Kenya Barris (1974- ), a US television writer and producer, is best known as the creator of the show “Black-ish” (2014- ), a thinly autobiographical sitcom about a Black family in Los Angeles. He is a childhood friend of Tyra Banks, with whom he created “America’s Next Top Model” (2003-2015). He also wrote the new “Barbershop” film.
In 2015 Barris signed a three-year contract with ABC to continue “Black-ish” and come up with yet other shows. ABC is home to another rising Black star, Shonda Rhimes, best known for giving us “Scandal” (2012- ).
“Black-ish”, like “The Cosby Show” (1984-1992), features an upper-middle-class Black family. But unlike “Cosby”, it is not “accidentally” Black. The show is race conscious, so things like police brutality and the N-word come up.
Barris says he wants to be both funny and “honest”, yet he has to colour within the lines set by ABC. For example, they asked him not to do a show based on the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. They did not want any police jokes in the wake of Ferguson. By February 2016, though, it was becoming strange for the show not to talk about police brutality. But even then it became a “very special episode”. Norman Lear would be turning in his grave – if he were dead!
And, like “Cosby”, Barris wants to be inspirational to Black people. That also limits him. So, as thinly autobiographical as it is, the marriage on the show does not have the rough weather of his own marriage.
At the same time he also wants non-Blacks to watch and laugh – and think about how they view Black people.
His audience is in fact mostly non-Black. Only somewhat more Black people watch his show than watch “Modern Family”, the upper-middle-class White family sitcom that comes on right before it. “Empire”, which Barris does not think is a good show, has way more Black viewers.
From Inglewood to Hollywood: Barris grew up in Inglewood, a Black and Latino part of Los Angeles. His father lost a lung from working at General Motors. The court settlement from that tragedy allowed his family to move to a middle-class neighbourhood and send him to private school. It changed his life.
The example of Spike Lee showed him that Black people could and should tell their own stories. The Jigaboo and Wannabe scene in “School Daze” (1988) blew his mind. So, after studying film at Clark Atlanta, a Black university, and marrying Rainbow, his high school sweetheart, he worked his way up from the bottom of Hollywood writerdom.
What we know as “Black-ish” is his 19th attempt, four of which got produced, and only one, “Black-ish”, made it on television (with the help of Larry Wilmore).
Being Blackish: Growing up he thought he knew what it meant to be Black, but his children’s Blackness is different than his own. They are more culturally White, while their non-Black friends are culturally Black to a degree unthinkable in the 1980s. Neither are Black in the way he understands it – instead they are both Blackish.
– Abagond, 2016.
Sources: Mainly the New Yorker (2016).
- Tyra Banks
- race conscious
- Bill Cosby
- The arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr
- Fresh Off the Boat – a show much like “Black-ish”
- Issa Rae
- The TV mirror fallacy
- Zora Neale Hurston: What White Publishers Won’t Print – applies to television too