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How 'Black-ish' Writers Use Universal Storylines To Approach Race


Tonight is the final episode of ABC's hit comedy "Black-ish" before it goes on holiday hiatus. Although the show focuses on one upper middle-class family, the Johnsons, its storylines resonate with people of different races, ethnicities and generations. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: "Black-ish" creator Kenya Barris said he did not intend for the show to be the TV equivalent of a cultural safari or a reboot of the original "Cosby Show."

KENYA BARRIS: It's a show about an American family, but it's not a show about an American family that happens to be black. I think that's one of the big differences between us and "The Cosby Show."

BATES: The Cosbys didn't talk a lot about race. Just the fact that an educated, prosperous black family was on network TV was enough. Barris had something different in mind for the equally affluent, accomplished Johnsons.

BARRIS: We really set out this year to say, we want to tell a story about a family that was absolutely black because that is what we are every day.

BATES: And they talk about race every day. So there have been episodes about giving the nod to fellow black folks who is and isn't authentically black and casual use of the N-word.


ANTHONY ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) Why do you let your white friends say it?

YARA SHAHIDI: (As Zoey Johnson) It's not like they mean anything by it. It's just a word.

ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) I can't believe this. My generation fought to take that word back while your sexting insta-dummy generation is giving it away to everybody.

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: (As Pops) Well, your [expletive] generation opened the floodgates with your willy-nilly, hippity-hoppity, yo-what-up-my-[expletive] nonsense.

BATES: A lot of the show is actually Barris making peace with the fact that his five children are growing up in suburban privilege and comfort.

BARRIS: I guess, you know, we're kind of all taught, like, give your kids more than you had. But in giving them more what do they lose?

BATES: Maybe the appreciation of a nice but not lavish meal out. Barris says he loved the steak chain Sizzler as a kid with its all-you-can-eat buffet, so he treated his kids to dinner there one night

BARRIS: And they literally started turning their nose up and, like, where are we? And I just was like, what do you mean where are we? This is Sizzler. And they just are like, what's that bar over the salad? And I go, that's a sneeze guard. What's a sneeze guard? Why do I need a sneeze - and I just was like, I hate you. I hate all of you.

BATES: But it got him thinking about all the differences between their lives and his, and that turned into an episode about the Beef Plantation.


ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) Smell that? That is my childhood.

MARCUS SCRIBNER: (As Jack) I'm sorry, Daddy.

BATES: His kids, with their private schools and their multiracial posses, were challenging what Barris had grown up thinking black was. And - interesting irony - while he thought his kids were growing up less black than he had, their nonblack friends, with their rap music and slang, were the opposite.

BARRIS: These kids had way more of the black experience than I remember kids that weren't black having.

BATES: Barris and his writers have created a show that reflects their experiences, but a lot of the weekly dilemmas the Johnsons confront are the same for the Cohens, for the Nguyens, for the Riveras.


BATES: The "Black-ish" staff is mostly but not entirely black. Today, they're working on a script where youngest son Jack has to decide if he'll be a basketball star on his old team or a struggler on a better one. Jack thinks maybe he wants to quit, but his father, Dre, is not having it.

As one writer's assistant maps out plot points on a huge whiteboard, another clicks away with lightning speed on a keyboard, recording their deliberations.

BARRIS: 'Cause it feels like when we get to the Ruby talks to Dre about letting Jack choose what he wants to do, there's an element in that second act point of Dre doesn't want Jack to be a quitter.

BATES: Which leads to a digression about how liberating quitting can be.

During a very short break, consulting producer Yvette Lee Bowser, who created the '90s sitcom "Living Single," tells why she signed up to work with the show.

YVETTE LEE BOWSER: Because this particular show is the truest reflection of the life I'm currently living in the suburbs with raising my young black children.

BATES: Courtney Lily, a "Black-ish" co-executive producer and writer, doesn't feel they need to spoon feed their audience black culture.

COURTNEY LILY: I do not worry about people not getting it. The hardest judges of anything we do are the people around this table and Kenya Barris in particular. We know when it's right in here, bascially.

BATES: And judging from the response, so does a lot of its audience. ABC recently signed Barris to a three-year deal to continue "Black-ish" and create new programs.


BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.