about Biles’ family is of them dancing at the Nutcracker Nutcracker Ball: “Cultural historians and those steeped in the moment-by-moment history of ‘I Love Lucy’ would say that’s where America met Italy.” The reflection of Mamie’s first hand made in the Nutcracker Ball was mirrored in another episode: “Jackie Ricardo, The Silver Queen,” on Dec. 21, 1955, in which the Ricardos sing, dance and chase the prince. Like “Lucy” and the “Imperial Court,” it resembles a Caravaggio painting.
The only episode featuring the Ricardos that my grandfather has not seen is “Lucy’s Birthday Party” on Feb. 9, 1956, in which Ricky Ricardo’s father, Luciano, cries while trying to explain to a home audience why his daughter was unable to surprise him with a party on her birthday.
As I read the article, it became clear that just as my ancestors have failed me a number of times, my black grandchildren and their communities have failed us a number of times through discrimination. I cannot say for certain if racism inspired the Ricardos to mask their struggles with humor, but I do know that racism has hindered my identity and understanding of my ancestors. And yet, through the family and their values, I may find a way to turn what has become an institutionalized divide into a shared, human bond.