When will black people be satisfied? Is it even possible or are they so preoccupied with America’s racist past that they'll never be able to fully enjoy the fruits of their labor? Can you take part in the American Dream when your relationship with America is permanently stained by the legacy of slavery?
The pilot episode of black-ish, the new ABC series created by Kenya Barris, asks these questions and offers this as a response to the blacks who can’t stop complaining about cultural appropriation and the death of black identity: chill.
The series stars Anthony Anderson as Andre "Dre" Johnson, a successful executive at an advertising agency in Los Angeles, and Tracee Ellis Ross as his mixed-race wife Rainbow, a surgeon. The couple has four beautiful children, a stunning home, and an ever-present, crotchety grandfather, “Pops,” played by Laurence Fishburne.
Every scene is slick-looking and meticulously manicured to make the Johnsons look like the ideal American family. Shots are bathed in perfect southern California sunlight because what says prosperity, success, and wealth more clearly that constant sunshine? Dre narrates the show, often providing hilarious commentary about everyday scenarios in which blacks and whites struggle through awkward interactions. (You can watch the first episode below.)
Anderson and Fishburne, both producers on the show, are foils representing two different generations of the black male experience. Pops, a vet and civil rights protester, struggled to give his son the opportunities he never had, and Dre questions whether or not he had to sacrifice part of his cultural heritage in order to take advantage of those opportunities in the first place.
When we meet Dre for the first time, he’s aware of the subtle ways race and racism pose problems in his everyday life—feeling like an oddity in a wealthy SoCal suburb, dealing with mass cultural appropriation, being the only black executive at a predominantly white advertising agency—but chooses to ignore them. Pops thinks his son should be working at a black company in order to “make an adjustment for the negro inflation tax,” but Dre argues becoming the first black man to hold a high-ranking executive position at his ad agency is “about breaking down barriers.”
When Dre’s boss delivers unwelcome news on the day he expects to receive a big promotion, he reacts by showing his white colleagues just how black he can be—a dangerous move in a country that likes to think of itself as post-racial, pluralistic, and discrimination free. Eventually, however, after being encouraged by his wife to "keep it real," Dre decides to just go with the flow and get with the program. After all, isn't everybody equal once you make it to the top?
black-ish is a new take on the idea of black identity in a world in which blackness has lost its historical meaning and seems to be detached from its cultural roots. For example, the youngest Johnson children don’t know that Barack Obama is the first black president because he’s the only president they’ve ever known. Unlike their father, they seem to be unaware of the way race and racism affects their lives daily—at least for now.
The show will definitely rub a lot of black people the wrong way, and Barris has already caught a lot of heat for trying to put blackness in a box. The show has been called a "regressive project" that "seems to raise questions that The Cosby Show trounced years ago, and without poking fun at the notion."
One of of the hallmarks of the black experience in America is that it cannot be confined by a single definition and using “ish” as a suffix in the title hints at this truth. But the title also implies that blackness itself has somehow morphed into an unrecognizable, ambiguous thing that everyone, and therefore no one, can identify with.
Ultimately, the show is banking on a universal rags-to-riches appeal, and the country’s enduring faith in the American Dream. After all, who doesn’t want to believe anyone can succeed in the USA? You’re going to have to make a few sacrifices along the way, but if you want to really make it, it’ll be worth it.
Lauretta Charlton is Associate Editor at Complex. She would never kiss a black-ish ass. She tweets here.