So I’ve recently started watching Black-ish.
It was fun, goofy, light-hearted and happy-go-lucky but somehow in the midst of doing all of that, it went for the cultural juggernaut. Let’s talk about the “African Coming of Age Ceremony” bit.
The first problem is that André couldn’t think of any better way to celebrate the unique culture of African-AMERICANS/Black AMERICANS than by inciting the mythological cultural adage of a generic “African Coming of Age Ceremony.” Not a specific ceremony linked to a specific place, time or ethnic group in Africa (which is a massive CONTINENT and NOT a culture that should ever be generalized), but just a ceremony “of” Africa to mark his son’s coming of age in a way he frames as authentically black.
I thought this interesting turn of events resulting from his son’s desire to have a bat mitzvah to be quite fascinating.
First, note the questionable looking African clothing, the fact that the ceremony took place OUTSIDE, and the backdrop of a light tribal-sounding music (probably being played via mp3). His table is lined with a few books with “Africa” printed boldly on the covers, along with several “ingredients” he will use to perform the ceremony. He reads from the book which calls for the bones of a live goat and instead decides to throw the bones of a dead chicken (comedy ensures) at his son as a replacement.
I know the show is a comedy, but this essentialization of what it means for something to be “African” is culturally problematic.The exotic, tirbal Africa bit should die a painful death. But although the issue is related to what I’m discussing now, it truly deserves a post all its own.
Back to where I was:
When his father asks him what he is doing, André tells his father that he is connecting to his culture and getting in touch with his roots. His father promptly reminds him that he is BLACK not African. He even throws in a shrewd aside stating that Africans don’t even like Black people (I’m paraphrasing)
I found this example to be quite sad, like the many other instances in the history and media surrounding African-American people in which all concept of the unique culture that African-Americans possess seems to be invalidated or “invisiblized” (to quote a friend’s new term recently employed in an anthropology course here at Georgetown). Whenever black people have to talk about their history or culture it seems like nobody can come up with anything other than slavery, hip-hop, soul food or basketball.
This issue proves the extent to which black culture is invalidated by the world but also American society and black people themselves. Although some black people, like André, reminisce back to Africa to feel the deep cultural void they feel for their perceived lack of unique and MEANINGFUL traditional styles of music, dance, song, dress, etc, some feel as though Black Americans have NO culture and are “just black.”
I HATE the concept of “just black.”
The ideology of black Americans as “just black” is a dehumanizing tool that society perpetuates to keep black people feeling inferior. By calling black Americans “just black”, society simplifies black life and culture to something that is prefaced with “just” – something small, insignificant, “just” there.
It sweeps our deep, deep history and culture and PROMINENCE in this country right under the rug, just like André’s decision to have an “African Coming of Age Ceremony” to get his son back in touch with his AMERICAN blackness.
I hope this rant doesn’t come off too offensive towards Black-ish and its writers. Clearly, its a comedy show and its something I am definitely going to continue watching. I just hope that the show will, at some point, validate black culture in a true and positive way that doesn’t feel the need to draw on a generic, abstracted “African” lineage or over-reliance on the played-out trope of how all black Americans are so “urban” (whatever that means). As much as I would like to say that black culture needs no validation, the reality in my eyes is that it does. It needs to be showcased and appreciated and acknowledged.
But what do you think? Wiill you be watching Black-ish? What do you think will come of it? WIll it create more stereotypes of what it means to be black in America or nullify them? Let me know what you’re thinking about what I’m thinking.