“Blackish” launched its fourth season Tuesday with a musical episode that sought to clear up misconceptions about slavery and American history.
The episode, titled “Juneteenth,” continued the ABC sitcom’s tradition of tackling tough subjects. The Johnson family attended a Columbus-themed play featuring twins Jack and Diane, and Dre (Anthony Anderson) took issue with some of the production’s historical inaccuracies — namely, that the Italian explorer discovered (or even set foot in) North America. In his typically dramatic fashion, Dre ended up pulling his children off stage and leading the rest of his family — including an apologetic Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) — out of the theater.
At work the next day, Dre decided to use his frustration for creative good, tapping musician Aloe Blacc to write a song that accurately portrayed Columbus’s legacy. And the ordeal left Dre wondering why Americans celebrate Columbus Day instead of holidays more relevant to North American history. “We celebrate a horrible man when we don’t even acknowledge important moments in our own history like Juneteenth,” he told his co-workers.
“What is Juneteenth?” one of Dre’s colleagues asked to the chagrin of his bosses, who knew where this was headed.
Dre explained the holiday, celebrated on June 19, which marks the day in 1865 that the last slaves were freed in the United States. Blacc volunteered that Juneteenth might be better illustrated through song, launching into a parody of the “Schoolhouse Rock” animated music video “I’m Just a Bill.”
The lyrics of the song, produced by the Roots, were predictably dark (it’s a song about slavery, after all). Here’s the first verse:
I am a slave, yes I’m only a slave
They’ll place my body in an unmarked grave
In these Confederate days, it’s kind of hard to lift every voice singing
While worrying about how low the sweet chariots are swinging
I could swing from a tree but hey
Oh, I hope and pray they don’t kill me today
I am still just a slave.
The short, which featured animated versions of Black Thought and Questlove, also explained why some African Americans were still enslaved long after the Emancipation Proclamation. Even after the Civil War ended in April 1865, Texas landowners forced slaves to work through another harvest, they said. It wasn’t until June 19 that an army ship arrived to announce that all slaves were free.
After Blacc ended his song, Leslie (Peter Mackenzie), the owner of Dre’s advertising firm, deadpanned: “That was not uncomfortable at all.”
The episode was also a clear nod to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway juggernaut “Hamilton,” with the Johnsons performing several musical numbers, produced by Fonzworth Bentley, that anachronistically combined history with hip-hop.
Dre’s boss questioned why Juneteenth should be an official holiday when the country already celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month. The sitcom answered with another segment, featuring the Johnson family as slaves, trading verses about how America got rich off the backs of slaves:
We raised their children
Then raised their buildings
Then they made billions
I’m catching feelings
Really, what else did we build?
Railroads, Wall Street, the White House and universities
UVA — we built that
Chapel Hill — we built that.
Ruby (Jenifer Lewis) still got her digs in against her grandchildren’s biracial mother (“these light-skinned babies don’t know how to act”) and Junior maintained some historical inaccuracies of his own. “Pyramids,” he sang as the family listed things built by U.S. slaves. “No, sorry, our Hebrew brothers get credit for that,” Ruby countered.
Another song offered subtle nods about the realities of life after slavery — that black people continued to face inequality under Jim Crow laws. “Freedom, yeah!” a chorus sang as the Johnsons humorously listed all the things they wanted to do after achieving freedom.
“It’s time to vote for me to take part in this democracy,” Dre sang. “Tear them freedom papers up please ’cause we don’t need to show ID,” Bow added. Ruby sang, “It’s June 19th, we celebrate,” as her ex-husband Earl (Laurence Fishburne) crooned, “Grab a blonde and miscegenate.”
Creator Kenya Barris knew the episode would be controversial, telling Variety ahead of its airing that people were “either going to love it or hate it.” But he added that “it’s one of my most proud moments as a television producer.”
“Blackish” was a trending topic on Twitter on Tuesday night, with many fans praising the episode.
Miranda tweeted that he was missing the live airing but had recorded the episode on his DVR.
Dre continued the Juneteenth discussions at home. “As much as I love the Fourth of July, shouldn’t the real Independence Day be the day that everybody was free?” he asked his family. Ultimately, the Johnsons decided that they would celebrate Juneteenth, starting with a belated family cookout. In a voice-over at the end of the episode, Fishburne added more historical context:
“In 2009, Congress did actually apologize for slavery,” he said. But, he added, a disclaimer stated that “(a) nothing in this resolution authorizes or supports any claim against the United States or (b) serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the Civil War ended in May of 1865. Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. U.S. Grant on April 9, 1865. The post has been updated.