‘A long-awaited invitation to begin an honest, calm national dialogue about race,” was how the Chicago Tribune described President Barack Obama’s speech in response to the Jeremiah Wright scandal. “Can an honest conversation about race be inoffensive?” Conor Friedersdorf wondered in The Atlantic. A recent book from the University of Virginia Press promised “an honest conversation on race, reconciliation, and responsibility.” Whitney Dow, the documentarian behind “The Whiteness Project,” also desires “an honest conversation about race.” Sensing the moment with its usual acuity, the Onion reported: “Open Dialogue Two Americans Having about Race Pretty Hilarious.” In that intellectual environment, Black-ish, Kenya Barris’s new ABC sitcom — just not a sitcom but a “black sitcom,” according to Wikipedia — has about it a feeling of inevitability. And of course it raises “more serious conversations about race,” according to CNN.
Black-ish is the story of Andre Johnson Sr., a successful Los Angeles advertising executive who with his mixed-race physician wife, Rainbow, is determined to give his children all of the advantages and opportunities that he himself did not enjoy growing up, but who is worried that his family’s life of affluence and security has somehow rendered them less authentic. “I’m going to need my family to be black, not black-ish,” he declares over the dinner table at his “spectacular” Southern California home. He is unhappy that his elder son is going by “Andy” rather than “Andre” and wants to play field hockey rather than basketball, that his young twins do not identify with the only other black child in their class or even consider her blackness relevant, and that his popular elder daughter does not seem to have any sense of uniquely black identity.
There have been many moments in recent American history at which it has been undeniably obvious that black Americans and white Americans in the main inhabit separate emotional and intellectual universes. This divide is not as dramatic as the O. J. Simpson verdict or the Rodney King riots, but another brick in that wall of racial separateness is the fact that it has never occurred to me, a conservative, white, middle-aged man from Texas, to meditate for a moment on the question of whether I am living a life of sufficiently authentic whiteness. I have of course been aware that the issue is a pertinent one among black Americans, aware at least in the vague and seldom-considered way that whites tend to be aware of those things. I was skeptical about whether the premise could sustain a single episode of a sitcom, must less provide the organizing basis for a series.
As a writer and a theater critic, I have come to develop a grudging respect for the sheer skill that goes into writing a broad, 22-minute popular comedy. For me, watching an episode of The Big Bang Theory or Girls is a bit like reading a well-wrought rondeau redoublé: It isn’t necessarily my thing, but one must admire the technique that goes into it. Like Graham Yost’s excellent Justified, with its white-hatted quick-draw-artist hero, Black-ish is composed of genre conventions so familiar as to be clichés: The bumbling, man-boy father who is generally outsmarted by his more competent wife, the crusty old granddad dispensing wisdom and insults in equal measure, the wise-beyond-her-years younger daughter, etc. But it is excellently crafted, and it may even have something to offer to that honest national dialogue about race we’re always talking about having.
Much of Black-ish is easy, throwaway racial humor: When Andre (played by the charming Anthony Anderson) informs his mixed-race wife that she is “not technically black,” she retorts: “Could someone please tell my hair and my ass?” But some of the more lighthearted moments have much more serious underpinnings: Andre, who lives in a predominantly white neighborhood, imagines one of those “see the homes of the stars” tour buses pulling up in front of his house, with the guide inviting the tourists to savor the sight of “the mythical and majestic black family.” “Go ahead and wave,” she says, “they’ll wave right back!” The presentation of the conceit — as a safari — is funny, but it is also uncomfortable.
More familiar to veterans of the affirmative-action wars is the conundrum presented by Andre’s coveted promotion to the position of senior vice president at his advertising firm. He knows that he is about to receive the promotion and become the first black man to have held that position in the history of his firm; his wife is more interested in the salary increase than in her husband’s being a first-black at an ad agency. But at the very moment of his greatest professional achievement, Andre gets the wind knocked out of him: He is made senior vice president of the firm’s new “urban” division. “Wait,” he says, “did they just put me in charge of black stuff?” To be clear, Andre was not an affirmative-action hire or an affirmative-action promotion; the more complicated and insidious reaction is that his racial identity and his professional identity are intertwined in ways that were not obvious to him. Angry at his racial-pigeonholing, Andre nearly loses his job when he almost blows a big presentation with an intentionally racially provocative video. He doesn’t want to be the “black senior vice president,” but “the senior vice president who happens to be black.” The latter is the preference of conservatives and, I suppose, the preference of naïve white people of good will in general. And while one should not treat a sitcom as if it were a policy paper, Black-ish does in its gentle way consider what is a very important question: whether it is possible to be the senior vice president who “happens to be” black. Or whether it is possible to have a sitcom starring people who are black rather than a “black sitcom,” for that matter. I do not think that the evidence obviously supports concluding that it is so.
The central conflict in the series is between the fact that Rainbow sees her children’s largely race-blind attitudes as a victory, while Andre sees them as an abandonment. He is willing to acknowledge the complexity of identity questions, though: Flabbergasted that his son doesn’t know about “the nod” — the silent acknowledgment of one black man to another in public places — he thinks he has failed as a black father, until he sees his son give the nod to a skinny, bespectacled Asian kid: “For Junior,” he concludes, “nerd is the new black.”
The show is excellently cast and its touch is remarkably light, its writers rarely feeling the need to really jackhammer on the racial observations: Differences about how black audiences and white audiences behave in movie theaters are taken for granted, present but unremarked upon. When Andre’s gimlet-eyed father, played by the screen-filling Lawrence Fishburne, effortlessly helps his granddaughter solve a school social problem with sage counsel, Andre wants to know how he did it. The magic bullet, Pops says, was the offer of “generic advice in a deep, soothing voice. I’m Morgan Freeman.” When Andre, concerned that his son does not have enough black friends, considers trying to connect him with the son of an African émigré family, Pops rejects the notion: “We ain’t African, we’re black. Africans don’t even like us.”
That last line caught my attention. In spite of my having been bused to an overwhelmingly black elementary school (where I sat in an overwhelmingly white classroom) as part of a federal desegregation order, the only African Americans I knew very well growing up were Nigerian immigrants. As Amy Chua knows, African immigrants can be scathing on the subject of American-born blacks. And I often have been shocked by the attitudes of elite African-Americans from Jack and Jill, cotillion-going backgrounds toward those from less-rarefied circumstances. These things are strange: I grew up in a Confederate state, but I had never heard white people casually use that infamous racial epithet in conversation until I moved to Pennsylvania, a state that once was distinctive for its humane racial views, albeit a long time ago. I now live in New York City, the second-most-segregated metropolitan area in the United States (I suppose Milwaukee had to be first in something), where racial relations strike me as being considerably more tense than in Houston or Miami. And in the political debate, I most often encounter what somebody once described as “a profoundly distorted view of this country — a view that sees white racism as endemic and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.” So perhaps I am ill-equipped to understand what it is like to be on the other side of the socioeconomic Berlin Wall that is race in this country.
That being the case, I appreciate having an occasional peek behind the curtain, and 22 minutes at a time is for me a digestible portion, inasmuch as I find the subject exhausting. If I may be forgiven the inevitable comparison, Black-ish is a great deal like The Cosby Show in that it is aspirational. Aspirational no doubt in the traditional sense, for black families hoping to achieve secure, opportunity-rich, upper-middle-class lives, but also aspirational-by-proxy in that whites considering the goings-on in the Huxtable household hoped that someday those problems would be the typical black family’s problems, and similarly must wish that Andre’s insecurities were the worst that faced most black American men. But that sort of sentimentality is something best limited to 22-minute doses, too.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.