“Black-ish” debuted last week and two episodes in I’m already here for it. Admittedly, I connected with the show’s concept and characters on somewhat of a personal level, which has been rare with family TV programming over the years.
Of course in the past, I loved shows like “Girlfriends” and “Living Single,” just to name two, but as Black sitcoms go, there hadn’t been much to reflect my experience growing up. “The Cosby Show” was really the closest thing, and even that was more idealized. The Huxtables were truly the “perfect family.” Even disciplinary actions turned into fun family experiences where the other kids conspired with Claire and Cliff to play make-believe until the person in trouble learned their lesson. When I saw “Black-ish,” on the other hand, it was oddly familiar to me. It wasn’t an 100% accurate representation of my our lives as one of the only Black families on the block, as school or at work, but there definitely some moments I could identify with.
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The show centers around a Black family living in the suburbs and raised by a father, Andre ‘Dre’ Johnson (Anthony Anderson), who’s a newly promoted Senior Vice President of an ad company and a mother, Rainbow Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross) who’s a doctor. Laurence Fishburne plays the curmudgeonly granddad, and he’s hilarious! The family is raising their four kids in a predominantly white environment and Andre is concerned that his kids won’t be able to identify with the Black experience. This, at first, sends him on a mission to ensure that his kids are “down.”
Reception for “Black-ish” has been mixed. Some critics have hailed the show “‘the new ‘Modern Family'” (or even “the next ‘Cosby Show'” depending on where you’re reading) in terms of its likability and laughs. Other critics have panned the show as unrealistic for the stereotypes it promotes, but it’s worth remembering that the series creator, Kenya Barris, pulled some of the ideas for the show from his own life. Like some of the show’s early fans, I can recognize scenarios from my own life on “Black-ish.”
For starters, Andre’s back story of coming from humble beginnings reflected similarities from my parents’ lives. My parents, who hailed from Chicago and Macon, Georgia, before meeting in the army, decided to raise my brother and me in Connecticut. This was after a few years in Ohio when they determined that the majority of Black people in our area just weren’t trying to do anything positive with their lives. It wasn’t the kind of environment my parents wanted to have their babies developing their view of the world.
When dad was offered a job in Connecticut, they didn’t have to think twice about picking up and moving us all out to a nice, quiet suburb near Yale University. Since it was Connecticut, and since it was the ‘burbs, our town was White. Like super-White. And, to me, we often felt like the token Black family in our neighborhood. No tours were rolling by the house as displayed on episode one, but you definitely felt like folks were watching you because they’d never seen a complete Black family outside of TV (not that there were many examples there either).
My brother and I would almost never have known it, though, because my folks did an amazing job of cobbling together a Black community around the family. There was also an emphasis on pride in being Black: afro-centric educational activities in my childhood and even trips to the African market to buy traditional clothes (me being wrapped up in kente cloth is a thing that happened). It allowed my brother and I to see people like us making education and achieving personal goals a priority while doing their best to further the community. Well-rounded, but not stuffy.
Granted, my parents did not have African rites of passage in the backyard, but they made every effort to immerse us in Black culture because they didn’t want us to lose touch. I’m convinced that there were several moments in my life where my parents were seconds from telling me, “Now, you stand right there and experience your roots!” I’m sure much of this was due to the fact that my parents didn’t want us to forget that we’re Black. It wasn’t so much to get us to separate ourselves from our majority White classmates, but to get us to embrace and love our differences in a place where there were sometimes social penalties for being Black.
In Andre, I could definitely see elements of my parents’ concerns about how I would develop my identity. It helped me to understand their thinking a bit more. While some of their shenanigans were frustrating at the time, they found a way to accept the person I have become. Much to their relief that is someone who isn’t afraid to be unapologetically Black (not Black-ish) while embracing different cultures.
Have you been watching ‘Black-ish?’ What’s your take on ABC’s new show?
Check out this video of Tracee Ellis Ross talking ‘Black-ish” and being biracial: