Lee: Will Blackish change the sitcom world?

BY ASHLEY LEE | OCTOBER 02, 2014 5:00 AM

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“Blackish,” ABC’s new prime-time family comedy, premièred last week. The show tells the story of an upper-middle-class black family in white suburbia in which the father (Anderson) believes his family has lost touch with its blackness.

The show situates itself in the televised history of black American family life.  Despite long-gone programs such as “The Cosby Show,” “Family Matters,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Sister, Sister,” and “Everybody Hates Chris,” depictions of the 2010s black nuclear family has in many ways, become an anomaly.

In a scene from the pilot episode, a tour guide on an Ultimate Hollywood Tours bus says, “If you look to your left, you’ll see the mythical and majestic black family. Out of their natural habitat and yet still thriving. Go ahead and wave. They’ll wave right back.”

What was meant to be a joke speaks to a larger issue about black family representation. What makes “Blackish” different from its predecessors is its willingness to not only make race a primary component to the program’s makeup, but to also explore what constitutes blackness — something other sitcoms with predominantly black casts did not always do.

There is no definitive answer on who or what is “black,” and yet, the father’s persistence in encouraging his family to partake in stereotypically black or “blackish” activities is what makes the first episode very problematic.

“The Cosby Show” changed the way America viewed black family life. Audiences were invited to meet the Huxtables, a well-to-do family that was black yet did not allow race to be the main focus of their interactions.

While “Blackish” definitely pays homage to the “Cosby” legacy, it is not our generation’s replacement. It is, however, a start in re-providing representations of black (upper-middle class) family life — something that hasn’t aired regularly since the ’90s.

Although there have been recent strides for black (women) actors on prime-time television (“Scandal,” “Sleepy Hollow,” and now “How to Get Away With Murder”), the aforementioned shows feature a single black lead in predominantly white spaces.

More black families should be televised because there is diversity in blackness. Black people carry a multitude of identities; it’s important for American audiences to see this so the limited scope of blackness or what is considered “blackish” is not perpetuated.

While I applaud the show’s creators for engaging in racial dialogue, and I look forward to seeing how “Blackish” unfolds, the title still strikes me in a negative way.

The word “blackish” is problematic in the sense that it attempts to define “black” as solely an American racialized body or culture that must adhere to a set of expectations in order to be considered or validated as such. Black people are still black, even if they don’t subscribe to the stereotypical roles, expected behaviors, or identities encroached upon them.

Moreover, the show by itself is not enough. It now carries the burden of representation of black family life in 2014. If television networks featured more modern-day black families who differ in nationality, socioeconomic status, gender-expression, sexuality, geographic location, occupation, etc., the criticism toward “Blackish” would not be as severe.

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