I cringed when I saw the name and promos for Black-ish. But, I tried to reserve judgment until I saw it. And sure enough, its premise and the actual show is as offensive as its name.
First, the idea that there is only one essential way of being "black" is incredibly problematic. The sad thing is that they think of themselves and bill themselves as a modern day Cosby Show.
The amazing thing that shows like the Cosby Show and A Different World was that they showed the incredible diversity of African Americans. They showed our humanity and how just like every other group of human beings, we are influenced in our personal development by not only our racial identifiers, but also by our socio-economic, educational, geographic, religious and familial realities. That's how you got diverse characters like Whitley, Duane, Kimberly Reece, Freddie Brooks, Lena James and sidekick, Ron - all totally different, all undeniably black.
What Black-ish misses and what those shows embraced, is that one of the primary things that unite black people is this country is that regardless of socio-economic status, skin complexion and other life choices, black folks in America have a shared history and current reality of struggling against stereotypes, institutional and legislative racism, and continued barriers precisely because we continue to be judged by the color of our skin, more than by the content of our character and the uniqueness of our journey.
Black-ish serves to validate the stereotypes that "keeping it real" means that all black people play the same sports, live in one type of neighborhood or that "fried, fried chicken" is a "black thing," rather than perhaps a southern thing. It questions whether the bi-racial mother is "really black" at all. Who gets to decide that?
The sad thing is that the producers, writers and actors seem to miss is that it is not fried chicken or playing basketball that defines who 10 million diverse black people are. If there is an essential black culture, it must involve knowing the history and struggle, triumphs and major milestones of these people you seek to portray.
Black children not knowing the implications and historical relevance of President Obama's election is not funny. Too many people marched, fought, bled, died, legislated, were beaten, brutalized for any American not to understand the importance of his election. Perhaps the problem is not where this imaginary family lives, but that these imaginary black parents have not taken the time to discuss the important and real challenges and victories of African American life today.
The show ends with what is supposed to be a heartwarming, comic ending of the black son having a "bro mitzvah," where the whole black family dresses up in Run DMC '80s rapper gear and they break dance and take pictures indicating that that is the black version of a bar mitzvah.
The son says he is happy to convert to Judaism and forsake his own religion (whatever that is), in order to have a bar mitzvah party. There is a subsequent scene where they mock the idea of an African rites of passage.
The juxtaposition of the pride taken in Jewish culture with the complete lack of context for the historical place of true African rites of passage programs that are far richer than the joke Black-ish makes them out to be or the historical place of the black church which has produced voices such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is striking. When the son is asked if he would give up his religion and convert for a bar mitvah party, he eagerly replies yes. This diminishes and undermines both the important religious and cultural significance of the Jewish experience and the historical and cultural experience of African Americans in this country while mocking African heritage and pride, all in one fell swoop.
Sadly, these uniformed writers, create a father character whose deep concern about his children understanding their black heritage centers on things like his son playing basketball, while having a complete lack of focus on historical and cultural markers that make many African Americans proud of the common heritage we share. There is no sophisticated analysis or understanding of how the paradigm set up by this show is the exact stereotype many of us are fighting against.
The father rails against his son playing field hockey because it is thought to be a white sport and he doesn't want his son to become a "white boy." Well, before Arthur Ashe and the Williams sisters, tennis was thought to be a "white" sport. Before Tiger Woods, golf was just seen as a "white" sport. And I could go on. The history of black people in America is making the point that, "We, too, sing America," and we are capable of playing any sport and participating in any field we want - just like every other person.
I once heard a Chicago preacher named Sean McMillan, say in his sermon that, "Every black mother and father is a freedom fighter, fighting for the psychic, emotional and physical space for their children to truly be free." That is the core of the African American experience.
By highlighting the beauty and richness and proud heritage of African Americans by wearing HBCU shirts and talking about their rich heritage, showcasing black art and music, having the whole family sit and watch Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream Speech" - all within the context of everyday life, The Cosby Show showed what it really meant to be a black family in America. They never had to yell, "We are black-ish!"
They were just a family whose pride of heritage was interwoven in everything they did. And they were fighting, as many of us are still fighting, to create a world where our children can be anything they want to be while always remembering who they are, where they come from and the unique bond that African Americans still share as we continue to struggle against being made out as the joke and minstrel of America; and who somehow, in spite of shows like Black-ish, find ways to maintain our dignity, honor our elders, show our children that they don't have to take on and parody someone else's heritage and readily give up their own religion, history and faith in an effort to gain ratings while betraying all that we are and have been as black people in America.