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A shifting vision of black America


Perhaps no show on American television addresses the perilous times in which we find ourselves more vividly than ABC’s “Black-ish,” which unflinchingly tackles the big-picture issues that are roiling black America — and the country in general. No subject — police brutality, the N-word, the Republican-Democratic divide — is taboo on this brave program.

The show’s creator, Kenya Barris, pulls no punches. The pervasive message is that black culture is an important, and irreplaceable, part of the American experience. Klansmen and skinheads might march with tiki torches, but the black imprint on the nation cannot be erased. Period.

In February we celebrate Black History Month — and all that is good about black America. But we cannot — and must not — forget our past.

How the media has portrayed black people through the decades speaks volumes. Once upon a time — as in the 1940s and ’50s — blacks rarely appeared in film or on TV, and when they did, they were the servants and the slaves. Their lines were often confined to, “Yes, sir,” “No, sir,” “Yes, ma’am,” “No, ma’am.”

As recently as 1971, less than 6 percent of actors and actresses on the small and big screens were African-American, according to a recent Penn State University study. Then, as the ’70s went on, a string of TV sitcoms began to break down long-held stereotypes of African-Americans as lazy good-for-nothings. For the first time, white America saw black people as just that — people — with the same hopes and dreams as anyone else. “Sanford and Son,” “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons” helped permanently change public perception.

A handful of sitcoms could not erase centuries of hate, however. Then, in the 1980s, along came “The Cosby Show,” which was radical in its portrayal of a perfectly normal, highly successful, professional, affluent black family living in a picturesque Brooklyn brownstone. Everyone — regardless of skin color — seemed to be drawn to “The Cosby Show.” It was the third-most-watched TV program in 1984, with a weekly average of 24 million viewers. For the next five seasons it was the most-watched show, with between 21 million and 30.5 million weekly viewers.

Stereotypes continued to break down.

Fast-forward to September 2014, when “Black-ish” premiered. Like “The Cosby Show,” it portrayed a well-to-do African-American family. The father figure, played by Anthony Anderson, is an advertising executive, and his wife, played by Diana Ross’s daughter, Tracee Ellis Ross, is a surgeon.

The show is another big change from previous portrayals of black families. “The Cosby Show” was rarely, if ever, confrontational. It never truly addressed the persistent tension between black and white culture. But Anderson’s character on “Black-ish,” Dre Johnson, worries constantly that his four children are losing their black identity because they live in an upper-middle-class, majority-white neighborhood full of oversized homes.

His is not a theoretical fear. Many African-Americans are concerned about maintaining their heritage while assimilating more deeply into American culture. And what of cultural appropriation — when white people adopt black culture as their own? It’s a topic “Black-ish” often addresses.

All of this leads to one hilarious situation after another. It’s great comedy. But there is a serious thread that runs from one episode to the next: As a nation, we still have a long way to go before we finally bridge the black-white divide for good.

Meanwhile, Marvel’s “Black Panther” — featuring America’s first black superhero, with a mostly black cast and production team — will premiere on Feb. 16, and has already broken the Marvel pre-sale ticket record, which, given the popularity of Marvel movies, is nothing short of extraordinary.

Maybe — just maybe — we don’t have as far to go to bridge that black-white divide as we might think.

Black History Month events

‘From Jazz to Soul’

presented by Rhonda Denet

and the Silver Fox Songs Trio

The group will perform jazz standards and soul classics spanning five decades, paying tribute to Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Nancy Wilson, Etta James, Mary Wells and Gladys Knight.

Where: Freeport Memorial Library,

144 W. Merrick Road. Open to all.

When: Sunday, Feb. 18, 2:30 p.m.

‘Opera in Ebony’

presented by librarian Tanisha Mitchell

A lecture paying tribute to legendary African-American singers who performed at prestigious venues like the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala and the Royal Opera House, with video clips featuring Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Paul Robeson and George Shirley.

Where: Freeport Memorial Library. Open to all.

When: Sunday, Feb. 25, 2:30 p.m.