In its second season, ABC’s “Black-ish” has hit its stride. Now comes the best evidence of its ability to create a television classic: the February 24 episode called “Hope.”
The story, and the series, centers on the upper middle-class Johnsons. For this installment, the parents disagree on how to talk to their four children about police brutality.
The episode is confined entirely within the Johnsons’ living room/kitchen as the broadcast news of no indictment of the police officer spills in—a cinematic choice that ratchets tension. Viewers must pick a side: Agree with Dre Johnson (played well by Anthony Anderson), the realist who wants to arm his children with the truth, which will extinguish their innocence? Or side with Dr. Rainbow Johnson (vividly embodied by actress Tracee Ellis Ross), whose belief in the justice system is shaken, but not broken?
The elders (played by Lawrence Fishburne and Jenifer Lewis) lend comic relief as well as survival strategies. “If you’re going to talk to the cops, there’s only seven words you need to know,” Grandma Ruby warns the children. “‘Yes, sir,’ ‘No, sir,’ ‘Thank you, sir.'”
From start to finish, the episode is timely and urgent—using Ta-Nehisi Coates‘ “Between the World and Me” to enter the discussion, with nods to James Baldwin, Sandra Bland, and Freddie Grey along the way. As a black parent, I found the hour-long program heartbreakingly familiar—and pitch-perfect in the melding of levity and reality.
It’s hard to remember a mainstream network show taking such risks. “Modern Family” may be the highly rated lead-in, but it rarely references race or ethnicity, except to wring a stereotype or two for humor—usually at the expense of Sofia Vegara’s character, the Colombian trophy wife.
NBC’s The Carmichael Show, starring comedians Jerrod Carmichael and David Alan Grier, featured a protest episode last summer, with the writers focusing mostly on the absurdity of rioting and racism. “There was a DJ down there,” said matriarch Cynthia, who is played by Loretta Devine. “You don’t play music on a laptop at a protest. You sing! Everybody knows that!”
Black-ish creator and showrunner Kenya Barris pitched the show numerous times before it found a home at ABC. The difference this time, he said, is that he fought to keep his voice honest, to explore stories that were explicitly about black family life.
“I’m a huge fan of Norman Lear’s work, and I’ll talk to him in a sort of a mentoring kind of way,” Barris told Vice. “I still think of this thing that he said: ‘It’s hard enough to do ‘my boss is coming over and my wife burnt the pot roast’ anyway. That’s hard comedy to do in itself. But then when you take out the mundane ideas and put in something like, ‘Oh yeah, somebody got shot by a cop!’ in that mix it starts to become . . . whew, something else.”
“Hope” felt like a successor to Lear’s cutting edge sitcoms, infused with the 21st-century flavor of Black Lives Matter. “Blackish” has already troubled the waters with episodes on the N-word, wealth inequality and gun control.
Episode 16 is a fresh watermark in American culture.
What to do when Fox News host Bill O’Reilly calls you out on his show, labeling you a “race-baiter”? If you are television and media critic Eric Deggans, you take the jab and make it the title of your 2012 book, adding the subtitle How Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation.
For more than 20 years, Deggans has covered film, music and pop culture for various outlets, most recently becoming NPR’s first full-time television critic. The Indiana native has appeared on PBS’ NewsHour, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, where he often weighs fairness and inclusivity in the public stories we tell.
Over 90 minutes at the lectern at John Carroll University, Deggans challenged his diverse audience to examine racism in the media — not to just take the reporting at face value, but to really dig into why certain images and narratives are harmful.
Deggans gave the audience a conceptual cheat sheet of four types of racism to look for in media:
Bigotry denial syndrome—where the offensive individual firmly believes they are without prejudice
Situational racism—where offensive remarks or actions are directed to only certain people in a marginalized group
Strategic racism—racism used for political or material gain
White privilege—benefits extended to white people to the exclusion of other races
“News reporting that’s based in stereotypes and prejudice is not accurate,” Deggans said. “Diversity is a journalistic value that’s as basic as spelling someone’s name right because that’s how crucial diversity is to getting a story right.”
Despite his cheeky adoption of the term “race-baiter,” Deegans said he tries to be selective when using “the R-word,” instead using words like bias or prejudice to get his point across: “Using the word ‘racist’ even if it feels appropriate to people who are the subject of it, that clouds the whole discussion. Because [people] get defensive. You say, ‘I’m not racist.’ And the next thing you know, we’re arguing about whether you’re racist instead of talking about what needs to change.”
As the conversation turned to politics, a question on political correctness gave Deggans pause.
“When I hear ‘political correctness’, as a person of color I hear, ‘I am tired of taking your feelings into account. I am tired of talking about institutional racism and prejudice. I am tired of you pushing me to recognize these things that are invisible in American society on purpose,'” Deggans replied. “That is just a reflex to try to stay attached to this system that is producing white privilege.”
As an expert on popular culture, Deggans described the present moment as fertile. He touched on #OscarsSoWhite and posted stills from Beyonce’s recent “Formation” video, which featured a young black boy in a hoodie making a row of white officers surrender.
“We’re entering this moment where mainstream black pop stars are giving us unapologetically black images in a way that they would not necessarily have done 10 or 15 years ago,” he said. Those images, Deggans suggested, help make race an inescapable part of what we discuss in this election year.
Almost a year before Matt de la Pena won the latest Newbery Medal—the highest honor in children’s literature—he told National Public Radio that his picture book about a young boy riding a bus with his grandmother wasn’t a story about diversity.
“That’s very important to me,” de la Pena told NPR. “I don’t think every book has to be about the Underground Railroad for it to be an African-American title.”
This observation from the author of “Last Stop on Market Street” drew an emphatic Amen from Professor Michelle H. Martin, the Augusta Baker Chair in Childhood Literacy at the University of South Carolina.
“I find it encouraging that this award winner tells a quiet story about an African American boy’s day in the city with his Nana that isn’t about 1) slavery, 2) the fight for civil rights or 3) famous black Americans, because if you strip those children’s and YA books out of the American literary record, you have a paltry list left,” Martin told a gathering in Cleveland. “We need more books like ‘Last Stop on Market Street,’ ‘One Word from Sophia’ and even Ezra Jack Keats’ 1965 ‘The Snowy Day’ that are about the dailiness of being a child of color in America.”
Martin delivered a pointed and eloquent case at the Schubert Center for Child Studies of Case Western Reserve University. She titled her remarks, “Brown Gold: African American Children’s Literature as a Genre of Resistance.”
Turns out that Toni Morrison, Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes—all Anisfield-Wolf winners—also wrote children’s books. So did Alice Walker, bell hooks, W.E.B. DuBois, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou and James Baldwin, according to the research of Cara Byrne, newly awarded a doctorate in English from Case Western Reserve.
Martin focused her remarks on the groundbreaking children’s books of Langston Hughes and his collaborator Arna Bontemps. They published “Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti” in 1932. This book, she noted, “combats the prevailing notion that black Americans and those in the African Diaspora spoke broken English reminiscent of slavery, that they were shiftless and lazy and that their broken families left their children to their own devices”—all tropes that still bedevil the white imagination.
Before Martin began her talk, she played a tinny recording—featuring a woman’s soprano and then a man’s tenor—merrily singing “Ten Little Nigger Boys,” a nursery rhyme tittering about the annihilation of black children. It was enormously popular among whites until the mid-20th-century, showing up in stage plays, minstrel shows and on Ebay today. It stands with “A Coon Alphabet” and other children’s books so violently racist that their covers and content drew gasps from Martin’s audience.
Watching and listening seemed like a corollary to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ now famous observation in “Between the World and Me,” addressed to his son: “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage.”
For Martin, “African-American children’s literature has always been a genre of resistance.” She cited “Clarence and Corrine” and “The Brownies’ Book Magazine” as vital counter-stories that “resist by telling from the inside and inviting readers to understand, not mock.”
But while the quality of literature produced by African Americans and other writers of color is often “tremendous,” Martin said, “the quantity is still shamefully low.” She offered numbers to illustrate this state of affairs:
Nearly 40 percent of American children are non-white and almost half under the age of five are children of color. But among the 3,500 titles sent to the Cooperative Center for Children’s Books in 2013, less than three percent were about black people and less than two percent were written by black authors.
Martin presented three tools to combat the status quo:
Buy books by and about people of color
Openly challenge summer reading lists and book stores and libraries to feature stories that are, in the words of Rudine Sims Bishop, mirrors, not merely windows.
“I have a 12-year-old who reads on a 12th grade level, who ‘eats’ books on her own, but her dad and/or I read to her every night,” the professor said. “It’s the best way to improve her ‘ear reading’ and to expose her to books and genres she isn’t yet willing to venture into on her own.”
A recent study by the Packard and MacArthur Foundations found that the average middle class child enjoys 1,000-1,700 hours of one-on-one picture book reading, compared to a low-income child’s total of 25 hours.
Deborah McHamm, president of A Cultural Exchange, stressed that not all books containing a brown face are worthwhile, and that reading is a political act. “Let’s remember,” she said, “that it used to be against the law for black and brown children to read.”
John Newbery, a printer who is said to have invented children’s literature in 1774, took as his motto the Latin “delectando monemus” or “instruction with delight.” Martin suggested that the phrase is still pertinent in crafting books that benefit all children, as de la Pena accomplished in his Newbery book.
He also reminded the audience at Playhouse Square that Hughes was still a teenager, newly graduated from Central High School in Cleveland in 1920, when he wrote The Negro Speaks of Rivers. “Every time I think of an 18-year-old writing a poem that great,” Brown deadpanned, “I really hate Langston Hughes.”
Now Brown has returned to this “first poet” in his pantheon, publishing an evocative, moving post “To Be Asked for A Kiss” on the Poetry Foundation web site.
Suicide’s Note by Langston Hughes
The calm, Cool face of the river Asked me for a kiss
Brown ponders Hughes’ 14 words, written sometime before he was 24; the poet’s lifelong preoccupation with rivers and the meanings of suicide – as both noun and verb – in the single tercet, and in Brown’s own life, and the lives of young, gay black men.
In introducing Brown to Cleveland in September, Dr. Henry Louis Gates praised the Emory University professor, saying that the jury singled him out “for his penetrating and elegant portrayal of the complexity of human identity in a digital, multicultural universe, generally, and more specifically, the complexity of black identity, encompassing the multiple and competing claims and denials of African American masculinity and personhood.”
Brown’s most recent essay makes the case for Langston Hughes’ poetry as a wellspring of that masculinity and personhood. He makes the case – with a poem called Suicide’s Note – for Hughes’ immortality.