When Keeping It Real Goes Black-ish


“Black-ish picks up the conversation the Huxtables were having when the cameras weren’t on.”
–myself, 9/24/2014

To round off ABC’s Wednesday night line-up with millennial sit-coms using the pre-year 2000 format of focusing on the American family, after three back-to-back shows focusing predominantly on Anglo-Saxon families, there is a black family.  Well, I guess they’re black-ish.

Thirty years after “The Cosby Show” debuted, ABC’s “Black-ish” has hit the airwaves, and much to #BlackTwitter’s shock and awe, the pilot episode actually gets off to a good start.  With a soundtrack that hits the pulse with every step of the 22 minutes a sit-com has to air, most were probably thinking, this show can’t be too bad if the first sound you hear is Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” recalling the profundity of not just the song and a saner Kanye, but also just how intentionally black the song truly is.

We’ve seen this sit-com concept tried out before, even by the same company.  D.L. Hughley launched “The Hughleys” with much of the same premise: a black man from Los Angeles makes the decision to raise his family in a mostly white suburbs.  The show launched with decent enough engagement in 1998, but the campy sit-com format was doomed with the writers strikes of the late-90s and reality TV ready to burst onto the scene.  Not to mention, that ABC was the last bastion of major networks that were airing black sit-coms.  By the late 90s, black sit-coms had abandoned the big three networks and had nearly cornered the market on what was then the WB (now CW) and the defunct UPN networks.  The phenomenon (maybe even prophecy) of black faces on television by the year 2000 and how they were marketed and programmed was so conspicuous, Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” was a parody of the happening.



[Editors note: I think the prophecy was that how as soon as ABC dropped “The Hughleys” that they picked up “My Wife and Kids” starring Damon Wayans, but the show devolved after “black” Clair left the show and by many respects, it became coon-tastic.  The prophetic irony being that Damon Wayans starred in Spike Lee’s movie lampooning the exact same thing he portrayed in real life.]

Black sit-coms picked up by the big three networks have always had to live in the shadows of “The Cosby Show” ever since the last episode aired in 1992.  Every interview D.L. Hughley or Damon Wayans (“My Wife and Kids” 2001-2005) participated in leading up to and during their show’s runs, the question of “The Cosby Show” loomed somewhere in the midst.  Participating in a panel discussion just last week celebrating the 30 years since the first episode of “The Cosby Show,” Professors Natalie Bullock Brown and Blair LM Kelley both commented that “The Cosby Show” provided an imaginative space where even if the Huxtables weren’t representative of one’s lived experience, it did give one the space to imagine what could be possible–and it wasn’t a forced narrative.

“Black-ish” starring Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross as the Johnson family, is a sit-com set in the Age of Obama, and “The Cosby Show” debuted during the height of the Reagan era and all of the attributes thereof.  The Huxtables were comfortably domiciled at 10 Stigwood Avenue in the heart of Brooklyn having already raised a Princeton college student, while the pitfalls of white flight were solidifying the suburbs that the Johnsons are comfortably inhabiting 30 years later under the Obama administration.  The Huxtables were city dwellers in their comfortable Brooklyn homes while other parts of the urban landscape nationwide were suffering from “urban decay”–and major American cities were electing their first black mayors in droves and blacks were having a significant presence on city councils.  The Johnsons live in mostly white suburbs, and they’re youngest children have been alive only long enough to know that the only president in their lifetime has been black–the whole time.

Prior to “The Cosby Show” black sit-coms existed in the rarefied time of blaxploitation films and the sit-com representation reflected that.  The famous Norman Lear shows of “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons” dealt with the issues of race, class and gender in heavy-handed and overtly political ways. With shows such as “What’s Happening,” “Sanford and Son” and “That’s My Mama” marketed almost solely to black audiences, looking back through history these shows portrayed, at times, a very two-dimensional image of black culture.  By the time “The Cosby Show” aired, it began the ushering in of a new era of black sitcoms.  Shows such as “Amen” and “227” were  now showing the established black family as opposed to the “movin’ on up” concept with Weezy and George Jefferson and certainly not the poverty displayed in Cabrini Green with Florida Evans and her family.  Simultaneously shows like “Benson” and “Gimme A Break” were providing interesting conversations around the water cooler about what was considered an appropriate image of blacks at the time.

“The Cosby Show” ended and the hip hop generation certainly dominated the 90s with shows like “Living Single” and “Martin” making their way onto networks overpopulated with black sitcoms.  “The Cosby Show” might honestly be one of the only black television shows that was intentionally incidentally black.  Michael Eric Dyson famously and succinctly categorized ontological blackness into three categories: those who are intentionally black (think Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton), the incidentally black ones (think Barack Obama, Colin Powell) and the accidentally black (think Clarence Thomas).   The Huxtables didn’t have to say that they were black–but everyone knew it.  The writers of plenty of other black sitcoms clear through to the early 2000s made sure that there were very visible and outward signs of verbal and intentional blackness, but the Huxtables didn’t operate like that.  But we saw it in Vanessa’s hairstyles; we saw it in the way that Clair narrowed her eyes; we saw it in the Thanksgiving episode when they were specifically preparing collard greens and hammocks; we heard it in the jazz soundtrack that dominated the show from the onset in Moody’s Mood for Love sung by Nancy Wilson, Grover Washington arrangements, Charlie Parker’s A Night in Tunisia; we saw it in Hillman College; we saw it in the artwork–we knew they were black!

By the time the last episode of “The Cosby Show” aired, the country was talking about race differently.  In 1984, South Africa’s apartheid was still in existence, the country did not know Rodney King’s name, no one knew who or what a Spike or a Lee were, Ronald Reagan was seen as the great white hope (literally), and Arsenio Hall didn’t have a talk show for which the soon-to-be president could go on and play a saxophone.  By the close of 1992, Mandela was freed, Los Angeles had seen 53 people dead as a result of the acquittal of white police officers (yes, I’ll be coming back to this) for the brutal beating of Rodney King, Spike Lee was the personification of a semi-second Black Power movement kicked off by “School Daze” and “Do The Right Thing” and NWA had let us know exactly how they felt about the Los Angeles Police Department.  Generation X, the hip hop generation, was talking about race differently and they had a different set of morals and values and did not play into the respectability politics that very much dominated “The Cosby Show” both on and off set.

Fast forward 22 years later to 2014, and yes, we find ourselves talking about race differently even again.  We’ve elected our first black president, and that has certainly colored our conversations.  Concepts such as post-racial and true ontological blackness now have the social media capital to be discussed in open air markets such as Twitter and Facebook, so much so entities such as #BlackTwitter are real and potent.  The virulence of blackness in media presence can make or break lackadaisical dalliances of whiteness into black spaces.  Both Time magazine and Vogue magazine have come under the assault of the presence of blackness in social media by running stories about “What Does Bae Mean Anyway?” and “We’re Officially in the Era of the Big Booty” respectively and have introduced the concept of “#columbusing”: where white America “discovers” something that black Americans have known for years.  These are very clear and direct ways in which we talk about race.  With movies such as “Dear White People” opening to rave reviews, it should be of no shock that a sit-com like “Black-ish” would be airing soon.

Even though pilot episodes don’t normally have a name, they’re simply “the pilot,” I’m sure this episode would have been aptly named “Keepin’ It Real.”  It was a phrase that was refrained throughout the whole episode as the main character, Andre Johnson, was about to get a promotion to Senior Vice President.  He’s married a biracial woman, and they have four children, two older and two young enough to only remember Obama as a president, and Andre’s father lives with them, played by Laurence Fishburne.  Leading up to the promotion, the narration of Andre lets us know that he’s very clear about his own blackness but at times questions that of his family meanwhile his father acts as the stereotypical nosy live-in in-law, but also as this uber-black conscience–a tamer version of Paul Mooney if you will.  Andre goes apoplectic as he sees his promotion over the “urban” division as yet another form of tokenism, in typical sit-com fashion he becomes the goofy “dad” character only to be grounded by his wife, his eldest son and father.  End of episode.

As my Twitter timeline immediately shifted from conversations about the grand jury not finding reason to indict the police officers who shot John Crawford III to tuning into ABC, it was clear that many black people in this country weren’t in the mood for a coon-tastic revue.  For me, what was displayed was something that was funny, but more importantly real.  One of the comments I made on the panel last week was that “The Cosby Show” will stand the test of time because the writers were able to hit the right pulse and write comedy that was real; much of what made the laughter was evident of the real life everyday conversations that no one has a camera out to film, but that can just induce laughter, the real joie de vivre.  As the dialogue of the pilot episode progressed and we heard the thoughts in Andre’s head, my Twitter timeline turned from the critical eye crowd to the amen corner as most of them were co-signing on realities of corporate America where the racial divide is real between lower-level management and upper level management and having to navigate blackness in white waters, having to read a room whereas to how one should project their blackness and how to respond to your own perceived blackness.

I actually wondered was the show too real.

Black television shows have the unfair burden of portraying a singular image of blackness to a society that still holds conversations on race in rather two-dimensional and flat formats.  Every reality TV show from “Keeping up with the Kardashians” to “Utopia” to “Big Brother” doesn’t have to worry about how the frat boy, the flirty girl, the jock, the nerd or whomever is portrayed because in whiteness, those don’t represent anything more than what’s on a fake reality show.  But the “Real Housewives of Atlanta” suddenly represents a wide swath of what is black womanhood, and the black preachers on “Preachers of LA” suddenly represent what the black church is.  No, this isn’t race baiting or playing the proverbial race card, but it’s evident that images of blackness on our television, be it from the evening news, to movies, to the small screen all shape our collective conscience in this country.  One of the 2014 MacArthur Fellows, Jennifer Eberhardt, received a grant for her work showing the correlation between racial bias and stereotypes within the field of modern policing and sentencing in the criminal justice system.  This stuff is real–very real.

Does “Black-ish” fit the image appropriately?  I’m not here to make that judgement call; what may look familiar to me may look vasty strange to another.  What I am able to clearly say is that if this show plans to “keep it real” as though it did for this first episode, it may legitimately make it to it’s 100th episode.  But as a P.S. to the writers, black folk don’t drink “grape soda” inasmuch as they would have some “red Kool-Aid” preferably with sugar sitting at the bottom.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

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