It’s About Slavery, Right?

The official synopsis reads: “#blackAF uncovers the messy, unfiltered, and often hilarious world of what it means to be a ‘new money’ black family trying to ‘get it right’ in a modern world where ‘right’ is no longer a fixed concept.”

For those of you who haven’t heard of it, #blackAF is a semi-/occasionally fictional comedy on Netflix about a now-very-successful black comedy writer and his wife and their six children. The character is named for, and (at least professionally) closely modeled after, the main writer of the show(s), Kenya Barris, who plays himself. Both character and writer were successful with a sit com called Blackish, have been rewarded for that success with a show on Netflix, and are hoping to do something that gets more critical appreciation from a yet-to-be-entirely-determined target audience. The official protagonist of the series is the oldest daughter, Drea, who is filming and interviewing her family–with a jaundiced eye–for a project to get into NYU.

This is not the first series to mess with this fiction/real-life dichotomy. On that metric, This is the Gary Shandling Show but especially Curb Your Enthusiasm are its most direct antecedents, but because #BAF is so explicitly about being black and about class–this couple and their first two children started out poor, but their four youngest children have been class privileged from birth–the most immediate association for me was as a modern and postmodern take on The Cosby Show, raising and troubling the questions of success, blackness, race, class, money, and family that TCS tended to take for granted. And I would give it some kind of cousin relationship (as much as this might sound strange to younger audiences) to the original Roseanne, which I loved at the time because it was the first, and still best, comedy I’d ever seen for a) showing white working class families, b) starring a strong independent fat woman, and c) showing family life as something other than a saccharine, unconditionally-loving, white-bread aspiration that reflected nothing from my experience or my friends’ lives. As if families are always loving, and as if love is always pastel-colored.

From the start, #BAF twists expectations. The title proclaims its lens as not just race, but a specific race, the motto of every episode is about a racialized history, blackness is the resting place for the characters’ self-understanding, but from the first episode on, class is implicated, from the under-paid assistant, to the lunches at upscale restaurants, to the not-always-invisible household help, and on and on. Each of the episodes gets a motto at the beginning, and the motto is, every time, because of slavery, which makes sense because our histories (but in particular the histories of a people that both self-identifies and is externally identified) contextualize class in ways that escape Marx and materialism. That is to say, class is a lot of things–the ability to do certain things, a whole set of assumptions, access, etc.–that go far beyond some equation about where you (not to mention your immediate family, not to mention your extended family, etc) fall on the pyramid of production. Class then, as experienced in conjunction with blackness, or brownness, or ability, or immigration status, or or or… escapes from the boxes that Marxists like to store things in. In fact, what is commonly understood as identity in the u.s. is perhaps the single strongest tool to avoid the pitfalls of Marxism (though of course it comes with its own blindnesses).

This series is about working that juxtaposition: a history of intense hardship (the word is oppression, but that word gets overused to ill effect these days) with a contemporary status that is more complicated than just privileged or brutal, though it encompasses both those and much more.

The reality-show aspect to this series brings in factors that wouldn’t normally be context—Blackish, a whole separate series, is part of this show too, as a more corporate, mostly more shallow project, that Kenya is attempting to make peace with and also transcend. This deepens the entire show, allowing the real world to play a bigger-than-usual part in the storytelling, reflective of the way that real life interacts with fiction these days. (A young friend of mine showed me this new perspective by rejecting a television show because one of the actors on that show said some distasteful things on the actor’s own channel on social media. When I asked what the actor’s personal views had to do with the show, she looked at me with pity. Fiction bounces off of life–and vice versa–now in a way that is more startling and stark than the writing/filming/producing/publishing schedules used to allow for.)

But to talk only about the serious, layered, confusing and conflicting threads of this series doesn’t do justice to how the show is funny, how it pinpoints everyone, but in particular the parents, who are venal, short-sighted, hypocritical, and self-righteous, among other things, yet not, to my read, hateful. The phrase “what is going on right now”–Kenya’s go-to response when he’s upset–a perfectly normal comment in one’s life–gains significance as it also reflects an effort to stay on top of foundational shifts in the world, as well as monitoring events and shifts that writers have to talk about in order to stay relevant, as well as parents to understand their children, as well as disenfranchised people to understand increasing risks in the world, as well as workers to understand what is coming at them next… and a calling to account that something has happened, something is different… And of course, it’s the most mundane thing in the world, as well. Just as the hashtag in the title is a marker of this time in society, as well as a kind of social signaling, of a discussion for public consumption, which makes a level of superficiality absolutely inevitable, but doesn’t mean that deep things can’t happen around it, or that the attempt itself isn’t deep.

Many of us these days are surrounded by people who argue that it is those who suffer the most who are most revolutionary, who are most likely to have a good analysis and bring about desired change. To have a show that engages the desire to change things—while intelligently countering that endemic Maoist assumption—is a relief and a pleasure. The desire to change things is mostly expressed by Drea, though Kenya is shown to be on the woke spectrum also, mostly through rants to his bored family, and sometimes to others as a way to gain social cred. But he comes across as someone who does believe what he’s saying, but has been saying it so long and to so little effect that the desire, or at least the urge to talk about it, has turned into something else.

Further, the way that the show mixes class and race, expectations and assumptions, humans and ideas, reality and fiction, demonstrates yet again why good fiction is the most human way to approach big ideas. The specificity of people’s stories, even when exaggerated or even farcical, reminds us that, no matter how much we want to change the world, to be the ones who know, to direct the correct change in the world, to do all the Things That Are Good, all we can actually do is test out, with our specific assumptions, biases, and capacities, in our own lives, some specific experiments based on our specific experiences and contexts.

The Maoist tendency is to assume elevated understanding from those who are oppressed. The colonialist/missionary (etc) tendency is to assume that those who are free of bias/educated/enlightened are the most clear-headed and capable. If we reject both of those tendencies—which of course WE DO, then what we seem to be left with is more of what I’ll call here the Situationist tendency. The Situationists looked at how even the beneficiaries of the system suffered under the system, how we are ALL poorer for the lives we are forced to live in civilization, in all the -isms. Paying attention to how we all suffer, even when our circumstances are different, means the opposite of pretending that we are the same, it means respecting our differences, as diversity—with our different strengths and weaknesses that are (when we’re lucky) complementary—is crucial.

The kind of anarchy that I want to be a part of is the kind that is suspicious of big overarching narratives (which are useful for some things, but also tend towards grandiosity and megalomania). For this, these kinds of comedies are very helpful: we are appreciated for the expanse of our desires while being poked at for how far we are from what we say we want, and reminded how hostile the world is to some of our dreams, even the dreams of the luckiest of us.

The characterizations are wicked, including the machinations of the light-skinned mother/wife/ex-lawyer/author, Joya (played by Rashida Jones), and the antics of these parents who are not ready to settle fully into middle age, who are also still navigating what it means to be black, and/or black and successful, and/or black and successful in a mostly-white world, and doing all that while aging. Just the idea that a member of a given identity continues to negotiate what that membership means throughout their life is something that many people need to be reminded of, and they’ll get way more out of a good comedy than they will out of someone just saying those words.

A significant foil for this navigation is Kenya’s young white male jewish personal assistant, who Kenya does not pay enough, who is as oblivious in his own way as Kenya and Joya are, and who comes from his own history of oppression–which of course can never be in competition with the oppression of black people, because even framing it as some kind of competition means that our enemies have already won. It seems almost ungrateful to note that my perfect version of this sit com would include more discussion of and tension around the primacy of blackness in the US. When people here talk about race the default understanding is black, which—perhaps in the name of honoring the specifics of the black american experience, or perhaps in an effort to divide and conquer, or neither/both of those—does a disservice to the breadth of racisms in this country, and how these racisms coalesce, bounce off, negotiate with, and detract from each other. It is possible that such an attempt would be too ambitious, that it is the intimacy of the vision of this show that allows for its depth.

The episode that sticks out for me the most is one in which Kenya searches for how to determine the value of his work, and the work of other black people. Responding in part to the successful but criticized Blackish—and struggling with the question of audience: who he wants to write for, whose criticism he feels accountable to, who he’s trying to talk to, and why—he attempts to pull together a group of black artists as a kind of council of peers. He wants to belong to a group that doesn’t exist but could, a group of people who are also struggling with these questions of audience and accountability and could be struggling with them together. So he tries to create it. Of course the group doesn’t even make it through a single meeting, and of course whatever good might have come out of it is sabotaged–primarily by Kenya’s angst, but also by the wariness of the other artists. This episode, in particular that scene, in which someone’s aspirations are so beautiful-for-being-difficult, for being so outside of the normal, such a challenge, so hard to live up to, even/especially by the person most motivated by them, and so dependent on other people, with whom he has so much in common, and yet (or, and so) has such a hard time communicating… That episode will always bring the taste of anarchy to my lips.

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