When “Black-ish” debuted this past September, many questioned if we were living in a sort of “fantasyland,” in which the show depicted a black family that was far out of tune with the realities of black life. With circulating images of the families of Mike Brown, Eric Garner and still Trayvon Martin, one could see how the show paints a world somewhat farfetched when considering the current racial tensions in America.
Now, “Empire” has joined “Black-ish,” posing a conflicting representation of the black family on primetime television. Both shows are essentially about “making it.” But, while Kenya Barris depicts an upper-class, suburban family who pulled themselves up by the bootstraps and followed along the golden-paved roads that they’ve always been told America has been painted in, Lee Daniels and Danny Strong write a hip-hop soap opera of a family whose rise to the top involved a degree in the streets rather than one from a university. With “Black-ish” too good and “Empire” too bad, America’s non-fiction black family sits in a gray area, causing them to choose which stories of black life they should watch on Wednesday nights.
If our decisions are based on the most accurate depictions of the American black family, then neither “Black-ish,” nor “Empire,” really touches on reality. While television’s fictional black families sit in their suburban neighborhoods and pimped-out penthouses, those in the real world are a part of staggering statistics that are actually far off-kilter. According to US2010, a project by Brown University, African Americans continue to be the only racial group with low marriage rates, a disproportionate circumstance based on a lack of economic resources. In contrast, the families in “Black-ish” and “Empire” include married couples, even though the latter’s female lead, Cookie, is an ex-wife to her devious ex-husband, Lucious. Nevertheless, factual statistics that are reflected in primetime television are those concerning black women, whom, on average, have more higher education than their black male counterparts and are thus more single due to the fact that there is a shortage of black men with substantial economic resources. This statistic is perhaps most represented in shows such as “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder,” and cable network shows such as “Being Mary Jane;” shows that come with their own bulk of backlash for showing limited representations of black women on television.
Statistics are also showing that viewers are indeed faced with making a choice on which black family they will saddle up beside each Hump Day. Although the premiere of “Empire” gained 9.9 million viewers and the September debut of “Black-ish” hit 11.4 million, Variety reports that in its initial episodes, “Empire” is outnumbering “Black-ish” in total viewers. It seems we’ve reached that consistently prejudiced bargaining chip that makes us have to choose, unfortunately, against one another. It’s a bargaining chip black Americans are far too familiar with, but haven’t tangibly grasped enough power to allow the odds to forever be in our favor (even if both shows are backed by black writers and directors). If we have a powerful, decision-making, entrepreneurial black woman, she can’t be in a successful relationship because that’s just too good to be true. So instead, she can be the mistress. We can get all of the stereotypes that come in “Empire,” but just know that you might not get to watch “Black-ish,” which, fantasyland or not, is arguably one of the most positive, light-hearted depictions of the black family that has hit television since the “Cosby Show,” “Family Matters,” or “The Jefferson’s” and “Good Times.”
Whether we’re disappointed with the utopia “Black-ish” presumes or the stereotypes that “Empire” perpetuates, or the infidelities in “Scandal,” “Being Mary Jane” and “How to Get Away With Murder,” we can’t ignore that black life, which has historically been written via the hands of sour prejudices of white privilege in both fiction and reality, is slowly but sweetly flowing from the fingertips of black writers, who are re-imagining television in a way that is making it commonplace to see reflections of black life.
Perhaps the most resounding question right now is the one that Essence poses in its February “Black Lives Matter” issue: “Where do we go from here”? If only “Black-ish” exists, then would we be leaving out the dysfunctional black life that factually and disproportionately affects black families, such as the one in “Empire”? Does “Empire” so heavily perpetuate stereotypes of the dysfunctional black family that we must pit it against “Black-ish,” which, as a result, deflect away from the celebratory fact that black people are consistently being shown on primetime television? When do we take the time out to clap?
In a world where Iggy Azalea has a choice on whether or not she wants to be black today and the unanticipated Oscars show revealing its persistent and blatant underscoring prejudices, it appears that black Americans are still quite limited in fiction just as much as they are in reality. Nevertheless, we must find a way to be celebratory in our historical efforts, while still realizing that our dissatisfaction with the limiting representations of black life on television does not necessarily mean that we have not made enough strides. Perhaps our biggest quarrel and questions shouldn’t be which show to watch on Wednesday nights, but rather which one of us is going to write the next dimension of black life. Both “Empire” and “Black-ish” are preliminary notions that allude to the fact that there’s no better time than now to write our own stories.