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Arts & Life

Meet The Johnsons, TV's 'Black-ish' Family


The fall television season is underway and one show's already getting a lot of buzz, probably because of its name, "Black-ish." It looks at a black middle class suburban family and the show airs in the same month "The Cosby Show" celebrates its 30th anniversary. Karen Grigsby Bates of NPR's Code Switch team looks at how black families have been portrayed on television sitcoms.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: "Black-ish" is a sitcom about ad-exec Andre Johnson, his doctor wife and his attempts to keep their kids culturally grounded. The Johnsons, says Andre, are living the dream.


ANTHONY ANDERSON: (As Andre Johnson) We're lucky. We've got a great house, four great kids and my pops.

BATES: And it owes a lot to another show that aired in the 80s.


DARNELL HUNT: "The Cosby Show" introduced large swaths of the American public, that didn't have regular relationships with black families and blacks, to the notion of what a black family could be.

BATES: Darnell Hunt heads the Ralph Bunche Institute at UCLA and has studied diversity in the entertainment industry for two decades. Hunt says the TV Huxtable's were an upper-middle-class black family, close-knit with professional parents who liked teaching real-life lessons. When Theo Huxtable tells his Physician dad he doesn't need college to thrive, he'd rather live like regular people. Cliff Huxtable gives him an economics lesson with play money, as Theo watches his salary shrink.


BILL COSBY: (As Cliff Huxtable) $350 for taxes.

MALCOLM-JAMAL WARNER: (As Theo Huxtable) Woah.

COSBY: (As Cliff Huxtable) Yeah, now, now because see the government comes for the regular people first.

BATES: "The Cosby Show" inspired a spate of other black family comedies. Shows like "227" and "Roc" that were set in the inner-city, with families that were not living the lush life, gained some traction too.


BATES: Julian Chambliss, a historian at Rollins College in Florida, says the years after Cosby became a hit, spawned shows with a wider spectrum of a black family life.

JULIAN CHAMBLISS: They had an aspirational narrative of family cohesion, in the face of very real problems that where affecting the African-American experience.


BATES: "Roc" centered around a charismatic Baltimore garbage man, who worried about money - a lot. Here Roc is arguing with his wife Eleanor about a small purchase she'd made.


CHARLES S. DUTTON: (As Roc Emerson) Eleanor we're in a recession, banks are failing every day, companies are laying people off by the thousands. Look - and if things are going to improve, we all have to do our part to bring the national budget down.

ELLA JOYCE: (As Eleanor Emerson) So are you saying that the future of the entire U.S. economy hinges on this one $48 platter?


JOYCE: (As Eleanor Emerson) Well, yeah.

BATES: In the mid-90s, a show built around and named for stand-up comedian Bernie Mac, followed Mac as he adjusted to becoming the guardian for his sister's 3 children. Greg Braxton, television writer at the Los Angeles Times says, Mac, known for his cheeky, profane comedy, made some people nervous.

GREG BRAXTON: I remember when Bernie Mac came on; he scared a lot of white audiences and a lot of white executives.


BRAXTON: Because he had an edge about him.


BERNIE MAC: (As Bernie McCullough) Now that's the problem America. You can beat some of the people some of the time, but you can't beat your kids.

BATES: He was getting America. Mac portrayed a sometimes exacerbated, loving father figure to his family. But he was old school, when it came to stuff like faking illness, as eight-year-old Jordan found out.

MAC: (As Bernie McCullough) Get up boy. I'm a count to three. Get up.

JEREMY SUAREZ: (As Jordan Thomkins) I don't feel good.

MAC: (As Bernie McCullough) Feel better. One.

SUAREZ: (As Jordan Thomkins) But I'm weezy.

MAC: (As Bernie McCullough) Weez your butt to the bathroom, boy. Two.

BATES: Jordan went to school and Bernie Mac became a crossover hit. The latest version of TV's black family is the Johnsons. In "Black-ish," the Johnson kids don't see race as particularly relevant, which pains their father. When his son announces he wants a bar mitzvah because all his friends are having one, Andre Johnson explodes.


ANDERSON: (As Andre Johnson) I do not have to sit back and listen to you rave about other kids bar mitzvah. So, next Saturday when you turn 13, you're becoming a man too. A black man, because I'm throwing you and African rites-of-passage ceremony.

BATES: Rollins historian Julian Chambliss says, worry about what's being lost during assimilation into the mainstream is central to the theme of the show.

CHAMBLISS: In a program like "Black-ish" the loss of understanding of self, I think is probably at the core of that narrative and so you can be successful, but you have to be yourself and not feel that you're being imposed upon or controlled by a kind of white standard.

BATES: UCLA's Darnell Hunt says the people behind "Black-ish" are acutely aware that there are past TV stereotypes of black family life they want to avoid.

HUNT: They're very carefully trying to think about the way in which they're communicating blackness in the show.

BATES: If the show's producers can communicate blackness in a nuanced way that resonates with and beyond black viewers, they hope "Black-ish" might have a shot at becoming the Cosby of the 21st century. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.