The memory is so clear that it’s hard to believe it was 25 years ago. Living in suburban Louisville, Kentucky, it was the first time – outside of watching the television miniseries, Roots – that I was confronted with the brutal evidence of white supremacy in America. On my television screen was a black man, Rodney King, being beaten unconscious by several police officers.
At 15, I didn’t know what to make of it. Of course, I wasn’t totally naive. I’d been in the car many times with my dad when he was being pulled over by a cop. I’d watched with confusion the series of careful movements he made, the words of submission that came from his mouth. I listened intently to the admonitions he gave me, and later my brother, once we started driving.
Even still, it wouldn’t be until seven years later, after reading about Amadou Diallo (shot 41 times by police), that I would realize that what was happening to unarmed black people across the country were not isolated incidents – a bad apple or two – but something more insidious: a system that is rotten at the root.
So as I anticipated watching last night’s episode of ABC’s Black-ish, I was very interested in how they would approach the issue of injustice on, of all things, a sitcom. Would they placate their white viewers or would they tell the raw, unfiltered truth about the heart-wrenching process that many of us go through when we hear about yet another child, man or woman being treated unjustly?
Fortunately, they didn’t do either of these. What the cast and crew of Black-ish did was something far more significant. The show expertly highlighted the range of responses these events stir in black families.
When racism and white supremacy bears fruit in the form of dead or abused black bodies, the response from those affected will always be varied and complex. Dre’s mother and father were angered but not even remotely surprised by the events that unfolded on the show (a jury decided to not indict a cop who’d killed an unarmed black teenager; protests and riots followed). Their response drew on their experiences in previous riots, and they hilariously attempted to prepare the family.
Dre, the father, was angry. He was resolute in his belief that most cops are bad and thought that giving his children a “heads up” on what the real world held for them was the only way to protect them. Rainbow, the mother, disagreed. Rainbow held on to the hope that justice would be served. Despite it all, she didn’t believe that things were “that bad”. The teenage children also had some unique responses. The daughter tried to ignore what was happening until her brother decided that he wanted to join the protest. Then, her fear of losing him fueled a breakdown causing her to acknowledge how she was being affected.
And the youngest two, Diane and Jack? That’s where the myriad responses highlighted seem to land on the same page. The grandparents, the parents and the older siblings all want to protect the hearts and minds of the babies. They just don’t agree on how to go about doing that. And that is likely the struggle of most black families in America today.
See, social media didn’t exist 25 years ago when Rodney King was beaten. It was fairly easy for my mother and father to shut off the TV and not talk about it. And that’s what they did. But as the show so aptly noted, that’s not possible today. My daughter, as devastating as this is for me to know, will be exposed whether I like it or not. A teenager today can just as easily watch an unarmed black man being shot by a cop on their newsfeed as they can learn the latest dance.
So whether, like Dre, your heart is ripping apart because you feel helpless in stopping this systematic devaluing of black people, or like Rainbow, you feel like we need to always hold on to the hope that maybe, just maybe, the system will work at least once for us, we all want to shelter our children from the hurt that comes when racism rears its ugly head. We all care about how our children are processing the images they see and the impact of those images on their own sense of value and worth.
This range of nuanced and complex responses from each character is what resonated with me the most in this episode. It was the most true. To think that all black people respond the same way to these issues is, at worst, dehumanizing.