Black-ish Offers Antifragile Hope in Fragile Times
By Myron Jackson
These fragile times provide an opportune moment to learn from the TV series Black-ish. Following the tragic deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery (an all too common occurrence), the recent passing away of civil rights icons C.T. Vivian and U.S. Congressman John Lewis, along with global protests and the growing influence of the BLM movement, we need the show’s message of antifragile hope—a hope that makes us grow stronger in response to harm. At a crossroads between generational tensions within the impact of the civil rights movement, Kenya Barris’s creation is more than a work of entertainment—it offers a vision of American genius.
A number of Black-ish episodes come to mind, but the show about police brutality, “Hope,” serves as a good place to start. This episode alone has something that will resonate with everyone in these trying times from Pops reminiscing about how he fell in love with James Baldwin in the same way Dre and Junior were changed by reading Malcolm X and Ta-Nehisi Coates to Zoey’s gadfly-like question, “what if the national conversation stops?” The “Hope” episode brings out the frantic ups and downs of being Black in America. We are moved by Dre admitting to how he “worried that someone was gonna snatch that hope away from us like they always do,” and shocked by the climax that reveals the accused officers will not be indicted.
One of the greatest injustices committed against Black communities is believing that they are a monolith. Barris shows that was never the case! Maybe Hollywood is running out of fresh ideas but not Barris. His recently released Netflix comedy series, #blackaf portrays the uncertain adventure of navigating race and culture within his own family. Like all of his works, it strives to be “unabashedly real, honest, and outrageous.” Taking on hot-button issues in a non-escapist forum is what makes Barris’s productions so compelling, as he refuses to settle for post-racial wishful thinking. His directness and bold vision are precisely what we need in these troubled times.
The nuanced complexities of Barris’s characters blur our common understandings and convictions about Black experience. They get to a deeper level, while capturing a wider net of everyday attitudes and sentiments. To be Black is not to be imprisoned in a vicious circle of misery. Notably, Black-ish portrays how versatile Black folks have been in living with and resisting systemic forms of discrimination and dehumanization. The show expands our sense of what it means to be Black.
What some critics call Barris’s “unrealistic” image of African American family life in America overlooks how his show captures an iconography of antifragile hope exhibited in the Black freedom struggle. I have always admired Mr. Barris’s keepin’ it real attitude of pushing on, which informs the way he views the world. For example, in a 2014 interview with The Wall Street Journal:
WSJ: How do you walk the tightrope between cultural identity and stereotype? In one scene, Laurence Fishburne’s character is criticizing his daughter-in-law’s chicken. A white sitcom would not attempt a fried chicken joke with a black character.
KB: Let’s be clear. It doesn’t matter what color you are, fried chicken is f—-ing delicious. That said, as a black person I know that there are times when I’m at a party and I’m like, I’m not going to eat this watermelon and fried chicken around these white folks. That’s something we want to talk about on the show. But I’m not the speaker for black America. I’m trying to tell an honest story from the point of view of me, my family and my partners on the show.
All of his interviews are this authentic! In other words, Black-ish is not the Cosby Show. Nor is Barris’s show like shows that failed to exhibit active resistance to whitewashing and limiting how thick the differences in perspective are among Black Americans.
The drama and play of Blak-ish engages historical narrative in loose and open ways. A kind of “post-story” is told without a sanctioned story to which we must all agree, according to a dominant order of history. Isn’t it the cultures of liberation (Jews, Black Americans, Women) that always write such post-stories, offering an antifragile hope to future generations? Such post-stories force us to recontextualize who we are and what we are about personally and socially. They draw us out of the ordinary and familiar and pull us toward “conscience,” giving us an “ear for the urgent,” as German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk would say. Indeed, Blak-ish speaks to a conscience for our times.
Barris is not an Afro-pessimist. He is curious to learn, and he is not one to look for hope in all the wrong places! The Black freedom struggle is not locked in a hopeless vicious circle. Freedom means to act on and recognize the power of the possible over what was believed to be actual—by making the improbable into the probable. Black experience symbolizes a hope and freedom of openness in overcoming tragedies through the permanence of possibility. What makes the “Hope” episode so powerful is that it turns to an antifragile, rather than fragile hope. This is what is symbolized continuously throughout the series—all efforts to shelter the youth and sugarcoat the harsh realities of the world they will face are destined to fail. We succeed when we empower each other through edutainment and prepare to face the tragic, rather than hide from it. An ontology of the ish opens up a whole new world beyond such complacency.
W.E.B. Du Bois observed that African-descended peoples are “endowed with rich tropical imagination.” Barris’s work confirms this by providing his poetry of resilience.
Dr. Jackson is the Besl Chair of Ethics/Religion and Society at Xavier University Department of Philosophy in Cincinnati, Ohio. He holds an M.A. in Political Science and Ph.D. in Philosophy from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Recent publications include: “Broken Friendships and the Pathology of Corporate Personhood in House of Cards” in House of Cards and Philosophy (2016); “That’s Edutainment!” in Hamilton and Philosophy (2017); “Edutainment and Panexperiential Learning in the Radically Empirical Classroom” Journal of School and Society (2018); “Will We Trust Institutions Again? Interality as Philosophical Diplomacy” in China Media Research (2019). Jackson currently serves as editor of Africana philosophy for the online Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophy. His interests include philosophy of culture, social and political philosophy, philosophy and religion, public law, the history of political thought, aesthetics, and philosophy and race.