How “Black-ish” Reflects My Own Experience As A Black Person In America
ABC’s new family sitcom — the No. 1 new comedy of the season — isn’t just challenging the largely lily-white comedy lineup of the networks, it’s doing something more: reminding me of my own childhood.
Grandma Louise's voice comes in just as clear as day, when I overheard her talking to my parents, describing my childhood experience: fly in the churn of buttermilk.
I was the fly. The buttermilk was the all-white world I was growing up in. I would never know the struggle that my parents did — Dad grew up in the South and was a college freshman in Montgomery, Alabama, by the time the civil rights movement hit its height, and Mom grew up on Detroit's lower west side, where they were busing kids all over the city in order to force segregation.
My life was vastly different, and it came with its own set of problems. In your formative years, you often see yourself through the prism of your friends. In third grade, we had a project where we all had to write about ourselves as if we were entries in a dictionary. In my description, I wrote I had blonde hair and blue eyes. In sixth grade at a school dance — one of the first times I wasn't one of the only black kids in class — a group of my friends and I all were dancing, trying to imitate what we saw the black kids doing. I was surprised when one of the girls strolled up to me and whispered, knowingly, "Look at them trying to dance like us." She looked at me like I was crazy when I gave her my reply. "I'm trying to dance like y'all too. Teach me."
I was the fly.
My parents unknowingly signed up for this battle when they decided that having a decent salary and good academic pedigree meant taking your family out to the suburbs. With few exceptions in this country, when you're black, that typically means being sans people who look like you.
That's why I laughed. I laughed loud and hard last weekend when I finally gave ABC's new show Black-ish a second chance. I'd seen the pilot months ago, and while I was intrigued and, well, publicly championing a show that featured an affluent black family with a prime spot on network TV to anyone who asked me, I wasn't quite sold on it. The pilot was loaded, and featured lesson on top of lesson on top of lesson. Dre (Anthony Anderson) is from the 'hood. Dre promised his mom and dad (Laurence Fishburne) he'd get a good education and get out of the 'hood. Dre is married to Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), who is a doctor. Ooh, look: Black people can earn college degrees! See?!
Then there was the teen son who wanted a bar mitzvah, and the African rites of passage ceremony, and the lesson on keeping it real.
I thought it was doing too much. The couple's oldest son prefers field hockey to hoops. Then there was the honorary brother handshake. The wannabe honorary brother who whispers when he wants to know the mundane: "How would a black guy say 'good morning'?" All in the first episode.
It was funny. But, yawn. Most of us live this without a laugh track. And to me, there wasn't much else to say. I wasn't keen on the idea of a weekly show that essentially could end with "…and that's your lesson of the day on black people, America…" because quite frankly, I get tired of tutorials.
Still, I made a commitment to watch the show. I want it to do well. As a black journalist who covers the entertainment industry, I need it to do well — it gives me a chance to write and report on stories that are important to me, and to the readership I hope to serve. Plus, at the end of the day, I do like seeing reflections of myself, my family, and my social circle play out on screen.
The early success of Black-ish is undeniable. It's ABC's No. 1 new comedy and has attracted an audience as diverse as, well, America.
So I watched. And I fell out (and tweeted it out) when Anderson's Andre Johnson uttered my grandmother's buttermilk phrase almost verbatim, in reference to his children's academic experience. And I chuckled when I watched Andre and his wife Rainbow bumble their way through executing disciplinary action on their kids, because they were whipped as kids, but didn't know if that was the right course for them. It was hilarious when Dre wasn't quite so sure that his kid's teacher could teach a lesson on Harriet Tubman (in spite of her impressive academic background) because, well, she isn't black. And I audibly LOL-ed when Dre tried to teach his son Andre Jr. (who would rather be called Andy because it sounds "more approachable") the importance of the Negro head nod.
But the best part was in a recent episode where Dre is concerned his son doesn't have any black friends and goes out to find some for him. (Hi, Mom.)
That so was my parents.
Yes, Dad grew up in small-town Alabama and Mom in big-city Detroit, but her parents migrated from Alabama themselves, hoping to escape the carnage of the pre–civil rights south. My folks met in grad school, a few years after Dad — who pledged the same fraternity as Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, both of whom came to fraternal meetings to inspire their young brothers to get involved in the movement — moved to Detroit.
They connected because they were both the second-born children in their large families, and my mom says that she fell for my dad's strong sense of family. They were their parents' dreams; the very idea that two kids from the sticks and the ghetto, respectively, could grow up to be well-educated black folks with letters behind their names, was feted in my family.
By the time I came along, they were living in a two-story house with a two-car garage and a pool in the back. It all felt so… American Dream-ish. We moved around a lot, mostly living in college towns, and our neighborhoods often had one thing in common: lack of diversity. That speaks more to the socioeconomic realities of our country, and less about my parents trying to escape black people. They weren't. But what they were trying to do was allow their daughter to grow up in the best neighborhoods they could afford. The unexpected turn of that were the things I'm sure my parents hadn't accounted for. My life was being a Brownie (and the only brownie in the bunch!), longing for blonde hair and blue eyes (like my BFFs!), and wanting to put suntan lotion on my chocolate brown skin (my friends all did it!).
That brings me back to Black-ish. I get it and it speaks to me. Loudly. One of my favorite throwback sitcoms was Family Ties. Brilliant show, that was: Two former peacemaking hippies grow up to rear children under a Republican presidency in the 1980s. Masterful. And funny. And that built-in tension coupled with relatable storylines? Magic. And I'd be remiss if I failed to mention The Cosby Show, which premiered on my birthday. I can still remember watching in awe a family that actually was my family. That premiere came 30 years ago, and proved that American families may look different, but share innate commonalities. It also illustrated that nuclear families can also be brown. And… upper-middle class. More importantly, I'm guessing it made the pitch for a show like Black-ish, perhaps its spiritual descendant, all the easier. There was no need to explain that black people can carry a sitcom in spite of their blackness.
With Black-ish, you have two parents who were able to attend college and navigate fantastic careers — she's an ER doctor, he's an SVP for a marketing company — and because of that success, they're able to live in the best neighborhood their salaries can afford. But here's the rub: You've got four brown children who stand out. And who don't share your struggles. And who sometimes look at you cockeyed because when you describe your struggles or the struggles of your parents, they don't get it. The president is black. The President, man. "Obama's the first black president?! He's the only president I've ever known," little Jack (Miles Brown) says over a dinner of baked fried chicken. The leader of the free world looks like them, has a family who looks like them, and by the way, so do a whole lot of other successful people we collectively celebrate.
But there's still this idea of knowing where you come from. You have to be armed with it, no matter how flowery your childhood is. There's almost nothing more jarring than to be the kid who grew up in Utopia, who never had a moment of friction, and then go off to a PWI — Predominantly White Institution — and discover at 18 that you're black. You know... black. And what being black means.
Thankfully, that wasn't my experience, because the second my mother saw me lathering suntan oil on my arms and spritzing my Jheri curl (it was the '80s!) with Aqua Net, she rounded me up, took me to the bookstore, and bought up everything in the African-American collection. It was important to my parents that in spite of the world they were able to allow me to exist in — and become an adult in — that I carry the most important pieces of me, with me.
And of course, to be OK with my blackness. Not my "blackishness," but my blackness. Because even though being black isn't a monolith experience — there's an important, shared cultural experience that we all should be equipped with, be mindful of, and celebrate.
Just like Blackish's Dre and Rainbow are trying to do.