by Tracey Michae’l
Sure, Cookie Lyon is the fierce, side-eye slinging, “I'm not playing with any of y’all!” sistah in the hit television series, Empire, which had millions of viewers salivating for her weekly mix of sass and sensitivity, but this isn’t the first time a Black female television character has captured and held the attention of television audiences from every walk of life.
Whether making us laugh uncontrollably in our favorite sitcoms or bringing us fierce—sometimes even controversial—characters in must-see dramas, the actresses tasked with playing the various roles represented on this list all found ways to successfully shape their characters into beautiful, brown, complex women.
1. Florida Evans, Good Times
Florida Evans-Dixon, played by the accomplished Esther Rolle, is the mother of J.J., Thelma, and Michael Evans and the wife of James Evans. She then became the wife of Carl Dixon after the untimely death of James, who died in a automobile accident while preparing his family for a move to Mississippi. As a mother, she's the super-glue that keeps the Evans family together. With a stern but loving disposition, Florida does her best to emotionally support her often out-of-work husband and to be a good parent and role model for their three children.
2. Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, Star Trek
Lieutenant Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols, was an important part of the original series’ multicultural cast and one of the first characters of African descent to be featured in a non-menial role on an American television series. She joined the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise as a lieutenant, and served as chief communications officer under Captain Kirk.
3. Olivia Pope, Scandal
Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) is a crisis manager running the consulting firm, Olivia Pope & Associates, dedicated to protecting and guarding public images and reputations, and solving certain crimes in her clients’ interest. Pope is also a widely-watched fashion and style trendsetter. Her employees have law degrees, but do not serve as lawyers. Instead, they are “gladiators in suits,” and Olivia leads them by wearing her figurative white hat. But she also has a few crises of her own: namely, the professional relationship with President Fitzgerald Grant III that led to an extramarital affair and a rather complicated relationship.
4. The Original Aunt Viv, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air
Professor Vivian Banks, Ph.D. was originally portrayed by Janet Hubert-Whitten during the first three seasons of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and later by Daphne Maxwell Reid for the final three seasons. Why do we love the original Aunt Viv so much? Well, during the Whitten years, she was a no-nonsense, vocally talented, forthright, and career-minded woman who played an equal role to her husband Philip in heading her family. For reasons many of us can speculate, the role changed dramatically after the transition to the new actress, but Aunt Viv 1.0 will always hold a special place in pop culture and our hearts.
5. Claire Huxtable, The Cosby Show
Clair Olivia Huxtable, played by the indomitable Phylicia Rashad, was the elegantly tough, eloquent, and engaging wife of Huxtable patriarch Cliff. She was known for her relaxed confidence and awesome side-eye game. An intelligent, classy, and successful businesswoman, Clair was a great debater who rarely if ever lost an argument on the show, a testament to her career as lawyer.
6. Liz McIntyre, Room 222
Liz McIntyre (Denise Nicholas) was the pretty and kind-hearted guidance counselor who truly cared about her students at Walt Whitman High School. The green-eyed beauty was a favorite of male students, but her heart belonged to history teacher Pete Dixon, her love interest on the show.
7. Cookie Lyon, Empire
Cookie Lyon, played by Taraji P. Henson, is the outspoken ex-wife of Lucious Lyon, the cutthroat CEO of Empire Entertainment. She is also the mother of his three sons: Andre, Jamal, and Hakeem. Cookie served a 17-year sentence in prison for drug dealing and sees herself as the sacrificial lamb for the Empire she built with Lucious, as it was her drug money that financed Lucious’ early career. Upon her return from prison she is determined to bring the Lyon family back together and take back what’s hers. And we're here for it. All of it.
8. Dominique Deveraux, Dynasty
Dominique Deveraux, portrayed by Diahann Carroll, was the perfect foil to Joan Collins’ Alexis on the hit 1980s nighttime soaps, Dynasty and The Colby’s. The ex-wife of Brady, played by Billy Dee Williams, she was a Vegas star with fabulously over-the top clothes and the fiercest, nastiest one-liners.
9. Whitley Gilbert, A Different World
Portrayed by Jasmine Guy, Whitley Gilbert majored in Art History and French at Hillman College, the fictional historical Black college attended by Denise Huxtable, the second eldest daughter of Clair and Cliff Huxtable from the The Cosby Show. A native of Richmond, VA, she was the prissy, spoiled southern belle that everyone (on the show and in the audience) loved to hate. And ultimately, the one Dwayne Wayne loved forever.
10. Lily Harper, I'll Fly Away
Lilly Harper, played by the stunning Regina Taylor, was a Black housekeeper for the family of district attorney Forrest Bedford during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Lilly was certainly no demure domestic though. She became increasingly involved in the Civil Rights Movement and eventually drew the family she worked for into the cause of her people.
11. Lydia Grant, Fame
“You've got big dreams? You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying… in sweat.” Yessss! Tell it! We first met Lydia Grant in the 1980 film Fame. Although her role in the film was relatively small, Lydia would become a central figure in the television adaptation. She was strong and ambitious and had Leroy looking right doing those pirouettes and jumps.
12. Sandra Clark, 227
Sandra Clark, portrayed by Jackee Harry, was the young, sexy friend of Mary (Marla Gibbs) in building 227. The two constantly bickered back and forth about their respective views on life, but later became good friends. Sandra was outwardly sensual and was known for her laugh and double entendre.
13. Miranda Bailey, Grey’s Anatomy
Played by Chandra Wilson, Miranda Bailey, M.D. was introduced to us as a the toughest resident in surgical program at Seattle Grace Hospital. Bailey worked her way up to being an attending surgeon, and one of the most capable doctors at Seattle Grace. Although her colleagues previously referred to her as "The Nazi" because of her abrasive personality and blunt attitude, she has also been shown to provide nurturing, support, and advice to her colleagues.
14. Gina Waters-Payne, Martin
Gina Waters-Payne was the silly, optimistic, occasionally misbehaved, forgiving, and eternally romantic girlfriend—and later wife—of Martin Payne (Martin Lawrence). Not only was she a loving and devoted girlfriend, but Gina also had a successful career working for a public relations firm. Often described as "bougie", Gina was actually the perfect complement to Martin by being the voice of reason to his crazy antics.
15. Julia Baker, Julia
Julia Baker, portrayed by the phenomenal Diahann Carroll, was a widowed single mother working as a nurse in a doctor's office, after her husband, Army Captain Baker’s artillery plane had been shot down in Vietnam. Though a challenge, Julia masterfully raised her son Corey alone, with the help of a community of friends in her apartment building and at work.
16. Willona Woods, Good Times
Willona Woods (Ja'net Dubois) was a close family friend and neighbor to the the central Evans family of the classic Black TV show, Good Times. Independent, generous and always up for fun, Willona was nosy and always available for a little low-key gossip. A divorcée sporting fashionable clothes and slinging unabashed advice, Willona juggled a variety of jobs while maintaining an active single life. She was also the adopted mother of the sassy Penny (Janet Jackson). When things go awry for the Evans kids, she was always another tower of strength, besides their mother.
17. Joan Clayton, Girlfriends
Joan Clayton, Esq., played by Tracee Ellis Ross, was considered (at least by herself) the unofficial "den mother" of her group of best girlfriends. She was a little quirky and always seemed to be wrestling with her relationships—with men and her friends. Even so, she was always the one we rooted for in the end.
18. Dottie McStuffins, Doc McStuffins
Dottie “Doc” McStuffins, voiced by Kiara Muhammed, is a kind and beautiful 9-year-old girl who loves to talk to toys and mend them. They come to life with the help of her magical stethoscope. Whenever a toy needs help, Doc always thinks carefully before she figures out what the problem is, which allows her to come up with the perfect solution. Yes, even little Black animated girls rock!
So who did we miss? Who are some of your favorite Black women television characters of all time?
Photo: Fox Network
Tracey Michae'l is a regular contributor to For Harriet.