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Kenya Barris On 'Black-ish' And What Kids Lose When They Grow Up With More


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to continue our holiday week series featuring some of our favorite interviews of the year with Kenya Barris, the creator and show-runner of the ABC sitcom "Black-ish." One of the show's fans is Michelle Obama. I spoke to Barris last May at the conclusion of the second season.

The series is about a 40-ish husband and father, Andre, who goes by the name Dre. He grew up in the inner city but is now an advertising executive living in a predominantly white suburb with his biracial wife, who's a doctor, and their four children. In the pilot, he's promoted to vice president of the urban division, which leads him to think he's become the token black executive. He's afraid his children are becoming too assimilated. Dre's son is also named Andre, but his white friends call him Andy, which sounds all wrong to Dre.

The son has joined the field hockey team, and that doesn't sound black at all to his father. And the son has a lot of Jewish friends and he wants a big bar mitzvah party like the ones they're having, so he's considering converting and changing his name to Shlomo or Shmuel. So the father, played by Anthony Anderson, decides it's time to draw the line and calls a family meeting.


ANTHONY ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) All right, listen up. I may have to be urban at work, but I'm still going to need my family to be black, not black-ish but black. So we're going to start with some strict guidelines.

YARA SHAHIDI: (As Zoey Johnson) So then he sent me a smiley face with a wink. I mean, I should be offended, right?

ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) Zoey.

SHAHIDI: (As Zoey Johnson) I'll text you.

ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) All right. From heretoforth (ph), we are going to keep it real. So, Junior, if I hear anybody calling you Shlomo or Shmuel or especially Andy, I'm going to back you over and whoever else is saying it in my car.

MARCUS SCRIBNER: (As Andre Johnson) Dad.

ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) Quiet. Now, I may have to watch you play possibly the dumbest sport in the world, but I do not have to sit back and listen to you rave about other kids' bar mitzvahs. So next Saturday when you turn 13, you're becoming a man, too - a black man because I'm throwing you an African rites of passage ceremony - ha.

SCRIBNER: (As Andre Johnson) That does not sound as fun.

SHAHIDI: (As Zoey Johnson) No, it does not.

TRACEE ELLIS ROSS: (As Rainbow Johnson) OK, I have an idea. Why don't we take a black break and go get some white yogurt?


GROSS: (Laughter) That's a scene from the first episode of "Black-ish."

KENYA BARRIS: I was laughing listening to that 'cause it so reminds me of a moment I would've had with my kids. And it really was based on my family. You know, my wife is - she's an anesthesiologist. She's mixed. My kids are growing up in a different situation than I grew up in.

GROSS: By mixed do you mean she's...

BARRIS: She's black and white.

GROSS: Right, she has a white parent and a black parent, yeah.

BARRIS: Her dad's white, and her mom is black. And we came from a different situation than our kids, and me and my wife are both in different situations. And we're raising our kids up - me in particular, my kids are nothing like I remember, quote, unquote, "black kids" being when I was a kid.

So I'm sort of trying to navigate what that's going to be for me. You know, I'm - you're taught to give your kids more, but in giving them more, like, what do they lose? And I think that's sort of was the conceit and premise of the show.

GROSS: So you changed class (laughter) when you were a child in a way because there was this sudden influx of money. Do you want to explain what happened?

BARRIS: A couple of things happened. My father lost a lung in a chemical accident at General Motors. And after a while he got a settlement that sort of changed all of our lives and moved us from what we - you know, say ashy to classy in some aspects. At the same time, my mother had gotten her real estate license and, you know, she was really, really entrepreneurial and started selling real estate. And her life sort of changed around that same time.

And we basically - my sister and brother had gotten into college. They were going to USC. And it was - all of a sudden, we sort of went from one segment of the socioeconomic ladder and we sort of went up a rung. And it was, you know, around the time for me where I was just old enough to kind of see really both sides, and it really influenced who I am.

GROSS: In your show, "Black-ish," it's as if the children are growing up in a different country than the parents did because of technology, you know, because of, like, social media and cellphones and also because of class and because they don't think as much about race 'cause race isn't separating them from mainstream culture in America the way it did for the parents or at least for the father.

Therefore things that mean so much to the father, like witnessing the inauguration of the first black president, don't mean that much to the kids 'cause it's all they know. So they just take it for granted, like that's the way it is. And the father in "Black-ish" is concerned that his kids are picking up white norms and that they don't have, like, a black cultural context the way he did. You know, the father's name is Andre. He calls himself Dre. His son is Andre, but the kids at school are calling him Andy. His white friends are calling him Andy.

BARRIS: (Laughter).

GROSS: And the father just, like, hates that. And the son wants to get, you know, bar mitzvahed so he can have a lavish party like he sees his Jewish friends having. Then the - so the father decides - well, you're going to have a black rites of passage ceremony. You're going to have, you know, an African rites of passage ceremony. And that seems very righteous to the father and very boring and pointless to the son. And it just made me wonder if there were, in your family, generational differences on Afrocentricity.

BARRIS: Absolutely. You know, actually, that particular story was an aggregate of Laurence Fishburne, Anthony Anderson and myself. Anthony Anderson actually has the copyright to the word bro mitzvah...

GROSS: (Laughter).

BARRIS: ...Because...

GROSS: That's really great. Yeah.

BARRIS: ...Because his son, you know, who was the only - as he calls him - the only little chocolate drop in his class - Anthony's from Compton. But, you know, he's been working in the entertainment industry for 22-some-odd years and had some successes. And so his family were - you know, his kids in particular - came up in a different situation.

His son came in, and I remember this when I started going to the schools. I remember that 12, 13, 14-year-old point where you're just going week to week to week to bar mitzvahs. And his son was doing that. And we don't have that in our culture. And Laurence said there was a time like that with his child. And he gave his kids an African rites of passage ceremony. And I remember getting that. But I remember - Laurence telling me about it - I remember thinking how not fun it was. My generation, I believe, was the first generation to really benefit directly from the Civil Rights movement. My mom, you know, went through civil rights. My dad went through civil rights. My name was Kenya because they wanted to give me an African name.

And subsequently, my generation sort of took more of a - because we didn't really have, you know, foot-to-pavement or rubber-to-road type of marches and things like that. We took more of an intellectual, sort of revolutionary approach. There was Public Enemy. And, you know, the Malcolm X - you know, autobiography of Malcolm X exploded. There was the "Malcolm X" movie. There was Spike Lee. We sort of became more of philosophical revolutionaries.

And now my kids in their generation - one of the moments I remember when I was pitching the show that really sparked for me is - the Trayvon Martin incident happened. And my daughter, you know, came in, and I was like - you know, how do you feel about this? And she was like - you know, we're really upset. She's like - we're - kids I know are protesting.

And I'm like - oh, that's awesome. What are you doing? And she said - no, look, we're doing it on Instagram. And she shows me this Instagram picture, and it's just a black frame. It's like the picture - it's just an all-black thing. And I'm like - I'm looking - I'm like - OK, so where's the protest? She's like - this is it. Look at how many people are putting black on their Instagram. And I realized this must be the most low-rent protest I've ever seen...

GROSS: (Laughter).

BARRIS: ...In my life. I was like - I can't get, like, a small trash can fire?

GROSS: (Laughter).

BARRIS: Like, I don't know. Like, anything? Like - and it really showed me the generational difference. And, you know, I think that that is one of the reasons - I did an episode this year called "Hope" where the family at the end - there was an incident, and the family decides to go down to the protest. The digital age kind of takes away from us. You know what I'm saying? We feel like we can sign online protests and do the - but I think we have to actually put rubber to road, foot to pavement, and be more proactive.

GROSS: Let's talk about that episode called "Hope." This is the family figuring out how to answer questions that are unanswerable questions from their children. So everybody is around the TV watching as the news is about to come down about whether a police officer accused of misconduct is going to be indicted or not. And what he's accused of is Tasering 37 times a man - a black man who was selling DVDs.

And so, you know, they're watching - there's protesters kind of surrounding the site. And the family's watching this on TV. And it comes down that this officer is not going to be indicted. And then protests really break out. There's reports of fires and looting. And, you know, the children are wondering - like, especially the young 6-year-old is wondering, like, why is everybody so mad?

So the parents are trying to explain to them. And then they get into a kind of debate about the police and the justice system. And the mother is kind of defending some faith in the justice system. Like, the children have to learn how to, like, be polite to the cops 'cause, ultimately, the justice system works. And the father and grandfather are very skeptical of that idea.

And she says, well, you - I don't want my kids to grow up in an environment where there's no hope. So this is a conversation between the father, Anthony Anderson, who plays Dre, and his wife Rainbow, who's played by Tracee Ellis Ross.


ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) Don't you get it, Bow? The system is rigged against us.

ROSS: (As Rainbow Johnson) Maybe it is, Dre. But I don't want to feel like my kids are living in a world that is so flawed that they can't have any hope.

ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) Oh, so you want to talk about hope, Bow? Obama ran on hope. Remember when he got elected? And we felt like maybe, just maybe, we got out of that bad place and made it to a good place, that the whole country was really ready to turn the corner. You remember that amazing feeling we had during the inauguration? I was sitting right next to you, and we were so proud.

Then we saw him get out of that limo and walk alongside of it and wave to that crowd. Tell me you weren't terrified when you saw that. Tell me you weren't worried that someone was going to snatch that hope away from us like they always do. That is the real world, Bow, and our children need to know that that's the world that they live in.

GROSS: So that's a scene from "Black-ish." And that was Anthony Anderson that we heard. And my guest is the creator and show-runner of "Black-ish," Kenya Barris. So you kind of spoke the unspeakable in that 'cause I think there's so many people who have been so worried for - you know, that somebody would do something to President Obama.

You know, and I don't even want to say the word (laughter). And it's like you were directly addressing that fear in that in addition to kind of getting to the injustice of the justice system.

BARRIS: I mean, it's so weird - I kind of am - like, am getting choked up a little bit. Like, hearing that on the radio, it's different than seeing it on television. The words are a little bit more piercing. Wow, Anthony did a really, really good job. And I think, yes, we - you know, I had no idea when I was writing - you know, I was terrified when I was writing that because I was like, that's not what - this is not what this show is. It's a comedy. I was struggling during the writing process to sort of make sure keeping the tone.

Ultimately, that episode, although it's really kind of, you know, taken on a life of its own, was not at its inception about police brutality. The conceit and the inception of the idea was that how do you have conversations with your kids about things that you're not necessarily wanting to have conversations with them about and how do you have those conversations and not let your past experiences sort of scorch the Earth of what their future is going to be?

And we took the idea of police brutality because we felt like it was something so organic to what we're going through right now and what this family would be going through. And it actually really - that particular moment actually really happened with me and so I really wanted to tell that conversation. And I think that moment of television for me is probably the most special thing I'll ever be involved in. I just don't think as a comedy writer you get to be involved in things like that, but it was a sort of cathartic week for everybody involved.

GROSS: My guest is Kenya Barris, the creator of the ABC series "Black-ish." We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Kenya Barris, the creator of the ABC sitcom "Black-ish."


GROSS: So one of the episodes was about the N-word and - can you say it? Who's allowed to say it? Who decides who's allowed to say it? (Laughter) And the premise of this episode is that the 6-year-old son was performing at a school talent show. And for his performance, he was doing Kanye's "Gold Digger" and using the N-word in all the ways - in all the places that Kanye does on the recording. And the school punishes him because they have a zero-tolerance policy on hate speech.

And the parents are really upset, you know, thinking, like - who are these people to tell us if we can use the N-word? But there's even a fight within the family between the father and the mother about whether it's OK for their son to be using it in that context on the talent show. So let's hear a little bit of this dispute (laughter) between the father and mother about the N-word. And I should just say before we hear this clip that every time you hear a little music, it's a little flashback scene in which we hear the person who's denying that they ever use the N-word actually having used it.


ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) Damn it. It's his birthright. Jewish kids get to go to Israel. Black kids get to say this.

ROSS: (As Rainbow Johnson) Dre, that is ridiculous. Nobody should say it. It is an ugly, hateful word with an even uglier and hate-filled history.

ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) Yeah, of it being said to us, not by us.

ROSS: (As Rainbow Johnson) Oh, my God.

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: (As Earl Johnson) As usual, son, you have absolutely no idea what you're talking about.

ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) But...

FISHBURNE: (As Earl Johnson) That is not a word that black folks need to be using - ever.

ROSS: (As Rainbow Johnson) No.

FISHBURNE: (As Earl Johnson) You see I never used it.

ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) What?


FISHBURNE: (As Earl Johnson) [Expletive] acting like these lights around here are going to pay for themselves.

Well, I only said it to separate myself from the rest of you people.

JENIFER LEWIS: (As Ruby Johnson) Mm-hm. Unlike Earl, I really never say it.

FISHBURNE: (As Earl Johnson) What?


LEWIS: (As Ruby Johnson) Watch it, [expletive].

Saying it to your daddy's trifling behind don't count.

FISHBURNE: (As Earl Johnson) Oh, agreed. All we're saying is, of course every now and then, it slips out. But it's never said casually and never in mixed company.

LEWIS: (As Ruby Johnson) Exactly. It's only a judgment said with disdainful indictment.

ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) Pops, you and mom's generation used the word for self-hate. You made it negative. My generation - we reclaimed it. And we use it as a term of colloquialism and power, same way the slaves took the leftover pig guts and found them plants growing in the woods and turned it into chitlins and collard greens. That's what we did with the N-word.

FISHBURNE: (As Earl Johnson) Yeah, here he come with that chitlin argument.

LEWIS: (As Ruby Johnson) Can you believe this [expletive]?

ROSS: (As Rainbow Johnson) Hey, hey.

ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) Mom.

GROSS: OK. So that was a scene from "Black-ish." And we heard Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross as the parents and Larry Fishburne and Jenifer Lewis as the grandparents. And my guest Kenya Barris is the creator and show-runner of "Black-ish."

So how do you think of the word? Do you think it as word that, like, your generation reclaimed and it's OK for some people, but not others to use it, which is the argument that Anthony Anderson makes in this?

BARRIS: (Laughter) Well, I'm usually going to side on Dre's side (laughter) because Dre is sort of based upon - on me and, you know, Anthony. But yes, I think that the word is - it's interesting. I think it is one of the most divisive, densely discoursed, just, polarizing words in American history. And I feel like, you know, words - as a writer, I believe that words are powerful. But I do believe that words also in having - anything that has power means it has growth. And in having growth, it can evolve. And I think that that word has evolved, you know, and has, you know, generational differences for different people.

For me, in my particular way that I look at it - and I think that the character Dre, you know, came out to say is that I feel like the word - you know, obviously there's the E-R and the A-H and, you know, the things that go along with the word. But I feel like, in general, to not get into that specific of it, I feel like the word is sort of a tribal badge. You know, I do look at it for myself.

You know, my generation looked at it as something that we took the disdainful indictment that my mom's generation would use it in because of how it was said to the generations before her. We took that away from it, and we made it sort of a, you know, a badge of tribalism between - sort of to say - between two members of that tribe to say look, I know that you're a part of this tribe. And we have some shared heritage, whether I know you or not.

I think that I go back and forth because as an artist I also feel that - you know - that episode came because I found out that my daughter was using it with friends who were not black. You know, it had just become a colloquial word of coolness. And she didn't really - you know, so it - I think I go back and forth. I think the rappers have put it in songs, you know, for mass-marketed consumption that it's sort of hard to tell white kids they can't say words in songs that they buy. It's like buying a book - selling a book, but telling certain segments of society they can't read certain pages of the book. So I go back and forth because I do believe that art needs to be able to be expressed purely. But I know I have a battle with it.

GROSS: So every time the word is used on that episode - and the episode is all about that word - it's bleeped, which is usually what happens on network TV and often on basic cable as well. And we go back and forth on our show about whether we should let somebody use it or not uncovered or whether we should bleep it when they say it.

BARRIS: Who wanted to use it? I'm very interested. Who said, hey...

GROSS: Well - OK. Most recently, Jerrod Carmichael used it because we were talking about...

BARRIS: Interesting. I love Jerrod.

GROSS: ..."The Carmichael Show's" episode with that because they had - they did a show about whether it's OK or not to say it. And he's used the word in his comedy. And we actually were playing a sketch in which he - playing some of his stand-up in which he quotes somebody as using it.

And so I asked him - well, should we bleep that or not? And he explained why he didn't think we should bleep it. And we - we actually left it unbleeped, although there are times we do bleep it.

But did you have a big discussion with ABC, with the executors there about whether they should bleep the N-word or not? Notice I'm not going to say the word (laughter).

BARRIS: (Laughter) You know, it's crazy to - before I answer that question - it's - saying the N-word makes it almost more, you know what I'm saying - saying it makes it almost louder when you say the N-word. Like, I feel like one of the most interesting conversations that happened with ABC was around this episode. In an amazing, amazing way, they were going to let us say it. They were going to let us see how many we could say. You know, there was a debate. Like, we had, like, literally - I call it a N-word negotiation, because it was, like, literally - I'll give you two N-words for, you know...

GROSS: (Laughter).

BARRIS: And what we ended up doing - and I'm so glad that, you know, my partner Jonathan Groff is - always sort of comes from the scientific method way of dealing with things. Like, we went and did an experiment. And there's nothing like being around a group of white people and just saying - you know, when two dudes are just saying it. And you just see them just cringing and, you know, tensing up or whatever. And, you know, we felt that, just like I told you, I think the N-word almost makes - saying the N-word makes it even louder.

We felt that beeping it - we played it with and without. And we felt that without the bleep limited our access points, limited our entry points for comedic accessibility. You know, we felt like you were going to be so sort of cringed every time the word was said that you were not going to be able to really hear it. And honestly, the beep made it even louder and funnier because you knew what was being said. You're saying it in your head, but it allows for you to comedically fall into the story, you know. So it was - it came from a really sort of thought out place.

GROSS: My guest is Kenya Barris, creator of the ABC series "Black-ish." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Kenya Barris, the creator of the ABC sitcom "Black-ish."


GROSS: So in The New Yorker profile that Emily Nussbaum wrote about you, you described how when you were a kid - and I don't know how old you were - during a period when you were, you know, getting into trouble sometimes and stuff, that you would approach white women at gas stations and ask them if you could pump their gas.

Now, I am one of the white women who's been approached by kids at gas stations asking if they could pump my gas. And I thought it might be interesting if we compared notes about what that experience was like for each of us. Do you want to start or should I?

BARRIS: Do you know what's crazy? Two things - I know where your notes are going to go.


BARRIS: I did not realize that that was the notes until I was an adult, you know what I'm saying? And I look back and not only did I realize I was terrifying these white women into - I was basically strong-arming them into giving me a dollar to do something they could easily do.

But I also was panhandling - I mean, I also was panhandling. And I just - I did not see it, you know what I'm saying? I feel like it's part of, like, you know, ghetto games. I feel like you do certain things. I was so proud of myself for being entrepreneurial and not being - going and selling drugs and doing this. But I was basically being a little strong-arm panhandler who was preying on people's, you know, sympathies and at the same time their fear. So I - I can - what are your notes? Let me hear your notes.

GROSS: My notes are that there was something inherently patronizing or, you know, condescending or insulting about a kid coming up to me assuming I needed help pumping my gas.

BARRIS: Oh, interesting.

GROSS: Like, I do it all the time. Like, I can do that myself. Do I look, like, not strong enough to, like, handle the gas pump (laughter) you know?

And then thinking back, well, what is the bargain that you are trying to make with me? What's being unsaid here? How much money do you expect from me? Is it a dollar? Is it $5? Is it $10? If I say yes, oh, please help me pump my gas and I give you a dollar, are you going to say - are you going to look at me like, hey, that's not enough? You know, like, what's all the subtext here?

BARRIS: I think the subtext was what does it cost for you to keep me off the street and not take your wallet later?


BARRIS: Was is that worth to you? Is that worth a dollar? That's fine. I'm OK with that. Everybody's - this negotiation really works out well. You know, I didn't think of the feminist approach that you were saying in terms of I can't. That's the first time I've ever actually heard that. I thought of the idea of maybe I was sort of preying on your white liberal guilt that - you know what I'm saying? Like, oh, these kids are trying and - you know what I'm saying - and to do something and I'm going to do this. I thought - I was very aware of that part of it, you know, that I was sort of playing on the liberal, like, part of people feeling sorry for me.

I wasn't aware 'til later that it sort of had a little bit of a strong-arming, you know what I'm saying? Like, you know, the idea of, like, are they afraid of taking out their wallet? I don't think I thought about that, and the one that hit me most recently is that I was a bum. I was panhandling. I was basically - was on the side of the road with a sign and I was really upset at myself. But to be completely fair, we could've been doing something else worse. And...

GROSS: Well, that is the subtext, yes.

BARRIS: That is the subtext. That is the subtext. And I think that was the understanding.

GROSS: But did you ever? Like, if a woman said, no, thank you then what?

BARRIS: We were fine. I mean, there were many times that we would say can - well, we'll do it for you for free, you know what I'm saying, many times. I mean, probably half the time we would say - you know, a lady would say I don't have this or whatever. And we're like, we'll do it for you anyway.

GROSS: Well, Kenya Barris, it's been great talking with you. Thank you so much.

BARRIS: Well, thank you so much for taking the time. I appreciate it.

GROSS: Oh, my pleasure. Take good care.

BARRIS: Thank you.

GROSS: My interview with Kenya Barris was recorded in May. Barris created the ABC sitcom "Black-ish." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we continue our series of some of our favorite interviews of the year with Francis Ford Coppola. We recorded it after he published the notebook he kept while he was making "The Godfather." He told some great stories about how he cast and shot the film. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Anne Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman and Mooj Zadie. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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