Trailblazing the Black-ish Way
For years we’ve seen television shows that give the audience a glimpse into the daily lives of African Americans from young to old and from various social status. Example of such shows range from “Good Times”, “ A Different World”, to “The Cosby Show” where Black families navigate through society using their cultural values and personal experiences as a Black individual in America. However, as time progressed we lost the sense the struggles that Blacks experience in a society where they are the unwanted minority, or simply put, the “Black Experience” Recently, with the sudden rise in popularity of Black-ish by Kenya Barris, we gained are able to gain an insight into a modern-day spin-off of the Black Experience. The hit TV show Black-ish encompasses every aspect of black life by bringing traditional values and welcoming new perspectives while shedding light on debatable topics such as sex, the effectiveness of physical discipline, the use of the n-word, and political agenda. The cult following of the show appreciates the comedic approach in discussing the struggle of an upper-middle-class black family that embraces their ethnic roots while adapting to the new generation and still provide vital information for the audience.
Black-ish emphasizes the importance of having open and honest conversations with young ones, regardless of how sensitive the issue may be, for example, sex. In one scene, after Andre, the father of the Johnson family walked in on his thirteen-year-old son, Dre Jr. masturbating, he felt that it was critical for him to address sexual wellness with his son. The conversation was a difficult one as Andre never had such a conversation with his own father in his younger days. When Andre approached his own father as to why he never had the conversation with him when he was younger, his father replied that he handed Andre a box of condoms. The father continued, “Son listen to me, don’t get caught up in this having an open dialogue with your kids’ hoopla. It’s not natural” (Season 1 episode 2). After this scene, I was curious to see if my father ever had this type of conversation with my grandparents. When asked, my father quickly responded, “No. No one ever spoke to me about sex, I had to find out for myself. That’s for White people.” I proceeded to ask my stepmother the same question, she too responded with a firm “no”. It was cleared that sexual wellness is not a common topic of conversation within a Black household and the Black community. But why is such a critical topic about the human body not talked about?
In an interview conducted by AfterBuzz Tv, three young black women discussed the episode mentioned above and one woman, Megan Thomas, stated, “In a typical black family, you don’t really have the talk, it’s weird”. The conversation between Andre and Dre Jr. was more focused on teaching his son how to attract females humorously and making light of the conversation rather than having an informative talk about safe sex. Andre even encourages his son to have a less attractive wingman so that the girls gravitate more towards him. But unfortunately, days after Dre Jr. had the sex talk with his dad, he still had many questions that were left unanswered. In hindsight, Andre’s incompetence in having an educational talk with his son about sex can be appreciated because it serves as an example of what the sex conversation should not be. At the conclusion of the episode, it was apparent that Andre’s father followed the norms of his culture of not talking about sex because it was not a priority. The following of cultural norm led to the acceptance that everyone should just not have sex, but being told to do something and not knowing the reasons behind it, does not provide any clarity to the situation or topic.
Andre realized the importance of having this dialogue with his son much like other black men in today’s society. Tanya Coakley, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, conducted a study on how black men should talk to their sons about sexual health. Coakley believes that black men “have to be calm, open-minded and not judgmental,” she said. “They want to have their children come to them and divulge as much as possible.” (Coakley, 2018). Andre’s experience with his father and his son have raised awareness within our community for black parents to have more open conversations with kids about sex. This form of dialogue can help towards preventing unwanted pregnancies and a decrease in STDs and HIV among all youth.
The disciplinary custom of spanking within the black community is challenged, causing much controversy over whether it’s effective or not. In episode five of season one Rainbow and Andre’s youngest son Jack has an obsession with hiding from his parents. Jack decided to hide from his mother while they were in the mall and after hearing his mother frantically call out his name for several minutes, he continued to hide until a security guard found him. Rainbow then grabbed him and exclaimed, “When we get home your father is going to spank you!” By making Andre the punisher in this scenario we get to see the stereotypical aggressive father role be forced on to Andre. However, his initial response is not to beat Jack and he feels as though that it is unfair for Rainbow to assume that he would want to do that. Andre questions whether or not he should beat his son and from that alone we know he is no James Evans.
Andre finally decided that he’s not going to spank Jack but instead “have a sensible, intelligent conversation” with his son. Pops, on the other hand, believes that there is no other way to discipline Jack, and calls Andre “soft.” Pops response shows the difference from his generation of parenting to today’s. Pops, “and his nonchalance are a symbol of the elder who sees the non-spanking parenting approach as naive. The subtext here is that: Black parents don’t have “the talk” because it’s ineffective” (Hope, 2014). This interesting because in other shows such as Good Times or in the Jackson Five movie, both fathers did not question the act of disciplining their children by spanking. There was no hesitation if you disobeyed your parents or misbehaved in any way you were going to get spanked.
This episode is also important because it divides the scene up into two perspectives, that of the child and the parent. We get to see this thought process of both Andre and Jack and how they think about the repercussions of inflicting the pain and receiving it. However, it’s equally significant that we realize this episode is not just about race- “it’s about time passing and social mobility and the different boundaries of acceptable parenting in different social and economic classes”(PONIEWOZIK, 2014). In the conversation surrounding discipline, it doesn’t have to come to black parents discipline their kids this way and white parents discipline their kids that way. This allows the audience to decide what is the best way to discipline their kids no matter what race they are and encourages them to think about it before they act.
The writers of Black-ish are not hesitant about addressing the controversial issues that other sitcoms are. In season two episode one, the Johnson family addresses the n-word and who is and is not allowed to say it. Jack performed a dance to “Gold Digger” by Kanye West at his school’s talent show while singing along, including the n-word. The cute yet alarming performance sparked much debate who can say the n-word, if anyone should say it at all and who cannot. When confronted by Jack’s principal, Dre defended his son by saying he has the right to say it because he is black. I really appreciated this episode because I myself realized that I had the same mindset as Dre and many other black people that I know. To others, the word is a derogatory term that reminds us of a rather dark time in our history and while this is true, the context in which it is used has changed.
If I had to explain to a non-black person why they could not use the n-word I would say it’s about the relationship that you have with people. Ta-Nehisi Coates explained this very well on his We Were Eight Years In Power book tour. A young white female expressed that she does not know what to do when she’s singing a song that she really likes but has the n-word in it, and he responded by saying “For white people, I think the experience of being a hip-hop fan and not being able to say that n-word is very insightful. It will give you just a little peek into the world of what it means to be black.” To be black means to walk through and experience the world knowing that there are certain things that you simply cannot do or say. This is the reason why we use the n-word as a term of endearment because we’re proud of who we are. When Kenya Barris was asked where he stands on the issue he proudly stated, “Oh, I am Dre! I say it. I don’t say it in mixed company too often, but I came from the generation where we took [the N-word] and made it our tribal call, our brotherhood, our global patch of saying we’ve been through this together”(Fernandez, 2015). This episode while in the midst of laughter prompted me to think about this topic that comes up frequently and forced me to identify why I agreed with Dre’s point of view.
The show tackles and discusses political issues through entertainment while emphasizing the importance of taking political action. Episode twelve of season three titled “Lemons,” addresses the intense attitudes surrounding President Trump’s election victory and does so in a way that captivated its watchers. Each member of the Johnson family mourned the outcome of the election in a different way. Dre struggles to keep his coworkers on task as they divulge into a heated discussion about the outcome of the election. Bow is wearing clothes and pins to show her activism. Jack decides to be optimistic exclaiming, “I don’t see this glass as half-empty, I see it as half full!” while staring at an empty bowl. Junior is working on memorizing Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have A Dream” speech, which he will be reciting at his school’s healing rally in response to the election. And Zoey prepares lemonade that she says she made with love to bring to the rally. Their different actions in response to the aftermath of the election accurately captured the mix of emotions that millions of Americans were feeling at the time while maintaining the show’s humor.
Yet Dre’s monologue about how he felt about the state of our country was particularly moving. He begins by saying “I love this country. Even though, at times, it doesn’t love me back”. He discusses the history of black people in America over the past couple of centuries and how we’ve had to endure many obstacles but in doing that we still hope for better days even though our country’s system has never worked in our favor. This “was a scene in a sitcom that was also a history lesson that was also a plea for empathy. It was a validation of what TV—particularly network TV, with its relative ability to summon wide and varied audiences—can accomplish, even as culture fragments, even as Americans threaten to self-sort themselves away from empathy” (Garber, 2017). Overall, “with “Lemons,” Black-ish goes straight to press with an episode that aims to point America toward healing at a time when tensions remain high and the hurt isn’t just fresh — it seems to deepen every day” (Chaney, 2017). It is because of episodes like this that more viewers are tuning into this show, the content and topics discussed are those that are relatable for people of different races and generations. Black-ish fans can appreciate the show more because the Johnson family shares their values while acknowledging and respecting the values of others.
Black-ish has definitely impacted the television industry in a number of ways. Its ability to address some of the most controversial topics with concern and passion while maintaining its humor is truly captivating. Week and week and season by season the Johnson family continues to challenge our own perspectives on life and force us to acknowledge the perspectives of others. Although the title of the sitcom is called Black-ish the discussions that take place in each episode are those that people from different walks of life can join in on and that’s what the fans appreciate most about the show.
Chaney, Jen. “In Praise of Black-Ish’s Extraordinary Election Episode.” Vulture, Vulture, 12 Jan. 2017, www.vulture.com/2017/01/blackish-election-episode-captures-the-mood-in-america.html.
Fernandez, Maria Elena. “The Story Behind Black-Ish’s Provocative N-Word Episode.” Vulture, Vulture, 24 Sept. 2015, www.vulture.com/2015/09/blackish-n-word-episode.html.
Garber, Megan. “’Lemons,’ the Latest ‘Black-Ish’ Episode, Is Art for the Age of Trump.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 13 Jan. 2017, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/01/black-ishs-lemons-is-art-for-the-age-of-trump/512978/.
Hope, Clover. “Black-Ish Addressed the Spanking Debate in the Best Way Possible.” Jezebel, Jezebel, 23 Oct. 2014, jezebel.com/black-ish-addressed-the-spanking-debate-in-the-best-way-1649768405.
House, Random. YouTube, YouTube, 7 Nov. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=QO15S3WC9pg.
Poniewozik, James. “Review of Black-Ish, ‘Crime and Punishment.’” Time, Time, 23 Oct. 2014, time.com/3534219/review-blackish-spanking/.
Prioleau, Naomi. “Teaching Black Men How To Talk To Their Sons About Sex.” WUNC, 28 Feb. 2018, www.wunc.org/post/teaching-black-men-how-talk-their-sons-about-sex#stream/0.
TV, AfterBuzz. YouTube, YouTube, 2 Oct. 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=zMi61o99_Jk.