A surprise awaited “blackish” creator Kenya Barris and her family during a 2016 visit to the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington: an exhibit on the television series was on display.
“I was very, very emotional” seeing the honor, Barris said. It returned to the Smithsonian museum earlier this month for a splashy salute to the ‘blackish’ as it neared the end of its eight-season run.
“It was just surreal. The Smithsonian, as a brand, is about things that last, that are part of the fundamental DNA of this world. Putting our show in that meant a lot to me,” said he declared.
Sitcoms, especially family-centric ones, are more likely to be etched in viewers’ memories than museums. Shows such as “The Brady Bunch,” “Good Times,” and “Full House” were part of their viewership coming of age, with the shows and their characters loved far beyond their original series.
Talk to fans of “black-ish” and the same seems likely for the series, which airs its half-hour finale at 9 p.m. EDT Tuesday (midnight EDT on Hulu), followed by “black-ish: A Celebration from ABC News. on ABC. The series was a network television rarity: a depiction of a prosperous and close-knit family of color, the Johnsons, with black creators shaping their stories.
“I remember when it first came out I was worried it was either serious and off-putting or really sad and comical,” relying on stereotypical characters that may or may not exist in real life, said the viewer Onaje Harper. The pandemic has turned him into a convert to binge-watching, one who hunts online saying the show isn’t “real.”
“It’s not real to them, but it’s my day-to-day,” said Harper, an educator-turned-businessman in Dallas, grandson and son of black professionals. He remembers feeling the same way about the review of “The Cosby Show,” a 20th-century television portrayal of a well-to-do African-American family.
But “black-ish” has a decidedly more layered view of race, starting with the title that reflects dad Andre “Dre” Johnson’s fear that wealth separates his children from their ethnic identity. He also has a sharper view of race relations, Harper said.
He cited an episode in which Dr. Rainbow “Bow” Johnson, played by Tracee Ellis Ross, is a supportive parent and volunteer for a fundraiser at a private school. One of the white parents offers to help, which the series reimagines as code for “I think you’re gonna fail and you’re in over your head,” as Harper recalls the scene.
“I laughed my ass off, because the parents at my daughter’s school are amazing, but we often leave this place thinking, ‘Oh my God, I hope our daughter likes it, at least. Harper said.
Jerry McCormick grew up watching Bob Newhart sitcoms and “Good Times” in the 1970s and 1980s, among other things. He compared “black-ish” to another comedy of the time.
“We’ve never seen affluent black people on television except for ‘The Jeffersons,'” said McCormick from San Diego, who works in communications and as a journalism professor. South Carolina and it helped to get it because it was a draw.”
He sees “black-ish” as “the grandson of ‘The Jeffersons’ and the child of ‘The Cosby Show’.” You have Dre and Bow, a couple who really care about each other. They raise their children. They run the house. The children do not exceed them.
Ladinia Brown, a New York fraud investigator, said she likes “the real thing. Things are funny because a lot of things are so true. She cited a favorite episode that addressed colorism — discrimination within an ethnic community against people with darker skin.
“It resonated with me because my kids are like different colors of the rainbow, all different skin tones and the same with my family,” she said. “I really got it when they were talking about how people are treated differently within the African American race.”
His daughter, Emily Johnson, 19, hailed the show’s treatment of issues, major and mundane, that are part of black life but largely ignored on screen. An example: a teenage girl’s dilemma about whether she should keep straightening her hair or go natural.
“When I was younger, I really didn’t like my hair because I found it hard to manage and I didn’t like the way it looked,” Johnson said. “But over time, I appreciated my hair, and when I watched the episode, I liked when (they) talked about all the things black hair can do.”
“Black-ish” has also become a vehicle for sober and nuanced chapters on racism, police brutality and, in a harsh 2018 episode, the impact of Donald Trump’s presidency. (The episode, shelved by ABC, was released two years later on Hulu.).
The goal is to “tell stories that are about something, tell stories that have meaning, that are actually trying to say something. It was what television was for a long time,” Barris said — whether it was dad’s moral sermons in ‘Leave It to Beaver’ or the social satire of ‘All in the Family’ and ‘Maude’. by Norman Lear.
While “black-ish” tackled tough questions, it never gave up the laughs in its more than 170 episodes, said Courtney Lilly, the show’s writer since its first season who became executive producer and showrunner.
“Obviously there were episodes where we made sure to address the issues. But even doing those, we were relevant and funny,” Lilly said.
The series won a prestigious Peabody Award and other accolades – including multiple NAACP Image Awards for Anderson, Ross, Deon Cole and young actor Marsai Martin – but top Emmys remained out of reach.
Asked about the show’s legacy, Barris points out that it focuses on those who feel invisible in the world, regardless of their ethnicity, and how “black” seeks to break down divisions.
“It is often considered rude to talk about certain topics that make people feel uncomfortable. We did it and, from the comfort of their home,” he said. “I think it made people feel a little bit closer to people they might not have been close to before.”