Discussion is important. It is healthy and allows a person to grow and challenge their ideals. In the first Think Piece on the site, we have Nazareth Hassan Hagood giving us his thoughts on how Black People are represented on tv shows in the past and today.
If I were right next to Zoey when her dad Dre gave her the keys to her new mid-sized SUV on Black-ish, I probably would have screamed too. It was beautiful; the red paint job went nicely with the black interior. It’s just what Zoey would need to let people know that she’s hot shit at school. She fantasises about programming her radio stations, picking up her plethora of friends for what could only be nights of debauchery, and, craziest of all, going to the library to study. Her teenage dreams have been fulfilled; she finally has the car that every 16-year-old has dreamt of since the creation of adolescence. In a sense, Zoey has reached classic American teen status; she represents the ideal girl. She’s beautiful, she’s well-off, and she’s got a car. Who would have thought that a black woman would be able to do that?
This particular moment in the hit ABC series echoes the theme song of The Jeffersons’, entitled “Moving On Up”, something black Americans continue to work towards. The sustained socio-economic discrimination against black people in America has made blackness and poverty almost synonymous; a situation echoed by the representation of the black family on television. But with the rise of The Cosby Show in 1984, black affluence became, at the very least, a small part of the American narrative. With this presentation of a black wealthy family, though, came a host of questions. Did the Huxtables appreciate their blackness and the class? Could they live fully in a high class world and love the skin that had followed them for centuries? Shows like Blackish and The Cosby Show strive to exhibit a black life that is not trapped in anguish and food stamps. These shows, though, thrive off of a need for blackness to be examined differently than ever, to be accepted by white people as something that they recognise, something that does not look like what blackness used to look like.
Until The Jeffersons premiered on NBC, depiction of black socio-economics struck one note. Popular programming that featured black characters illuminated how deep poverty was etched into the public black persona. NBC’s Diff’rent Strokes told the story of two poverty-stricken black boys who were taken in by a wealthy white father and daughter. These boys, one of which is responsible for Gary Coleman’s fame, are meant to be symbols of the olive branch; they were being taken in and cared for by the white characters in subconscious hopes that their white saviour actions would make amends for the undeniable damage done to the Black race for centuries. Their poverty is not simply erased though; if anything it is shoved in the audience’s face more. The Harlemite customs of the boys, no doubt made to seem ridiculous, are the punchline of almost every joke. Their adoptive father amusingly punishes one of the boys for experimenting with a goldfish and a hot tub; Arnold, in a moment of pure childlike naiveté, is made to seem like doubly the fool for wondering about the mysterious rules of sexual intercourse. Every word these boys spoke felt like the butt of a joke; interaction between the father and the boys seemed ironic before they even started talking. Although some felt the show was progress of a sort (at the very least white audiences were being made aware of issues surrounding black poverty), the world that Diff’rent Strokes inhabited was made of drawn out stereotype and classic '70s insensitivity.
The Jeffersons and The Cosby Show, however, made it clear that black people could live and had lived in affluence. Black people on TV were no longer half-bodied guilt givers designed to make their greater white audiences sigh and lament but people who shared the circumstances and consequences of their audiences. Families were concerned with choices between top-notch colleges. Issues at their high-paying jobs were frequent plot lines. Slowly, shows became less afraid to portray black people as affluent. After being hit by a car and investing the settlement money in a string of highly successful dry cleaning joints, Mr. Jefferson wore higher thread count suits. Bill Huxtable, the head of the eccentric Brooklynite Huxtable clan, unofficially trademarked his crazy kaleidoscope sweaters, most of which exhibited a high level of taste. These families became the exemplar for the nuclear black unit across the nation. They were everything black people were programmed to want: rich, educated, settled, and, to some degree, assimilated. They were the families who could pass between two worlds, who, as W.E.B. DuBois said, could only see themselves “through the revelation of the other world”. Frederick Douglass instilled the desire to be able to exist in white culture, saying that blacks should “never refuse to act with a white society”. Many black people yearned to be able to “bring higher respect” to the black race, and the only way possible, to them, was to fully assimilate. In this assimilation, though, comes a loss of self. These shows were exhibiting a new brand of black, sure, but what was the blackness based in? Claire and Bill Huxtable had gone to a historically black college, but beyond that, where were the chances to impart blackness to audiences?
These quintessential black TV families, did work, to some degree, towards integrating their blackness with their class. The walls of the Huxtable home frequently displayed African-American art. The title sequence of the eighth season features depictions of black children celebrating their innocence. One of the eldest children is shipped off to the faux HBCU Hillman College, the setting for the spin-off A Different World. Blackness was waiting to seep out of the Huxtables’ pores but it was not developed enough to marry the ever-present affluence to it. Race is not discussed frequently in the Huxtable home or most of the Huxtable dream world. It seemed to be irrelevant whether anyone was black or white, which may have been the desired goal. The fervent evasion of race-speak, though, led to a palpable awkwardness. This almost purposeful side-stepping of race topics in the show stifled the chance for a fruitful exploration of the intersection of race and class. Audiences need to see doctors who love rap. They need to see lawyers who are suckers for romantic RnB songs. Audiences need to see people who praise blackness because no one else would. At a time when race relations were fraught with extremism on either side of the political spectrum, the Cosby show could have been the rising beacon for the new black family, but it fell short. Audiences needed affluence and blackness to link hand in hand, but the absence of the already present relationship between the two gave way to more questions than answers.
Blackish aimed to answer every one of those cloudy questions The Cosby Show had left behind. A parable for the black affluent who wanted to know how their identities intersect, the show revolves around how these people identify themselves in the world. The father, Dre, gives colourful introductions to every episode, usually outlining the central issue. These issues overwhelmingly relate to how he is defining himself in a world where he has recently found power. Whether he is lamenting about being the sole black person at his advertising firm or wondering whether he should be harder on his kids; so they can find some of the values he had growing up impoverished, and, perhaps, not be spoiled, the show’s number one person is to explore this particular intersection of identity artfully. A viewer can find the complexities surrounding identity politics boiled down to a disarming joke, only to be followed by a devastating pang of fear: with every joke the show gets closer to revealing the secret to black upward mobility. Black-ish takes racial politics head-on as well, resorting to emotional delivery of fact to fully illustrate that they are living in the same world we are. In episode 16 of Season 2, the family watches the news as allegations of a police murder of a black boy flash across the screen. After an intense family discussion, the rest of the episode is dedicated to teaching the kids what discrimination is. At a moment’s notice, Dre and his clan are ready to handle a painful past and the complicated future that awaits them. The family is actively seeking the gap between wealth and blackness and bridging it, mending it. Where The Cosby Show avoided the issue, Black-ish discovered what it meant to cope with the difficulties of your racial identity while reaping the benefits of your capital. In this sense, and only in this sense, are they truly blackish.
The shelves of Dre’s closet reach all the way up to the ceiling, only to be matched by the floor-length mirrors near by. Each shelf is full of clothes, expensive clothes that Dre bought with a rather large lump sum of cash. His quarters are nothing like we’ve seen in black media. They reach up to something we have never seen from black psyche, something that yearns for a deeper understanding of itself. Black affluence is still an anomaly to the population, something people don’t particularly want to hear about. But that’s why this portrayal is necessary. These conversations are a must; without them, we wouldn’t be talking about anything.