When my middle child was in kindergarten, he asked me, “Ish means not really. So why do we say we are Jew-ish, when we’re really Jews?”
I thought about my son’s question while watching ABC’s new sitcom, “Black-ish,” which premiered last Wednesday, September 24, 2014. (Yes, that would have been Erev Rosh Hashanah. The same night “The Goldbergs” premiered. Great scheduling, network guys!)
“Black-ish” tells the story of Andre, a financially successful African-American advertising executive, played by Anthony Anderson, married to Rainbow, an equally successful anesthesiologist, played by Tracee Ellis Ross (daughter of Diana, and, for what it’s worth, born Tracee Ellis Silberstein). Living a prosperous lifestyle in Los Angeles, Andre is worried that his four children are no longer Black, but rather Black…ish.
This, of course, presumes that there is only one way to be Black. It is a subject that should hit a nerve in the Jewish community, which also constantly struggles with the delicate balance between assimilating into the mainstream culture and holding on to their roots (as if there was only one way to be Jewish).
Andre initially insists that “Whoever had (the American Dream) wasn’t from where I’m from,” while Rainbow attempts to talk him down by countering that their American Dream is to give their kids “a better situation than what we had,” a phrase I’m willing to bet every Jewish child has heard from their parent at least once.
One of the ways in which Andre feels his children are drifting away from their true culture is that, like “everyone else” in his class, his son wants a bar mitzvah. Andre Jr. assures his dad it won’t be a problem, as his friend told him about a rabbi who’s “really good at pushing through conversions.”
Andre counters by saying he’ll throw his son a “traditional African coming-of-age ceremony” instead.
He ends up in the backyard, wearing a dashiki, smearing goop on his son’s forehead and blowing feathers through a tube into his face.
“And which African country is this?” my smart-ass, AP Human Geography-taking, Jewish and African-American 15-year-old-son asked. (As if there was only one way to be African. As the wise-cracking grandfather observes, “We Black, not African. Africans don’t even like us.”)
At the end of the ceremony, Andre intones, “I just want you to hold on to your culture and how special that is.”
And then, because for all his denials, Andre’s son is just another spoiled rich kid, Andre gives in and gives him what he wanted all along — a “Bro Mitzvah,” complete with over-the-top conspicuous consumption. And absolutely no deeper meaning whatsoever.
So, for those playing along at home: A show ostensibly about the importance of respecting your culture culminated by thoroughly trivializing someone else’s. (Not that there aren’t plenty of “kosher” bar mitzvahs out there that are only about the consumption, too, which is why I didn’t have one for my son.)
Though viewers are told Rainbow is biracial, we don’t yet know whether her ethnicity will mirror Ross’. However, my aforementioned son fell to the floor laughing when, in response to Andre claiming she wasn’t really Black, Rainbow shot back, “Well, if I’m not really Black, someone better tell my hair and my ass.” (The episode also featured a major cognitive disconnect. While Andre says his biracial wife isn’t Black, he yells at his kids for not realizing that Obama is the first Black president.)
Their exchange prompted my son to confess that, after participating in a summer program for minority teen entrepreneurs, he doesn’t want to do another one because he’s tired of being told he’s not Black enough. My African-American husband’s response?
“I got the same thing, because I spoke properly. And, unlike you, I even had two Black parents. People are idiots. Suck it up.”
At the end of the episode, my husband observed, “He doesn’t know what he wants to say here.”
“How about supercalifragilisticexialidocious?” my youngest daughter piped up. “That’s what you’re supposed to say when you don’t know what to say.”
My husband laughed.
Later, though, he told me, “Anthony Anderson has set himself an impossible task. You know why I don’t talk much about what it means to be Black? Because it’s a confusing mess. Like this show. This show mirrors the Black experience perfectly.”