The Continuing Blackness of “Black-ish”

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A week later, ABC’s last week #1 comedy, “black-ish” dropped from that position, losing 24% of their audience from last week (however ABC is quick to point out that this is still the strongest showing of a show in the slot immediately following the Emmy Award winning “Modern Family”). Also, while dropping in the number of viewers, it also dropped its “in-your-face” colorism.  Perhaps only time will tell whether the week one to week two jump was a good move in the long run for potential show sustainability.

Weirdly enough, I consider myself a TV watcher.  I’ve always been a critic of what shows up on my TV and how well would I engage or not with a TV show.  I’ve often found myself attached to TV shows that get canceled in the first season, and ABC is quick to do that.  Some shows like most recent “Zero Hour” were dead on arrival, meanwhile there were shows like “666 Park Place” where I would have loved to see a real ending, not one concocted for the sake of loyal viewers like myself.  And then there are other shows, albeit on cable networks as well, that I always wonder how long does the story arc for this show intend to last.

For example, while I was thoroughly enthralled with NBC’s “Crisis” from last season, the entire season focused on a kidnapping of school age kids on a school bus by some technological anarchists who wanted revenge on the sitting president.  Centered around an FBI agent and a mediocre Secret Service agent (I wonder how much of life imitating art was that really), as much as I loved the action of the show, how many seasons could that series last.  Then with shows like “24” where a neat 24 episodes dealt with clear cut scenarios from season to season.  Enjoyed so much by so many, it actually got a redux just this year.

Granted, “black-ish” is a situation-comedy and doesn’t need a story arc over the seasons in much the same way as a drama or thriller, the hallmark of good sit-coms has always been how well does the writing develop the story of the characters, and “black-ish” does seem to be doing that well.  Through the voice-over narration and the Bernie Mac-esque handwritten title cards, we are getting full character developing, and with the news confirmed that actor Jenifer Lewis, who’s played everyone’s overbearing mother from sit-coms to movies, it’s clear the show is intent on developing the blackness of the characters.

Blackness.

There could be a number of reasons as to why the numbers dropped so precipitously, ranging from millions who were trying to get kids to bed for the next day all the way to the fact that the first episode was a turn-off because it was too over-the-head with the characters being black.  Assuming the latter for the sake of this blog, I’d have to ask what’s inherently wrong with that.  As I wrote last week, there was a LOT of which I could have easily identified with through Andre’s character: having to navigate blackness in ontologically white waters is a real phenomenon professionally.  I think the sit-com took a bold step by also showing the challenge of navigating those waters within black spaces as well.  The reason I’m inclined to believe that part of the decline of viewership was the latter reason is because of a recent poll that slightly less than half of black millennials are raised in households where race is talked about and that number drops to 30% for white millennials.  Slate reports the following:

For this reason, perhaps, a majority of millennials say that their generation is “post-racial.”

Seventy-two percent believe their generation believes in equality more than older people, and 58 percent believe that as they get older, racism will become less of an issue. It’s almost certainly true that this view is influenced by the presence of President Obama. Sixty-two percent believe that having a black president shows that minorities have the same opportunities as whites, and 67 percent believe it proves that race is not a “barrier to accomplishments.”

It’s no surprise, then, that most millennials aspire to “colorblindness.” Sixty-eight percent say “focusing on race prevents society from becoming colorblind.” As such, millennials are hostile to race-based affirmative action: 88 percent believe racial preferences are unfair as a matter of course, and 70 percent believe they are unfair regardless of “historical inequalities.” Interestingly, the difference between whites and people of color is nonexistent on the first question and small (74 percent versus 65 percent) on the second. But this might look different if you disaggregated “people of color” by race. There’s a chance that black millennials are more friendly to affirmative action than their Latino or Asian peers.

For all of these aspirations, however, millennials have a hard time talking about race and discrimination. Although 73 percent believe that we should talk “more openly” about bias, only 20 percent say they’re comfortable doing so—despite the fact that a plurality of minorities say that their racial identities shape their views of the world.

What’s more, for all of their unity on tolerance and equality, white and minority millennials have divergent views on the status of whites and minorities in society. Forty-one percent of white millennials say that the government “pays too much attention to the problems of racial minority groups while 65 percent of minorities say that whites have more opportunities.” More jarring is the 48 percent of white millennials who say discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against racial minorities. With that in mind, it’s worth a quick look at a 2012 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute, where 58 percent of white millennials said that discrimination against whites was as big a problem as discrimination against minorities.

Blackish_ReviewTo put it succinctly, statistically no one wants to see a black family on television and all that comes with the intentionality of living in that blackness.  The racial culture in which we live in gets reduced to quick one-liners on ABC’s “Scandal” with the Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings conversation between Olivia and Fitz.  Or the a comment by Meredith about being able to do her adopted African (do we even know what country?) baby’s hair.*  There’s nothing that’s in your face about race on fictional television these days.  Our culture may look like what we see on television, but it’s merely a facade with regards to how we act with one another especially ABCs Wednesday line-up: a typical midwestern working class white family on “The Middle,” (discounting “The Goldbergs” because of the time-setting), the blended families on “Modern Family” and the blackish couple on “black-ish” featuring an interracial couple.

For what it’s worth, tell me the last time you saw a black character on “Modern Family,” or “The Middle.”  I’ll wait.

What always boggles my mind is how black faces on television suddenly have to represent the entire spectrum of blackness in the United States.  Last night’s episode was racially and culturally interchangeable and has been the plot of sit-coms throughout the years: having the sex talk with your teenage child.  There was nothing about the show that made it an intentionally black show save a reference to Morgan Freeman and the youngest twin daughter making a reference to her hair not being combed (see above for Meredith’s daughter).*  Personally, I don’t have a problem with this episode strictly from an entertainment standpoint, but again, taking the story arc into consideration as well as what the pilot episode made itself to be, I do have some critical comments.

Blackness is complicated.  It always has been, and it needs to be said that the Africans brought to these shores and their descendants did not make it complicated; it arose from a need to find and create a space where none was given or allowed.  I saw tweets, Facebook statuses and a few penned opinions that the pilot episode went too hard with the race card inasmuch that there wouldn’t be anything to talk about after the first episode–I couldn’t disagree more.  There’s more to blackness than giving the head nod to fellow blacks in white spaces or surveying a room based on job titles and race with which the depth and breadth of that experience could provide material for decades to come.  Ultimately, if viewership declined from both whites and blacks because of the bold declaration of blackness then, sadly, we have a long way to go in this culture.

Is it because we’re ashamed of it?  Yes, I think so.  As an American culture (read: North American) we can point to the storied history of European immigrants that came to this country and succinctly tell the story by quoting “The New Colossus” the poetic inscription on the Statue of Liberty that says

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

And the stories of American ingenuity, the American dream, the rugged individualism and the grandiosity of American exceptionalism all play into the stereotypical story-line of Italian, Irish, Russian and German immigrants that then become exalted into epic mythological tales that tell the American story through movies like “The Godfather”–these stories become synonymous with America.  Meanwhile, the stories of black Americans can never be told beyond some odd 150 years ago, and there is no natal homeland connection because of the forced immigration of the slave trade.  Slavery is the temporal fulcrum of which modern day blackness must be understood.  To fully understand “black-ish” in 2014 and the fullness of aesthetics of blackness, it would require the viewer to have some basic working knowledge of America’s relationship with Africans in diaspora, and to get that full understanding, one would have to travel through the bowels of history and understand how race was formed, and how racism evolved and imbued the nascent strands of this democracy that wove together to form this “more perfect union.”

If you’ve read this far and have considered that I read too deeply into a mere sit-com that may or may not make it, you’re probably right, but for most of us who identify as black, be it because of skin color or ontological familiarity, usually our blackness is that deep.  It’s just as deep for interracial children who are at times unable to find sanctuary with their immediate families or even face being shunned at school, and it’s just as deep for someone of my skin color and the product of black parents born in the South.  The Brobdingnagian behemoth of blackness occupies both existential and ontological spaces in an almost palpable nature when black students are asked to do a family tree for a middle school project, and by the fifth generation names, dates and places peter out like a dried up brook, while their white classmates are able to trace family histories back to the Mayflower or beyond: the specter of race rises from the shame and silence of the black student and the historical fact of slavery becomes real.  When white co-workers speak of making grand pilgrimages to see relatives in Scotland or Denmark, most American blacks are forced to psychologically and verbally ignore the elephant in the room and speak of homesteads in places like Yazoo City, Greenwood, Belzoni, Hattiesburg, Bessemer, Tallulah, Natchitoches, Phenix City, Valdosta, Jackson, Augusta, Rocky Mount, Charleston and Petersburg as though they were regal places and the states in which they’re located are suddenly raised to country status.  When black Americans speak of family in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia on par with that of their white-counterparts traveling to France, to Italy and to Spain, it ignores the very present, but very invisible nature of race in this country.

The fact that millennials have a hope for a post-racial society is, well, hopeful, but it’s also discouraging that they don’t want to talk about it.  If I can be transparent, the shame I associated with not being able to name a country from which my family came from was real and present, and it wasn’t something I felt free to talk about  when I was a teenager attending school with students who were able to trace their global heritage.  I know I have a global heritage, but I can’t name my country.  But I can name slavery; I am the descendant of slaves.  Black people don’t want to talk about that or acknowledge it very often, and according to poll numbers neither do many Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 7.40.27 PMwhite Americans.  It is a taboo subject.  Granted Donald Trump has painted himself into a corner of being a bombastic blowhard, the sentiment of his tweet probably carries weight with many white Americans, and no doubt some black Americans.  To be pro-black, especially in name, is to be seen as racializing something.  To be pro-black is to be considered “other” in this society at times, something that socially can function as a self-segregation.  It can even be considered racist according to the likes of Donald Trump.  Can you imagine that?  In this country, to declare one’s blackness is an act of racism.  The subconscious fears, false assumptions and sheer ignorance are real and make a subconscious difference in how we as citizens of the United States interact with one another in racialized settings.  Even on TV.

“Good Times” and “The Jeffersons” embodied the two-dimensional and safe blackness that dominated blaxploitation era imagery.  It was easy to watch “The Cosby Show” because their blackness was never in your face either.  And again, in the 1990s, those sit-coms were emblematic of safe blackness, or rather, what was considered social acceptable.  “black-ish” doesn’t seem to have a problem not towing the line if it wants to, but for many, to not do so suddenly moves that brand of blackness into an unsafe space, one where many get privy into the secret lives and minds of black people.  And if it’s not safe, meaning it’s too real and forcing many to have to make the chronological jump through the history of blacks in America, then, they just flip the channel or turn off the TV.

Apparently, some five million viewers felt that way.  And that’s too bad.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

 

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