Written by Ja’han Elliot Jones
From the tabletop, a rain of crumbs. The sounds of voracity were above – smacking lips, and slurps, and grunts, and sliding china, and jarred silverware, and elbows banging. I sat below as this cacophony consumed me. I was hungry. All around me, spread about this kitchen floor, were the signs of destitution. Ballooned bellies and dry, crusted lips. The frenzied feast atop the table above sent bits of bread flying – exploding on the ground around me. And crowds raced to those bits; they tripped, and they pushed, and they gritted their teeth on the way.
Only some emerged from the scrum with bits of their own, while others wallowed with their hunger still. But all knew full well their search had not ended; one can only sate himself with crumbs for so long. The sounds of gluttony above raged on, and my mouth watered. I could smell the freshly baked bread, I could smell the pungent cooking oils. I could hear the iceberg lettuce crackling behind closed cheeks, I could hear the persistent gnawing at plump turkey legs and the successive droplets of grease trickling upon the tabletop. I reached my hand up to the table’s underside and traced the warmth with my fingertips. I knew, then, I’d not ever survive off crumbs alone. I’d succumbed to hunger of a different sort.
ABC’s “Black-ish” was not new to me by the time its first episode aired. In fact, I’d viewed the trailer roughly one-month prior and watched the pilot before its debut on ABC. It was my misfortune to note in it the persistence of stereotype, and its seeming adherence to the rigid confines so often afflicted unto Black actors and actresses. I wept in the face of its normalcy; the implications of intra-ethnic hatred between Africans and African Americans; the hypnotized infatuation with the Black female backside; the mockery of African cultural tradition; the recognition of Black cultural mores exclusively through the lenses of sport and entertainment.
“Black-ish” in its first grand revelation to the masses, told the tale of a buffoonish African American father who seeks to imbue a sense of “blackness” into his family although he hasn’t done so for himself. His inevitable failures (intend to) provide the humor designed to earn the show its primetime slot. And the tragedy of the show and its numerous failings were not that such failings were foreign to me, but that they weren’t. I’d seen these caricatures before. And I imagined the men and women who played them – aged and made affluent by their damned roles – left empty by their choices to accept them.
I sat during the “Black-ish” premiere, watching a father dressed in African garb throw chicken bones at his son’s face as rhythmic drumming provided ambiance, my eyes wide in search for transcendence in it all.
Our deliberate, sharpened critique of “Black-ish” is not simply justified but, rather, necessary. Shows centered about predominately Black casts are not new to television – they are not new to primetime, even.
But, perhaps, none has risen to such heights with such explicit billing as a quantification of the Black experience. Not “The Cosby Show.” Not “A Different World.” Not “The Jeffersons.” Not “Good Times” Not “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”. Not “Living Single”. None. Those shows, and the several others of their ilk (certainly, with problematic characters of their own), never ventured to encapsulate the Black experience in a 22-minute time slot.
If and when African Americans related to Whitley, Florida, Carlton, Theo, Overton and George, our so doing was organic; we saw, in them, human beings whose trials and tribulations may have resembled ours. But while the aforementioned shows merely prompted connections between themselves and the Black folks who watched them, “Black-ish” essentially mandates this connection. This mandate is problematic. When, in the series’ first episode, Andre Johnson (played by Anthony Anderson) ex-presses his need for his “family to be Black, not ‘black-ish'”, he is revealing a troublesome thesis.
The thesis implies that a linear scale of “blackness” exists; the thesis implies that one can advance toward Black authenticity through exhibited behaviors. But a Black man is a Black man. He is undeniably, inescapably, eternally so, whether or not he chooses to forego, say, the basketball court for the field hockey field.
“Black-ish” must do better. It must do more. It must be sharper. It must be more clear. It must be more incisive. Had it not rode upon its self-proclaimed blackness to its spot on network television, perhaps the critiques from the black masses would not be so rhythmic and unified. But now, as “Black-ish” journeys to face a mirror toward the African American community, it would seem that mirror is better served facing toward the show itself; and it is important that mirror depicts not Black-face caricatures donning “Cosby Show” guise, but something much more truthful and much more progressive. That “Black-ish” features a predominately Black cast will not suffice as victory.
No. Crumbs will no longer sate us. Our scant but noteworthy catalog of progressive, Black television shows have whetted our appetites. But from a show claiming to be more aspirational than they, we hanker for more. We are hungry for more. We deserve more.