What do you think of the new show “Black-ish”?
Here’s how ABC has described “Black-ish” a new comedy series that airs on Wednesdays at 9:30 eastern time: “Andre ‘Dre’ Johnson has a great job, a beautiful wife, Rainbow, four kids, and a colonial home in the ‘burbs. But has success brought too much assimilation for this black family?” Executive producer Larry Wilmore—who is leaving “Black-ish” to headline a new Comedy Central late-night show that will replace The Colbert Report—says that the show “celebrates black more as a culture than a race” and that “At heart it’s a family show.” “Black-ish” also has a noteworthy and fairly impressive cast—Anthony Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross (yes, Diana Ross’s daughter), and Laurence Fishburne, among others.
When I first saw a billboard advertising “Black-ish,” my sometimes (well, oftentimes) hypersensitive racial guard immediately went up, and I have to admit that I was kind of offended. What does it mean to be “black-ish,” I wondered? Who gets to decide who is black and who isn’t? What does it even mean to be black? Why are the television networks producing another “comedy” with a mostly all-black cast whose job it seems is to make white folks laugh at their dumb racial jokes? Isn’t “Black-ish” kind of a racist name for a television show anyway?
When asked about the title of the show, ABC executives have said that the show is “not about race but about class and family.” Laurence Fishburne agreed, telling a reporter that “it’s about the Johnson family, and in that regard, it’s about your family, and my family, and everybody’s family.” I’m not really sure how a television show titled “Black-ish” suggests in any way, shape, or form that it’s about everybody’s family, so I don’t really think they’re telling us the truth. I think ABC just wanted to shock viewers into watching this so-called comedy.
When I goggled “Black-ish” and “commentary,” I stumbled upon this Donald Trump tweet:
Look. This should not come as a surprise to those who know me, but I’m no Donald Trump fan. I mean, this is a guy with a ludicrous toupee (if that is, in fact, his “real” hair, he should tell people that it is a toupee) who has convinced many a white racist that President Obama is a socialist Kenyan Muslim whose Hawaiian birth certificate is a fake. Moreover, Trump’s proclamation that there would be a “furor” over a show named “Whitesh” and that “‘black-ish’” is “racism at [its] highest level” is gibberish. Racism, Mr. Trump, would be you insisting that President Obama is a socialist Kenyan Muslim with a fake birth certificate who hates America and who is trying to take away white people’s guns.
Besides, there are lots of “white” shows on network television that seem to celebrate everything about “white” culture—“2 Broke Girls,” “Mike and Molly,” “Nashville,” “Running Wild With Bear Grylls,” and “Game of Thrones” come to mind—and few white people seem to find any “furor” over that. White people like Donald Trump kind of need to get over this “reverse racism” claim since there is no show called “Whitesh,” and except for Shonda Rhimes and a few other black writers and producers, white folks are still the ones who frequently decide what’s on network television most of the time.
Nonetheless, Trump is right to question the logic and the rationale of the show’s title, though I largely disagree with his assessment that the title is, in and of itself, racist. “Black-ish” is mostly just offensive, and it trivializes the struggle(s) that many African Americans have faced as they negotiate and navigate their way into the white world while trying not to lose a sense of their black selves. Even Laurence Fishburne thinks that the show’s title is funny, as he told an interviewer: “Our title is a little bit of a wink. It’s a bit of a joke because, ultimately, if you live in America and you’ve been in America, let’s say for the last 10, 15, 20 years, you’re probably a little Black-ish anyway.” Tell that foolishness to the Donald Trumps of the world who interact only with people who look like they do and whose interactions with black folks is usually in a subordinate and/or subservient role. The title just isn’t very funny.
Having grown up in Moline, Illinois—the home of the John Deere Tractor and a predominately white town on the Mississippi River—I can say with much certainty that being one of the few black students at Butterworth Elementary, Woodrow Wilson Junior High, and Moline Senior High School was hardly a laughing matter. There were white teachers who didn’t think I would amount to much simply because of my skin color, and the white students who thought it was funny to call me a Nigger just because they could made me sad, mad, and a few times ashamed of my brown skin and kinky hair. No, Mr. Fishburne—we’re not all a little “Black-ish.” Some of us black folks are just trying to find our way—without losing our sanity or, ironically, our sense of humor—in a sometimes hostile white man’s world.
The day after “Black-ish” made its debut on ABC, I happened to be teaching W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk in my “Critical Studies in African American Literature” class. First published in 1903, DuBois’s book gave me a perfect opportunity to talk about his concept of double consciousness and this foolish show called “Black-ish.” In Chapter 1, titled “Our Spiritual Strivings,” DuBois writes:
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
My students said that they wished that the writers and producers of “Black-ish” had used this show to address DuBois’s concept of “double consciousness” in a more serious and in a more sincere manner, especially now that we have a black president who often finds himself having to negotiate between being an “African American president” and just being the “President of the United States of America.” As more black folks move into the middle and upper class and thus find themselves straddling and engaging with at least two cultures, this notion of double consciousness has become a day-to-day struggle for many of us, and it would have been nice if “Black-ish” had taken the lead in discussing these struggles without the laughter and without the vapid silliness that the title suggests.
In her review of Baratunde Thurston’s 2012 book How to Be Black, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry writes that his book—which she says is “part autobiography, part stand-up routine, [and] part contemporary political analysis—might “do more to expose and explore the shifting dynamics of race in America than all the Pew data of the past decade ever can.” In this very astute and incredibly witty book, Thurston makes his readers “both laugh and weep with poignant recognition.” Few would ever say this about “‘Black-ish,” a show whose only goal seems to be to make its viewers weep with embarrassment and shame at the tomfoolery of the characters and their incessant (and not very funny) jokes about their new life in the ‘burbs.
In his final chapter, “The Future of Blackness,” Thurston writes about a “New Black History Course” that will teach people a “more complete and honest history of black people and, thus, America in far more interesting ways.” A “sampling” of this course, Thurston says, will be a “broader story of the Diaspora with a special focus on the Americanness of black people in America.” “In addition to what we pass on to each generation,” Thurston writes, “it’s also important to change how we teach these lessons.”
“The Cosby Show,” which ran from 1984 to 1992, did a wonderful job of teaching its viewers that a black, upper-class family could peacefully co-exist in (white) American society, and although the show rarely delved into issues of racism or social injustice, it did present two successful black parents (he was an OB/GYN, she was a lawyer) who personified most of our hopes for achieving the American dream for ourselves and for our families. “Black-ish,” on the other hand, is mostly a 30-minute tale of buffoonery that could have used its stature in its prime-time Wednesday night slot to enlighten viewers of all hues that DuBois’s notion of “double consciousness” is a still perpetual reality for those of us who move between two worlds each and every day of our lives.
My hope is that “Black-ish”—in spite of its silly name—will evolve into a show that no longer trivializes the black middle- and upper-class experience in America and instead will expose viewers to the multiplicities of blackness. Baratunde Thurston suggests that he and other African Americans must “discover” their own blackness by “embracing the new, the different, the uncommon, and simply, yourself.” I think the producers and the stars of “Black-ish” attempted to do this, but they failed. If viewers are lucky, ABC will give the show’s writers and producers time to correct this, and the Johnsons will become a family that astutely and cleverly teaches America the joys, the trials, and the tribulations of black life in 2014.