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A friend was lamenting the recent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri involving the outrage over the shooting of teenager, Michael Brown. His opinion was that just when it seems there is less racial disharmony, as a show like ABC’s black-ish illustrates “just how far we have all come”, the headlines (at least in Ferguson) say differently. 

However, it’s possible that black-ish—the all-star comedy staring Anthony Anderson, Tracee Ross and Laurence Fishbourne about how a modern, African American family deals with assimilation and 21st century cultural diversity— has little, if anything, to do with racial unrest. This is possible because history shows that there have been upwardly mobile African Americans, or those with upwardly mobile ambitions, about a generation after emancipation. Despite ongoing racism, African-Americans, like other races and cultures, have prevailed not only spiritually but also economically, albeit in smaller percentages.

Blackish familyAt first, Missionary organizations and churches provided rudimentary education for the younger generation, and as small economic gains were made, revenue was poured into creating better schools and eventually, Universities (such as Fisk University in Nashville, TN, founded in 1866). As these students began to excell in education, and temporarily make political gains, they created their own worlds of affluence, complete with nice houses, cars, parties, social clubs and yes, class distinctions. 

Various gains in Civil Rights eventually led to integration. And as the last century came to an end, America as a whole had become more diverse with various people from many countries and cultures fusing together instead of apart.

Currently, African Americans range from upper class to middle class to lower class. And they, like all people, are often trying to hold onto what is good about their culture while also becoming assimilated. They want to explore and know more about other cultures. They even worry that their prosperity and affluence will make it too easy on their children. 

Dinner table toastThat is the focus of black-ish, according to creator Larry Wilmore.

“It’s always amazing to me, as if "black" is a bad thing. We shouldn’t talk about them being ‘black’,” says Wilmore. 

“This show kind of celebrates black more as a cultural thing than a race thing. That is what we are trying to do in black-ish. At the heart is a family show about basically a father who feels like he may have given his kids too much, and whenever you give your kids too much, something is always lost. And we have so many people from so many different immigrant groups and different ethnic identities who can relate to this where their kids, when they assimilate, something is lost in their own culture. So it’s a very universal kind of thing and we love that blackish is our particular way of looking at that.”

Star Anderson agrees. “It was a way of looking at the world where we are today. It could be Black, at the same time it could be Asian, Jewish, it could be Middle America. It’s talking about giving our kids more than what we have—that’s the international rule, but sometimes in doing that you lose a little bit of what you remember or what you thought your upbringing was.” 

Anderson and hubbyAnd it’s like, how do you relate to did I overdo and how do you now raise your family. It’s a family show and ultimately it’s about a black family, not a family that happens to be black, actually about a black family. But it could be a lot of different people’s family and what they’ve gone through and where we are at today.”

Anderson, a veteran of such shows as The Bernie Mac Show, The Shield, Law & Order and the Food Network’s Eating America With Anthony Anderson, teamed up with former America’s Next Top Model writer, Kenya Barris, Laurence Fishburne and Wilmore to pitch the idea of the show after his pre-teen son, not realizing the cultural significance of the Jewish coming-of-age celebration, asked him for a bar mitzvah simply because he thought it would be a cool party. 

Of course, as a parent, Anderson had some “xplainin” to do, and even so, he told critics at the TCA press tour last summer that things didn’t go exactly as planned.   

blackish kids“My son was 12 at the time, and we had a serious conversation because my son said, `Dad, I don’t feel black.  He went on to explain, "Kenya grew up in Inglewood, California,  I grew up in the hood in Compton, California, and the existence that my son knows is nothing short of privilege, being in private school since the age of four, and his surroundings in that environment was what was he was referring to. I said, `Son, this is your black experience. That black experience you are having right now is different from the experience that I had growing up. And he got it and understood it and said, `Ok, Dad for my 13th birthday, I want a bar mitzvah.’"

So, I looked in his eyes and I said, "So, you really aren’t black.’" So, we had a compromise. I said that is not our culture and that is not what we do, but I will throw you a hip hop ‘bro-mitzvah’. I trademarked the name 'bro-mitzvah' and threw him a party and he’s 14 now and to this day, all his Jewish friends say that was the best bar mitzvah they’ve attended.

Kitchen talk

And, that is in essence, what helped sell this show, but they are all authentic stories that Kenya and I came up with. This concept was born out of a conversation that Kenya and I had a year ago, almost to the day. The script was written and I brought Larry on, and he brought Laurence on, and we cast Tracee and here we are.”

For Ellis Ross, the daughter of legendary singer/actress Diana Ross and progeny of an interracial marriage between Ross and music executive, Robert Ellis Silberstein, the show is a reminder of how varied being of African-American heritage can be, growing up biracial, bicultural and with privilege.

Ross explains, “One of the things that attracted me to the script was that we were pulling apart a dialogue that I have always had. As a mixed girl, you’re constantly getting ‘are you black or white?’ and I’m like, `Why do I have to be either?’ So there’s this idea of what is race, what is black and what is this conversation?  I think it is a conversation that everyone is already having and yes, we are telling it from this point of view. But it is a universal conversation, especially in this day and age, in the world that we live in today.  

For me personally, it has asked me to define myself before my race because I am both and yet, I identify as a black woman. So it’s really fun for me, for the first time to play a mixed person on television, because I never really played that. On Girlfriends I was a black woman, on BET’s Reed Between the Lines I was a black woman, on CSI [as Fishburne’s wife] we never defined it, but I am actually ‘out’ as a mixed woman.”

AndersonThen there’s the generational perspective, according to Ross. “There’s three generations within the household, so you get to see these issues run through all these different people and how it affects how you raise a family and the way you live in the world. That’s what’s interesting to me— whether you’re dealing with race or culture or just perspectives between husband and a wife and how they want to raise their children—there’s always that conversation; how do you want to play this, which road do you take and what do you learn from it?”

Comparisons to the classic Cosby show aside, the Wilmore insists the concept of black-ish goes way beyond. 

“The show has so much less to do with race than it does with cultural identity and family. Obviously, from our title, race is not something we are running from, which we stand behind really fervently,” he says. 

Husband and wife arguing“We’re living in a post-Obama society, where race and culture are talked about less than ever before. My kids are living in such a homogenized world where there really isn’t a white or a black kid within them. Music opens up the conversation. Miley Cyrus is urban. Justin Bieber is urban, in some aspects you could say they are black-ish because we have all taken a little bit of the ish from each of us and blended it into who we are today as a people. That’s the beauty of our society right now, we all have a little bit of each other and especially with our children, and that’s what we want to show.” 

“Even with Obama, they say he’s the first black president but he’s mixed, so he’s really the first black-ish president,” Fishbourne said, tongue firmly in cheek.

He adds, “Ultimately, our country is black-ish. We’ve all been borrowing little bits of culture from each other as long as most of us have been around. It’s like how do you define what’s American? 

Yes, as black men in America, but those things are always changing and shifting and growing and we have a lot more in common with other people than our differences. Our differences are not as huge as they used to be.”

black-ish premieres on ABC on Wednesday, Sept. 24th at 9:30/8:30c


 / Issue 162 - September 4024
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