ABC’s Black-ish: When “keeping it real” goes wrong

How exactly does one define being black in America?

That’s the cultural question that is nearly as old as The Middle Passage and the Civil Rights era themselves. Despite the real and measurable accomplishments of the group to whom this query pertains, the question also happens to be one that has yet to be answered with any degree of finality, or even satisfaction.

For this, we need only look to Black-ish, the latest entrant into the genre of urban comedy that debuts Wednesday night on ABC.

The fledgling sitcom follows the intrepid exploits of one Andre Johnson (played by veteran comedian Anthony Anderson), an advertising executive married to a physician. The plot basically centers on the trials, travails and existential angst of educated black professional couple who are increasingly preoccupied by the possibility they are losing their sense of “blackness.” Hence the title’s attempt to convey ethnic ambiguity.

Andre’s dilemma, to the extent it can be called that, is a kid born of the struggle who has “arrived” — at least in the economic, professional and social sense. You see, he’s worried that he may have done too well. Even worse, his kids have little to no trace of urban affectations (junior wants to truncate his name to “Andy”, have a bar-mitzvah and –horrors! – try out for field hockey rather than basketball). Throw in the more grounded wife and dad, played by Tracy Ellis-Ross and Lawrence Fishburne, respectively, and let the laughs and life lessons commence.

Early reviews have been cautiously flattering, if not entirely effusive. Over at The New York Times — perhaps mindful of the furor it generated recently by politely panning Viola Davis — one reviewer thinks Black-ish has the potential to be “something substantial” in the interminable dialogue on race relations (which, in case nobody’s noticed, appears to be getting better and not worse).

Inevitable comparisons to The Cosby Show aside, the Johnsons clearly ain’t the Huxtables, whose timeless genius was to be completely comfortable in their upper class trappings while not betraying a hint of anguish about being sufficiently black. It’s one of the reasons why the show’s popularity endures three decades after the first episode. The Cosbys were unapologetically successful, obviously black and nobody – least of all the protagonists themselves – made a big deal about it.

Fast forward to 30 years, and the troubling implications of Black-ish become all too clear. Deliberately or inadvertently, the show all but becomes a window into the tortured debate about whether moving into a higher tax bracket translates into “acting white,” or at least minimizing your blackness. The pilot itself betrays the pretzel-like contortions of the logic used to define and justify what’s black: As Andre wrings his hands about whether his family is becoming too acculturated; he simultaneously takes offense at being promoted at work to the head of “urban” marketing. The sitcom’s plot almost recalls a skit — salvaged from the cutting room — from the Dave Chappelle Show: When keeping it real goes (really) wrong

Once again, the question is legitimately raised: what exactly does being black in America mean? Perhaps more importantly, what will it take for pop-culture portrayals of blacks promote the idea that people of color basically want the same opportunities and creature comforts of any other group?

Apparently, the popularity of certain other shows suggests something altogether different. Does being “black enough” reflect the crowd of classless divas and dons that populate shows like “Real Housewives of Atlanta” or “Love and Hip-Hop” — neither of which have trouble at all pulling in black viewers? Are their depictions of wealth and success, which are frequently accompanied by huge dollops of relationship drama, petty infighting and embarrassing money troubles, more in-sync with the essential black experience? Or does it resemble the execrable “Scandal” and its powerful heroine with an unbelievably messy personal life (again, followed with near-religious fervor by black viewers)?

It’s too early to tell whether “Black-ish” will have the same cultural cachet as Cosby or even “All in the Family.” However, and at the risk of being rash, I’m rendering my verdict before the first show’s credits even start rolling. Quite frankly, the show’s guiding premise stinks to high heaven. The fact that it was even greenlit by a major network suggests how deeply misguided we’ve become about race and ethnicity.

At a basic level, “Black-ish” surreptitiously suggests that black folks can’t be educated, wealthy, successful or otherwise culturally comfortable without developing — or being accused of having — some sort of complex. Subtly yet unmistakably, being “Black-ish” equates success with something other than a quality that’s encoded in black DNA – which virtually implies that all the battles fought over the last 400 years of so have been for naught.

As you watch (or don’t watch) “Black-ish”, ask yourselves this: do we want to live our lives with the same accolades and trappings as everyone else? Or should what has colloquially been referred to as “ratchetness” become synonymous with blackness?