Have you heard of the new ABC TV Show Blackish ? In my Twitter, Facebook and list serve worlds it’s a frequent topic. The show is loved and hated. It’s debated. And, it’s creating dialogue that challenges our pop and media cultures.
Blackish is about a upper-middle class “black” family, with a father who is intent on raising his kids with some sense of black cultural identity. This comes in the face of contradictions and obstacles from various directions that insist his children be color-blind. Blackish is a good sitcom, I’m a fan. It hits home for me.
The show looks right into stereotypes not creating them – at least not to me. Blackish for the most part is superficially similar to parts of my life. I connect to the show. I understand what it’s like to be the shows wife whose name is “Rainbow” all too well; to be the butt of family jokes on my blackness, my whiteness – or lack thereof. I know what it’s like to live in a predominately “white” community and raise “black” children with a “black” man. My kids say they have a black and white mom. The standing joke is I order black but cook white.
I could give Rainbow a few tips, every now and then. Because you see there’s a lot more to my story that makes me very distinct from Rainbow’s family, the Huxtable’s or the Brady’s. You see, I’m West Virginian, a Mountaineer, as we say (Yes even if you went to Marshall University, you‘re still a Mountaineer, but that’s a whole different comedy)
Blackish challenges me to think about the images Hollywood portrays. Would Hollywood or Broadway writers even believe or imagine a professional black “hillbilly” female as the lead of a show or play? I doubt it. But if we remove skin-color and all it’s superficiality and just imagine a upper middle class Appalachian family on your Thursday night sitcom, or in a Broadway play, it would seem far-fetched if not impossible.
I look at the world very differently and I feel stereotypes from many different angels. I know they come in black and white, in shades of class. The greatest of these stereotypes and experiences I feel is often in my Appalachian-ness.
“Are there really black people in West Virginia?”
“You sure are pretty to be from West Virginia.”
Ish- like that.
Most Americans impress me when they know that West Virginia is a state. There are many unknown facts about West Virginia that inform our American identities and icons. For example, did you know many of the American cultural icons are Affrilachian (African American Appalachian) from TD Jakes, to Henry Lois Gates, Bill Withers and Steve Harvey and the famous Bricktop. They are not just Appalachian but with roots in West Virginia, my home state who left West Virginia, with all their teeth in tact. In fact, have you seen Steve Harvey’s teeth? He’s got the best choppers in the business.
Entertainment is one way for those living in Appalachia to get out of Appalachia. The list is long of folks who have contributed to the cultural landscape of America and equally long is the list of cartoon, sub-plots, characters and TV shows that perpetuate a stereotype of Appalachia as backwoods, poor, toothless and racists.
Entertainment is also an escape for those of us living in Appalachia to have a voice that reaches a broader audience. The problem, our stories rarely meet mainstream ideas of culture and if they do they don’t always foster a positive wider perspective of the Appalachian identity.
We need an Appalachianish.
In my world as an entrepreneur, poet and perhaps a bit of a local gadfly I can’t find any examples of a strong Appalachian family in pop culture. The Clampets certainly don’t count. Although they do reflect some of the positive aspects of Appalachia it’s always as a sidebar to their ignorance and backwardness. A black Appalachian family? Never. Not yet.
Yet, our American history is full of examples of black Appalachian families. Legends like Nina Simone and Nikki Giovanni represent a Appalachian identity, place and family structures that have yet to be embraced as Appalachian heritage. In fact I think America would rather not embrace these cultural icons as an Appalachian. It might make them too complex. It doesn’t fit the mold of the identities with which people are familiar and comfortable.
The terrain to write new Appalachian American stories is a vast and wide as a mountain top removal site (did you know that some MTR mines like the Hobbit mine are as large at Manhattan?). It seems impossible, too far-fetched to create a dialogue about the prosperity of Appalachia, its opportunity about as far-fetched as seeing a professional “Black” family on TV (post Cosby) yet that just what Blackish is giving us. In that, it’s not to far-fetched to expect to see Appalachian culture on display minus a Buckwild, Hew Haw or Deliverance theme one day on TV.
Shows like Blackish are challenging what it means to American in America.
As I listen to the social media debate about this show I see that many audiences are truly missing what this type of positive family imagery creates across cultures, how it informs underexposed white Americans that black American families are not all alike and that the American dream is for everyone. Blackish creates aspirations and supports the idea of healthy families and prosperity. It challenge excuses and seeks to create these ambitions for all families.
Black affluence is unsettling and even threatening to some Americans, just as Appalachian affluence threatens. I’ll speculate here but I would wager this perceived “threat” of black wealth was the real reason the thriving black suburb of Tulsa, Greenwood, was literally bombed and burned to the ground by a “white” mob.
We are at tragic crossroads in America. We can no longer continue to be distracted with the political conflicts of race, gender, religion and sexual preferences, while ignoring the universal needs of healthy families and the environmental issues around clean WATER.
Who gives a Ish what race you are or where you are from if you can’t drink water.
Ebola needs clean water to be eradicated. I can go on. “Cause EVERYBODY needs clean water.
I don’t care what cultural identity you claim, or don’t. Raven Simone can be whatever the hecks she wants to be, she’s still a RICH American but and even she can’t escape the question of race or the environmental consequences of our energy extraction culture. As we say in in West Virginia, Well… that’s a deep subject.
Fairy tales rarely come out of Appalachia but stereotypes often do and the latest adaptation of the James Dickey novel “Deliverance” to a Broadway play is a perfect example of how easy it is for others to profit from an Appalachian slander.
The play presented by Godlight Theatre Company is described as an adventurous canoe trip that spirals into a nightmare of horror and murder. Men stalk and are stalked by other men and the treacherous river becomes a graveyard for those without the strength or the luck to survive.
We all know what Deliverance is about and why it appeals, then and now, to American audiences – it takes extreme, slandered generalizations about an “other“ or a “them“, so that “we“ can judge “them” and feel better about ourselves.
Will we ever get out of our fear of positive sitcoms like Blackish or our fear of exploring the complexities of Appalachia as a way to see our American identities as a collective whole?
Deliverance on the stage does nothing for West Virginia, or Georgia, where the movie was actually shot, at least not my West By God Virginia self. In fact, I fear it may hurt our currently healthy tourism industry, as well as hinder our ability to attract young professionals and families of various backgrounds. Dickey’s novel is brilliant but it’s a shame that the film and it impressions have fueled a fear of West Virginia and other parts of the South, instead of highlighting the riches that are here too. To quote a line from Deliverance:
“I just believe,’ he said, ‘that the whole thing is going to be reduced to the human body, once and for all. I want to be ready…. I think the machines are going to fail, the political systems are going to fail, and a few men are going to take to the hills and start over….
Start over. When America is ready to start over and craves space and landscape, the mountains I see today will be more valuable than all the wealth coal has produced. But will there be any hills or clean water? That story will be left for another poet to tell, perhaps in Appalachianish.