Black•ish … Black is?

Black•ish … Black is?


Funny? At times. The New Cosby Show? Hell no! Deserving of all the backlash it’s been getting? Slow your roll people!

Now in its 4th season, Black•ish, an ABC sitcom, tells the story of the Johnsons, a financially very comfortable black family with five kids. According to the ABC website, the parents “want to give their children the best. {…} They now realize at least two things: there is a price to pay for giving their children more than what they ever had, and these loving parents are totally unprepared for the fallout.” Is the innuendo that the price to pay is the loss of “blackness”?

For many, that is precisely the problem with the show: what the Johnsons, mainly Dre, the father, define as black. Let’s not even waste time with ignorant comments of Roseanne and the like that deem the show racist. But is there some validity to the idea that Black•ish promotes one essential way of being black? Is the show really reinforcing negative stereotypes of black people? Are people really watching the show thinking the message is that you can’t truly be black if you don’t eat fried chicken, play basketball or live in the hood?

Now tell me, is the problem with the show or with part of the audience? The majority of people will watch the show and understand that the lesson to be learned is not to be aware of all the dangers of having your kids be “sell-outs” once you hit a certain social-economic status; nor is it about the mother having to prove that she’s really black despite her skin complexion. Most people will watch the show and understand that it’s mainly about Dre discovering for himself what it means to be black, that there isn’t one way of being that qualifies you as black and him coming to terms with the socio-economic and generational differences his family faces. In a way, the show seems to be trying to debunk all these stereotypes that people say it’s reinforcing.

As a Canadian, it’s quite funny to me what Americans will react to. No one batted an eye when the family declared themselves black, not African and therefore found the idea of a rite of passage ritual so preposterous. Yet we’re all too proud to chant “Wakanda Forever” and dance the guara guara. I’m not saying we’re right nor wrong, but I’m definitely seeing something to be looked at. Are Africans living in America not black? Are the bequeathed consequences of slavery the main characteristics of blackness? Yes, we know: race is a social construct. Does that mean that blackness is just that: our struggle? I’m sorry, I thought we were in the process of reclaiming the word.

On the other hand, so many were quick to criticize the show saying it should take its cues from the Cosby Show in terms of showing the diversity of black people in America. Now someone needs to tell me how the Cosby Show showed diversity. It was a great show, no question, but it was in no way more diverse than Black•ish. Until we get a show akin to A Different World, I don’t see how we can talk about diversity, nor how it’s relevant. The Cosby Show was still showing the reality of one particular black family in America. Is it that some black Americans feel more comfortable with presenting the Huxtables as the quintessential image of what it means to be black? Are the Huxtables more black than the Johnsons? Are they better blacks? Are they what all blacks in America should aspire to? I don’t know about you but I know more Johnsons than Huxtables, black, white or other and for that I say thank God! My family doesn’t aspire to be the Martha Stewart of families and it’s about time we, as black people, stop trying to present a certain image to the rest of the world and just start being. The Cosby Show was a game changer and is still relevant today, but isn’t it time we forego the idealized version of what we want to portray as black? As if the only two choices for black people were Huxtable or ratchetness…

As great as shows like Black•ish or Dear White People are, I can’t help but wonder when we will just start being unapologetically black, without our blackness having to be in response to, a darker image of or validated by white people. W.E.B. Dubois’ double consciousness rings truer today than ever.

To me, Black•ish is really posing the question “Black is?”. If anything, I think more often than not, Dre’s view on what it means to be Black is what the show is trying to make fun of. My real issue with the show is that satire wrongly executed gives place to ambiguity. In trying to not rock the boat too much and never quite positioning itself completely so it can appeal to a wider audience, there’s this ambiguity that leaves room for much interpretation and is too often wrongly interpreted. Not as moralizing as the Cosby Show, definitely not as funny as the Chapplle’s Show and limited by the frame and banality that is the American sitcom, Black•ish makes us smile without ever making us laugh, it makes us react without ever making us think.


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