Michelle Obama once called ABC’s “Blackish” her favorite show on television. There’s a moment in the very first episode when the Johnson family’s youngest son, Jack, is shocked to learn that Barack Obama is the first black president of the United States.
“He’s the only president I’ve ever known,” Jack tells his flustered parents, Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) and Dre (Anthony Anderson). Dre takes a quick survey to make sure his teenage children are aware of the historic nature of Obama’s presidency. “I guess,” says Zoey. Her brother, Junior, offers an equally apathetic “okay.”
The scene was inspired by an actual exchange that “Blackish” creator Kenya Barris had with his own son. “It was very innocent,” Barris said. “It was a moment that I felt like I had failed — how could he not know this? And then I realized, for him, the president is black.”
“Blackish” is based on Barris’s family, but he says the show’s existence is directly connected to Obama in the White House: “It would not have happened were it not for him and what he represented for society and culture and the country as a whole.”
Like Ross’s character, Barris’s wife — also named Rainbow — is a biracial anesthesiologist, and the couple have six children, but Jack’s obliviousness about Obama’s historical significance was more than just another funny real-life anecdote deployed for laughs in a television pilot.
The moment represents the essence of what “Blackish” is all about: a family raising black children in a world vastly different from the one in which their parents grew up. It is the story of a family and country that see themselves differently because of the Obama presidency, which is “in the DNA of the show and the DNA of the characters,” Barris said.
Barris, 42, spoke to The Washington Post about Obama’s influence and legacy. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
“It was absolutely based around my family, but I had sold a ton of pilots before this. And none had really resonated the way that I wanted them to. I think I wasn’t necessarily connecting to the material the same way. In no way do I compare myself to President Obama, but I remember one day seeing him and Mrs. Obama and their daughters trying to have a normal day and subsequently hearing comments about what they were doing. There was a part of me that felt like: Look at this world that we’re living in. We have a black president and everything around him is sort of still going on as is, but the world has changed because of this.
And then it started making me think about my own life ... Oftentimes I’m one of the only — as my grandmother used to say — “fly in the buttermilk.” And it gives you a certain context to the world around you. I felt like that presidency and seeing him and his family really inspired me to think about my own life in context to the world around me. And it was how I pitched the show.
Often times, I’d be in the writer’s room and a writer — with no malice — would say [something like], ‘Kenya, how would a black dude say good morning?’ And I’d say, ‘Dude, I don’t know. Probably just like that. [laughs] And they really didn’t mean anything by it, but I think it was just a world in which we really weren’t used to dealing with one another.
It was negative; it was positive. It was almost xenophobic in that there is a reaction to that which is perceived sort of foreign or strange, especially within our country. And things that they would do, it reminded me so much of growing up in terms of, like, “Oh, my God, look. They’re eating dinner. It’s just amazing how they just eat [laughs]. I was like, “Yeah, they’re having food.” But at the same time, he danced at a party and it wasn’t presidential the way he was dancing. And I was like, “What do you mean? Because he can actually dance it’s not presidential? Because he has rhythm?”
There were moments where I was blown away and there were other moments that just gave me such a range of emotions. And it really reminded me of what it’s like when you’re crossing those boundaries and you’re one of the few — how the world tends to put you under a microscope and dissect every move that you do, particularly when you’re the president of the United States, but it’s done in a much different way.
I feel like, the pressure he must feel, the pressure their family must feel to live as perfect an image as possible because they know that the moment there’s a step out of the right or left, it will be viewed in such a different way. Their success is on the backs of every black American. And I don’t think that George Bush felt that for every white American. I don’t think that any president before Obama felt that for their race.
It’s the O.J. Simpson effect. There’s so few of us that have achieved that status that when something happens, it begins to fall within a racial conversation, and it may have nothing to do with a racial conversation. It’s kind of the pressure that a family or anyone who comes from a minority situation or a woman — it could be gender politics, as well — but often times you’re like, “Please, don’t let them be black,’ or ‘Please, don’t let it be a woman.” You’re like, “I don’t want to have this stigma cast upon me because I am one of the few.”
Change is the sort of most simplistic, pedestrian way to put it. And hope. The thematic things he ran under for his campaign really do still resonate as very true. I think for me, what he represented was acceptance — in a different way than I or my mother or even my grandmother had ever seen before. At least, it was perceived acceptance. And we saw that it was not necessarily always as much as we would like it to be, and I think it sort of plagued his presidency. But it made me feel like I was seen.
It made me feel like I was seen beyond rap videos and beyond athletics and beyond singing and beyond the evening news mug shots. It made me feel as if I was seen as a part of what Americana is. And I think that gave me a lot of hope, and also at the same time a lot of fear for my children because they were going to grow up in a world in which they didn’t live under the umbrella of “you’re not really seen.” They were going to grow up in a world where the possibilities for them were going to be — at least from their perception — something that was “the sky’s the limit.”
The fear for me was that that was not going to be their reality because perception is not always reality, even though we would like to sometimes tell ourselves it is. So it represented the hopes and fears, but I definitely feel like he just made me feel like people saw me in a different way. And it gave me the strength and courage to go and try to do this show.
I was trying to really channel the idea of the disruption that this presidency has caused and, at the same time, the hope that he represents and fear that we have of it going away. That moment when he got out of the car, for so many people — I know for me at the time I was writing, I didn’t realize that it was so resonant. But that moment for me was terrifying.
As proud as I was, I just went to all the worst places you could go to, the historic narrative of this country almost haunting me. I sort of understood where this country was and where we were in a different way because I realized how quickly it could all be taken away and how quickly this country could change in front of me and my kids. It often feels like when we have those moments of hope they’re snatched away. So that was the moment that was put into the script.
One of my favorite moments was when President Obama was in the locker room of the Team USA basketball team and the coaches were lined up, and [for all of the] white coaches, it was a regular handshake. And then he came to Kevin Durant and it was like “What up?” and the handshake changed. I loved it. I embraced it so much. He could have completely kept it standard handshake down the line and went away from who he was, and I love the fact that he was able to live in that duality. As [W.E.B.] DuBois said it, we have this duality that we as black people in this country have to have, a sort of dual dialogue, that we speak both languages, and he so effortlessly and elegantly did it that it made me laugh and almost cry at the same time.