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Code Switch

Kenya Barris Creates An 'Absolutely Black' Family for Prime Time


Kenya Barris, the creator and writer of <em>Black-ish</em>, sits outside his office on the ABC lot in Burbank, Calif., in December.
Megan Miller for NPR
Kenya Barris, the creator and writer of Black-ish, sits outside his office on the ABC lot in Burbank, Calif., in December.

Kenya Barris sometimes looks at his five kids in wonderment. Private schools, professional parents who can give them things and open doors. No sense of privation. And the kicker is, he's responsible! "We're kind of taught to give your kids more than you had," Barris muses. "But in giving them more, what do they lose?"

And that, friends, is the core of Black-ish, which examines the life of advertising exec Andre Johnson, his pediatrician wife, Rainbow (her parents were hippies), and their four children. Like the Cosbys before them, the Johnsons — played by Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross — are black, prosperous and well-educated. And just like Barris, who created the show, Andre has given his kids the opportunity to grow up with serious material advantages and a multiracial cast of friends while worrying it's a "filtered version" of the black experience.

Barris says that although many of the storylines from Black-ish come directly from experiences he and his writing team have had in real life, they can also be universal. Around the Los Angeles suburb where his family lives, he has noticed parents dealing with the same sort of anxieties about their own cultural traditions — their kids were growing up Persian-ish, Chinese-ish and so forth. He believes these kids, although not black, are way better versed in black pop culture, through the music they listen to and the celebrities they follow, than the non-black kids he knew as a teen. And the parents' parents were giving their adult kids the side-eye for allowing the cultural dilution: "This is your fault!"

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Parents and grandparents of all ethnicities worry about how cultural ties are loosening with each generation, even as they look with satisfaction on the widening spectrum of choice their kids now have. What if your kids' choices pull them away from how you were raised?

Growing up in Compton, Barris says, he had a very specific idea of what black was, what it sounded like, how it moved, and what its obligations, joys and challenges were. His kids seem to have a different, wider idea of what black is. That realization was "beautiful in some sense, and in other senses it was scary."

As a kid, Barris watched many of Norman Lear's comedies, and remains, to this day, a huge fan. "He was telling comedy, but he was also talking about things." Sometimes difficult things, like the changing roles of race or class or gender. "He was pulling the curtain back and giving America a look at part of society that they were living next to, but didn't know how they lived."

Via the Johnsons, Barris is doing the same thing, in an equally fraught racial climate. Now in its second season, Black-ish has handled some, well, ish: What makes someone authentically black. Bringing 'hood cousins to the burbs. Deciding how to react when the white neighbors are astonished that yes, you really are a medical doctor. Whether or not to spank that disrespectful kid's booty.

This season includes a pretty complicated examination of who can use the "N-word" and why. Andre, who also goes by Dre, is appalled when teen daughter Zoey says all her friends use it. "It's just a word," she explains. Dre begs to differ — he says his generation fought hard to reclaim that word, turning it into an in-group salutation used with affection. "And now you're just giving it away to everybody!" His Pops believes the current problem started with Dre's generation, with all their saggy pants, font of all evil in Pops' opinion, and their "willy-nilly, hippity-hoppity, 'Yo, what up, my n*****?'" greetings.

Pops' kids (and Dre's) take things for granted, just as Barris did, as the first generation to benefit from the civil rights struggle. "Our parents fought so we didn't need to avoid those obstacles," he says. So when it comes to making the right choices, he says, "maybe I don't bang on my own kids so hard."

Barris and his staff of writers didn't want to put Cosby 2.0 or Race 101 on the network grid. Instead, he says, "We're trying to pull the curtain back on this one family's point of view," he says. "And maybe you'll see some things you hadn't seen before." And maybe as they're laughing, viewers may rethink some race-based assumptions they weren't aware they had.

So far, walking that fine line has worked: In October, Barris was signed to a three-year deal to continue Black-ish and develop several new products for ABC.

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