Well before primetime shows like Empire, daytime TV was the place where diversity and complexity learned to coexist.I’m a fourth-generation soap watcher who got hooked on the shows the way a lot of fans do: spending summers watching TV alongside an older relative during school breaks.
Other soaps began testing the waters with black characters throughout the 1970s, recruiting actors from the stage to play doctors, nurses, and police officers.
In other words: stock characters who could come and go as a storyline dictated. A big murder mystery storyline? Bring in a supporting black detective. A leading heroine with a health crisis? Treated by the black nurse. Fully fledged storylines involving romance, marital affairs, and other typical soap plot devices were rare.
Creating black heroes and heroines, it seems, meant giving them their own families and storylines—but still keeping them at a healthy distance from white characters. This meant limited screen time, no interracial romances, back-burner plots, and limited mobility. To this day, viewers identify General Hospital with the iconic Luke and Laura coupling, a romance that took fans across the world as the pair found themselves embroiled in devious plots engineered by international criminals.
Behind the scenes, actors spoke of their confusing place in the soap world—and in show business itself. Despite shows like Good Times, The Jeffersons, and What’s Happening!! having prominent places on primetime, roles for black actors seemed scarce. Soaps, which offered the chance to be exposed to millions of viewers and the possibility of steady work, seemed like an oasis.
"Even though other actors of color had been on the show, they existed alone, without family; they were a community of one, but we were there front and center,” Petronia Paley, who played Quinn, told on the Another World fansite in 2009. (Before Paley, Another World employed one black actor: Vera Moore, who played a nurse that only existed to treat ill white characters.) “Diversity and inclusion are the buzzwords now, but ‘back in the day’ in [the fictional] Bay City, there was a community of people of color who were movers and shakers making a difference. They were there with lives and loves and troubles just like everybody else.”
As America became more comfortable with seeing blacks on screen, soap viewers also became more comfortable with risky, sometimes hilarious storylines. Passions, though short-lived, had daytime's first black lesbian character. An aforementioned plot on Sunset Beach had Virginia stealing a black doctor’s sperm, drugging her ex-boyfriend Michael’s current lover, Vanessa, and impregnating her with a turkey baster. Dru and Neil had divorced by the 2000s, but reconciled while working for rival cosmetics companies; their wedding in Japan featured high-flying capers with employees on both sides searching for a rare Japanese flower that contained a key ingredient used in a hair-straightening product for black women. But when, until then, had black women’s hair products ever been discussed on a soap opera?