By: Oghosa Ehigiator & Saige Pye
Created by Kenya Barris, the ABC network hit television show ‘black-ish’ first aired September 24, 2014, where we first meet the Johnson’s, an upper-middle-class black family. The parents, Andre, commonly known as “Dre”, and Rainbow, commonly known as “Bow,” are raising their kids, Zoey, Andre Jr, commonly known as “Junior”, and twins Jack and Diane, in a predominantly white neighborhood. Dre’s parents, Earl and Ruby Johnson, are also very involved in raising the kids and live with the family the majority of the show.
Coming from a two parent home with the help of two grandparents to help raise them, the Johnson’s wanted to give their kids more than what they had growing up. Because of the life he and his wife are able to provide for their family due to their success, Dre is afraid that his kids are too spoiled to notice the harsh injustices in the world. In one of the show’s many controversial episodes entitled ‘Hope’, the voiceover introduction by Dre states that “ It’s a big world and from place to place it’s pretty different, but no matter where you are from, the experiences, places, conversations, and images have an effect on us…” The episode shows flashbacks of recent events over the years from the shooting of Trayvon Martin, to riots from different cities, to a headline of police brutality. These are some of the tough topics and hard questions that Bow and Dre must answer. Rainbow tries to defer the topic for the children, but, to Ms. Ruby’s dismay she says “but it doesn’t change the fact that police in this country have a problem with black folk.” One of the many problems that black people face in today’s society. The show dives into many more of these types of issues and, for once, gives the perspective of Black America.
Historical and Cultural Context:
The show “black-ish” was created to be a sitcom focussed on a black family, but more importantly, the show’s goal is to highlight the social issues and cultural experiences that come with being a black American. In the show, there are multiple mini history lessons. An article in the Washington Post praises the show for “tackling tough topics” and creating an episode more solely based on informing the audience about the terrible institution that was slavery (Butler). The season four opener, titled “Juneteenth,” features the Johnson family posing as slaves. The family breaks out into a song as if they were in a musical and sing about what the recently freed slaves thought that life would be like. The song opens with the line “Being free means we’re finally gonna be equal to the white man”. The song continues on to list some things that the freed slaves no longer had to do such as listen to “massa” or carry freedom papers. The song then lists things that would make black people equal to white people such as voting, eating at the counter, marrying a white person, starting a business, getting a loan, and buying their own property. Unfortunately, none of these things came immediately after becoming free because of the implementation of Jim Crow Laws.
Jim Crow Laws stifled the improvement of the standard of living for blacks in the south for another 100 years after the end of slavery, and because this time period is not as far back in time as some choose to believe, many people that grew up in this time period carry the ideals of the Jim Crow Era with them: “Whites (many still alive today) were taught that blacks were lesser humans. And many blacks, at least subconsciously, accepted what whites told them” (Davis). From the founding of this country, to the end of the Jim Crow Era, and even now, black people have always been seen as inferior, and because that concept is so ingrained into the brains of both blacks and whites, it is ignorant to think that the effects of slavery are gone.
Because the show is set in the present day, the most current political and social issues are discussed. One of the biggest issues right now in this country is the rise in police brutality and the black community’s reactions, so naturally, the writers of “black-ish” created an episode to help digest such a large and controversial topic. The episode showed multiple reactions from the different members of the family, each one representing a reaction found in the black community as a whole. Some were sad, some were hopeful, some were angry, but by the end of the episode, the entire family understood that their reality was that black people in this country are discriminated against, and they are usually not on the winning side of “the system.”
The most potent and emotionally moving episode to date has been the episode discussing the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.The episode did a great job of expressing the reactions of many different people across the country, but the speech that Dre gives at work (featured below) perfectly encapsulated the opinions of most black people. Many were outraged, but because of the long history of the unfair treatment of black people, they were not as emotionally stirred. Dre opens his monologue with the phrase “I love this country. Even though at times it doesn’t love me back”. He goes on to say “… For most black people, this system has never worked for us… tried to do our best to live by the rules, even though we knew they would never work out in our favor.” During the monologue, pictures come across the screen of some of the things that discrimination has forced black people to endure: segregation as a whole, the neglect of black schools, living in the projects, working the jobs “unfit” for white people. Dre continues on to say that “Black people wake up every day believing that our lives are gonna change, even though everything around us says it’s not.” The way this country operates was designed with the mindset that black people are inferior, and because it would be nearly impossible to completely change the way that the country thinks, and therefore operates, the mentality at the Founding is still in effect today. That is why many black people were not as upset as other groups of people. Dre said it best at the end of his speech, “I’m used to things not going my way, sorry if your not…”
Figure 3. The Trump Victory: “LEMONS.” black-ish, created by Kenya Barris, season 3, episode 12, ABC, 11 Jan 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TzkSRJkaUrM
Themes and Style:
The theme and style of’ black-ish’ is a comedy that isn’t afraid to tackle tough topics that may be hard to swallow for some, but in a kind-hearted teachable way so that everyone is more informed in the end. The show reminds you of “The Cosby Show” in the aspect of an upper-middle-class family but, the Dre Johnson is wondering if living too comfortably will cause his family to “forget” that they are black. He believes that because of the way they live, his family will become “black-ish,” hence the title of the show.
Not even his wife is safe from the harassment for not being “black enough.”Dre calls his wife a pigment-challenged mixed-race woman basically saying that she is not truly black. This can be said about race today as some don’t consider light skins as truly black. In many episodes, Dre finds a way to see color in everything. He is known at work for always incorporating slavery and/or racism into the conversation, and his coworkers resent that about him because they do not see how the afterlives of slavery affect black people like Dre. “Colorblind” has become another word for not racist, and blackish takes no shame in pointing that out. Colorblindness is a defect where people believe that racial privilege no longer exists but their behaviors state otherwise.
In season 2 episode 16 ‘Hope’, the Johnsons have a hard time answering the questions of the two youngest twins Jack and Diane about what they see happening on the television screen. Police brutality is one of the biggest prejudices that black people face in today’s society. They sit around the television waiting on the indictment of the police officer. Bow and Dre struggle with whether or not to inform Jack and Diane about the situation that is happening around them because she doesn’t want them to lose their innocence. While going over the facts of the case, Junior states an important fact that resonates with the theme of the show: “…the violence in police brutality isn’t new it’s just that the cameras are.” With the verdict as expected, Dre and Bow sit down and have a talk with the children about what they should do if they are stopped by the police. This is the harsh reality that black people face in today’s society, where their parents must take the time to really emphasize the importance of the do’s and don’t of when they are pulled over by a police officer. We see that it is hard to have hope and faith in our justice system when it does not seem to have the back of the black person. “The system is rigged against us…” Dre states.
He goes on to talk about the inauguration of Barack Obama and how much hope he and his wife had. Dre then asks her if she was not scared that when Obama stepped out of that limo, someone would snatch the hope away from them. “That is the real world Bow, and our children need to know that that’s the world that we live in.” The show isn’t afraid to tackle tough political topics. Blackish is switching up the game of racial representation in the media by being a show focused on black people embracing who they are, especially in this country’s current society, instead of the stereotypical television comedy revolved around white people and how easy and carefree their lives are.
The importance of the show “black-ish” comes in the pure representation of a well-off black family and fact that the show is transparent about the difficulties of being black in America. The journal “The Social Construction of the African American Family on Broadcast Television: A Comparative Analysis of The Cosby Show and Blackish” focuses on the qualities of “black-ish” that have caused such controversy. “Black-ish” is known for being very open about politics and social issues that are present in today’s society. Many believe that the way that the show is so direct about the differences between white people and black people make the show racist. The article “Obama loves it, Trump called it racist: why Black-ish is TV’s most divisive show” talks about the mixed reviews of the show. President Trump was one of those that called the show racist because of how the main characters are all black, which is no basis for such an accusation. The article goes on to discuss the importance of black people having positive representations of themselves in the media.
Some critics find flaws in the way that Dre tries to force his family to act a certain way. He wants his family to be a sort of “token black family.” In the article, “‘Black-ish’: Horrible Parody of Black Family Life, ” the author, Frances Cudjoe Waters, says that in having the father trying to mold his family into multiple stereotypes of black people, for example trying to steer his oldest son away from playing the “white sport” of field hockey, actually takes away from celebrating what it means to be black. She argues that being black is about having diversity, but being connected in the same struggle for fair treatment.
There are plenty of examples of the negative qualities of being black, such as the reality of police brutality. The article “‘Black-ish’ Is the Ideal Sitcom for the Age of Black Lives Matter” explores how the show discusses the issues of police brutality and the injustice found in the justice system within the family setting.
The writers took a difficult topic and broke it down so that every family member could understand what was going on. This is the importance of the show. It gives its viewers an opportunity to better understand the issues going on in the black community today. The show is also adamant on exposing the presence of “white privilege” in today’s society. The article “ White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” explains that white privilege is the unfortunate phenomenon of how there are certain things that white people can do and expect, that black people cannot. These are mostly everyday things that white people take for granted, and the show makes sure to point that out.
Abad-Santos, Alex. “Black-Ish’s Devastating Post-Election Episode Was about Loving a Country That Lets You Down.” Vox, Vox, 12 Jan. 2017, www.vox.com/culture/2017/1/12/14256234/black-ish-dre-strange-fruit-monologue.
Butler, Bethonie. “Analysis | ‘Blackish’ gives a powerful history lesson – with nods to ‘Hamilton’ and ‘Schoolhouse Rock’.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 4 Oct. 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2017/10/04/blackish-gives-a-powerful-history-lesson-with-nods-to-hamilton-and-schoolhouse-rock/?utm_term=.2fed1960ecc5.
Davis, Richard. “Richard Davis: The Effects of Past Racial Discrimination Still Influence Americans Today.” DeseretNews.com, Deseret News, 13 July 2016, www.deseretnews.com/article/865657927/The-effects-of-past-racial-discrimination-still-influence-Americans-today.html.
Khaleeli, Homa. “Obama loves it, Trump called it racist: why Black-Ish is TV’s most divisive show.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 25 Feb. 2017, www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/feb/25/series-creator-kenya-barris-on-abc-sitcom-black-ish.
Peyser, Andrea. “Shows like ‘Black-Ish’ perpetuate racist stereotypes.” New York Post, New York Post, 6 Apr. 2015, nypost.com/2015/04/06/shows-like-black-ish-perpetuate-racist-stereotypes/. Rudolph, Dana. “”White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” and “Some Notes for Facilitators”.” National SEED Project – Homepage, nationalseedproject.org/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack.
Ryan, Maureen. “Black-Ish Is the Ideal Sitcom for the Age of Black Lives Matter.” Variety, 24 Feb. 2016, variety.com/2016/tv/features/black-ish-abc-kenya-barris-anthony-anderson-1201711794/.
Stamps, David. “The Social Construction of the African American Family on Broadcast Television: A Comparative Analysis of The Cosby Show and Blackish.” Howard Journal of Communications, vol. 28, no. 4, Dec. 2017, pp. 405–420., doi:10.1080/10646175.2017.1315688.
Waters, Frances Cudjoe. “’Black-Ish’: Horrible Parody of Black Family Life.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 25 Nov. 2014, www.huffingtonpost.com/frances-cudjoe-waters/blackish-horrible-parody-_b_5882622.html.
More About “black-ish”:
“Watch Black-Ish TV Show – ABC.com.” ABC, www.abc.go.com/shows/blackish.
More About Black Lives Matter:
Our Mission, www.blacklifematters.org/our-mission.
More About the Jim Crow Era:
“Jim Crow Laws.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/freedom-riders-jim-crow-laws/.
Black-ish, Black Lives Matter, Racism, White Privilege, Juneteenth, Jim Crow Era, Police Brutality, 2016 Presidential Election