Veteran network TV performer Bobby Rivers has a smart, comical style
that earned him solid reviews from The New York Times, People Magazine, TV Guide and even Tom Hanks. Rivers also pushed to get the kind of work denied African-Americans when he was a youngster growing up in 1960s South Los Angeles. On national TV, he’s been an entertainment correspondent, a movie critic, a weeknight celebrity talk show host and a game show host.
DESCRIBE THE IMPACT THAT RACISM HAD ON YOU AS A YOUNG PERSON.
Racism scared me. Later, that fear became a fire in the belly that motivated me to make a positive change in some area as best I could. As a youngster in South Central Los Angeles, my parents and I watched Dr. King’s March on Washington when it was a live CBS news telecast. A month later, four little girls were killed in a Birmingham church bombing. That’s what scared me. Those girls were aged 11 and 14. That bombing was racist revenge for black Americans daring to demand the right to vote, the right to an education, the right to earn equal pay, the right to use a clean restroom and the right to sit next to a white person at a lunch counter without fear of being beaten. We demanded the right to live…literally to live in the land of the free. The fact that children were killed by the plague of racism changed the way I saw the world around me. It also made me realize that we, as children, possessed strength. Strength that wicked people feared. Think of the strength Dorothy had over the Wicked Witch in "The Wizard of Oz." Think of Jem and Scout in “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Racism affected the way I looked at television. Why wasn’t I seeing helpful, talented, intelligent and classy characters like the black, Hispanic, and Asian-American neighbors, teachers, classmates and professionals that were part of my everyday L.A. life in the mix? Why? The black family next door had a living room like Rob Petrie’s on "The Dick Van Dyke Show," not like Fred’s on "Sanford and Son."
HAS YOUR PERSONAL EXPERIENCE WITH RACISM IMPACTED YOUR PROFESSIONAL LIFE AS A WRITER?
It’s made me get more serious about bringing light to dark places, if you will. I am writing now about certain barriers I had to break through as I sought to land the kind of work denied black people in broadcasting when I was a kid, such as movie critic, celebrity interviewer, entertainment talk show host and game show host. In my career, I’ve received anonymous racial hate mail, I discovered that a white executive who made racial slurs in a newsroom moved on to higher pay at another network while I was told I would not be moving up the corporate ladder. I’ve had to deal with a very above-the-Mason Dixon-line kind of racism. Caucasian executives felt that my being "articulate" and looking "upscale" made me not really black. This summer, while doing a live radio interview with James Gavin, the author of a fascinating and revealing new biography of Tony Award winning singer/actress Lena Horne, I was stunned when the host thought that Ms. Horne had escaped the sting of racism simply because she was a glamorous movie star. She was a black woman who could not enter some hotels or get served at some eateries because she was a black woman. That interview made me fully aware that our stories still need to get out there because some folks, clearly, still don’t get it.
IN WHAT WAY CAN LITERATURE BE USED TO COMBAT THE EFFECTS OF RACISM?
The Three E’s — it can enlighten, entertain and educate. That is the power not only of print, but also of film literature. "To Kill A Mockingbird," the excellent novel and the equally excellent film adaptation, became stronger to me when I learned that Harper Lee’s inspiration for the book was the real-life racist lynching of a visiting black teenager named Emmett Till. The 14-year old was kidnapped and brutally killed by a group of racist men for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. If I was a teacher, I’d have a class watch the movie, discuss it and then watch a documentary on Till and discuss that. I’d show them Spike Lee’s 1997 documentary, "4 Little Girls." His research into the Birmingham bombing of 1963 brought about one of the most memorable, important and heartbreaking works of his career. If you want to see the effects of racism, listen to his interviews with the surviving relatives of the slain girls. In grade school, we learned about slavery. When we saw "King Kong" (1933) on TV and those white men dragged Kong off his African island so they could make money off him in America, we saw it as more than just a fabulous beauty and the beast horror story. I totally believe that the Three E’s in print and film can produce very powerful rays to shoot into dark places of society.
For more on Bobby Rivers, please visit his website @ http://www.bobbyrivers.com/