The whole issue of slavery is one fraught with a legacy of pain, trauma and, yes, white guilt, and this country didn’t even apologize for this mass tragedy until 2009. If you think I found out that little stat from a history book, nope—I learned it from the season premiere of ABC’s Black-ish, which produced one of the black-est episodes of prime-time TV in a long time.
In it, Dre (Anthony Anderson), the patriarch of the family of now seven, attends a school play starring his twins on the subject of Christopher Columbus (first, the straight way, and then the “woke” way—where Columbus is called a slavery pioneer and massacres Native Americans).
During the show, Dre starts grumbling to his dad (Laurence Fishburne) about the b.s. of the notion that Columbus “discovered” America, before he gets up and rants about how racist and historically incorrect the play was.
As usual, there is biting sarcasm woven into the Black-ish storyline, with the teacher of the class saying that she had “bused in minority students after the last incident,” to which Dre responds, “Honestly, if I wanted my kids around this many minorities, I would have taken them to a Tyler Perry play and shamelessly enjoyed it.” Dre then asks the teacher why no “black holidays” are celebrated, and then lies about celebrating Juneteenth, the holiday many black Americans observe on June 19 to mark the end of slavery.
Mulling it over, Dre then takes the issue of Juneteenth to his job at the ad agency, where they’ve brought in singer Aloe Blacc (playing himself) to help them with some new jingles. Blacc then sets up the scene for the most heartwarming part of a most creative episode, a video done by the Roots on how Juneteenth began, a send-up of Schoolhouse Rock’s “I’m Just a Bill”:
With the episode featuring more musical numbers set during slavery and lines like, “We celebrate the Fourth of July, but not the day all Americans were free,” Kenya Barris and his Black-ish writing team prove that they are some of the most deft comedic writers on the scene today, with the ability to handle thorny, black-ass topics while managing to be honest and funny AF.
In its last three seasons, Black-ish has taken on the subjects of “black names” (the Johnsons’ new baby is named Devonte—yes, like dude from Jodeci); HBCUs vs. predominantly white institutions; and biracial identity, all with depth and humor.
Barris told EW that he was really “proud” of the episode and that it forced him to examine his own scorn for “black holidays”: “Yeah, the episode talks about how talking about slavery makes white people uncomfortable, I get that. At the same time, it’s not indicting of anything contemporary. It really is more indicting, if anything, of black culture and being afraid of making other people uncomfortable, and thus disregarding our own past.”
I may be prone to hyperbole sometimes, but I say that this just may be one of the best TV episodes of all time. It took some of the best of black culture—music and comedy—and explicated a deep, dark reality with historical accuracy, authenticity and, yes, black love.
It was for us, by us, but white folks might learn a thing or two, too.