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Pick Your Poison: Empire, Blackish, and Black Media

Left: The cast of ABC's  Black-ish  (Image © ABC), Right: The cast of FOX's  E  mpire  (Image © FOX). 

Left: The cast of ABC's Black-ish (Image © ABC), Right: The cast of FOX's Empire (Image © FOX). 

Somewhere in America an English teacher photocopies Langston Hughes’ essay, “The Negro Artist and The Racial Mountain” for a lesson on Black art. The essay comments on a debate spanning Black creatives from Michael Jackson to Robert Hayden, and most recently, the writers / producers Blackish and Empire. Hughes’ essay reckons with the non-white artist, who is the racialized artist by virtue of non-whiteness. To illustrate his argument, Hughes discusses Jean Toomer’s Cane, a widely unrecognized text of the Harlem Renaissance.

The Negro artist works against... sharp criticism… from his own group and bribes from the whites. "Oh, be respectable, write about nice people, show how good we are," say the Negroes. "Be stereotyped, don't go too far, don't shatter our illusions about you... We will pay you," say the whites. Both would have told Jean Toomer not to write Cane. The colored people did not praise it. The white people did not buy it… They are afraid of it.

Here, Hughes structures two pitfalls of Black art. The first being “from his own group.” The second being “bribes from the whites.” Cane finds itself in trouble because it isn’t aligned with either group, it receives no love. Unlike Cane, Empire and Blackish avoid ambivalence. They’re fraternal twins, opposite sides of Hughes’ racialized coin.

Since 2014, ABC has been reinvgorating television with Blackish. Formally a sitcom, the show relies on self-contained episodes, recurring guests, one-liners, and a single-camera structure. However, the craftsmanship of writer Kenya Barris pushes the show from mainstream (read: anglo-saxon) social expectations. The show stars Anthony Anderson and Tracy Ellis Ross as the parental unit of The Johnson family. Anderson is an advertising executive at a majority white agency alongside the ever hilarious Deon Cole (the only other Black employee). Ross is a doctor raised by hippies. Aside from the nuclear and extended Johnson families, the family’s children are saturated in their own subsets of suburban culture, and therefore, whiteness. Much of the show’s humor is drawn from various attempts to validate Blackness in white spaces. One may describe the Johnson family as having been “bullied-for-not-being-black-enough” as a kid, and it’s hilariously effective. Barris uses this tension to access cultural moments. Season One’s "The Gift of Hunger" revolves around a fear that the Johnson children are spoiled because they don’t want to eat “in the hood,” meanwhile, the children work around the neighborhood to earn money, fueling rumors that the family had fallen on hard times. Here, Blackish lives up to its complicated title. The Johnsons are not climbing up the uniquely American (read: white) ladder of success, they’ve already arrived. Though, with this arrival, this economic privilege, they face a new set of erasures which require a new set of tools. As successful Black professionals, the Johnson parents are mired in the White world and must actively defend and defend their senses of identity. But if this search / protection of Blackness is a contemporary problem, the Empire team wouldn’t know anything about it.

FOX’s Empire stars Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard as Cookie and Luscious Lyon. The two resume a chemistry from 2005’s Hustle and Flow. In Empire, the power couple is at the helm of an eponymous recording label. The couple’s three children battle for control of each other and the label through melodramatic and viscous behavior. Hakeem, the youngest son is a volatile rapper with a penchant for partying. The middle son, Jamal is selected as his father’s heir during the first season, a decision complicated by Jamal’s sexuality. Andre, the eldest, is a hard working MBA graduate who has a form of bipolar disorder.

The show is structured by narrative musical numbers. Though unlike Empire’s peers (shows like Glee and Nashville), Empire does not employ the musical’s willing suspension of disbelief, but maintains a clear-eyed realism. The tracks are produced by Ne-Yo and Timbaland of hip-hop fame. The show’s main characters are all people of color (with the exception of Andre’s staggeringly unlikable wife, Rhonda Lyon and Mimi Whiteman, Empire’s very own piggy bank). With this lack of whiteness, blissfully, the show evades the white gaze. Empire writer Atticia Locke says it best during an NPR interview, “The show is not concerned with the white gaze at all. We were playing inside baseball with Black culture the whole time. And we were given free rein to do that,” and the free reign is taken up by writers who deliver some of the choicest catchphrases of 2014 and 2015. And as you might already know, most of them come from the terrifying, hilarious, hard-ass matriarch of the Lyon clan, Cookie. Cookie is a cultural figure famous for quips like, “the streets ain't made for everybody — that's why they made sidewalks,” or one of her many pet names for Lucious’ new romantic interest, “boo-boo kitty,” and my personal favorite, “fake ass Lena Horne”. If Luscious Lyon is an unbridled vision of Black masculinity with all of its gross magnetism, Cookie is the radical female balance. Unlike the Johnsons of Blackish who focus on a form of assimilation to navigate the world, the Lyons’ usurp the construction. As the show suggests, the clan seeks to build their own world, their own empire.

While these two shows may be staggeringly different, they both garner universal acclaim from, what Hughes calls, “the Nordicized Negro intelligentsia,” from Black Folk at large, and from news media outlets like The New Yorker, The AV Club, The L.A. Times, and many others. For the first time since The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air everyone loves talking about Black television. Though, as the LA Times says, “even as (mostly white) critics fall all over ourselves to cheer the arrival of strong or central characters of color, we all seem to long for a day when race "doesn't matter," as if the only way in which race can matter is, by definition, problematic.” But Blackish and Empire are both, dare I say, problematic. Television, more than film, has a very economic set of concerns. So I question the intent of these shows--for whom, exactly, are these shows made?

Hughes mocks the white call for Black are, demanding "be stereotyped, don't go too far, don't shatter our illusions about you... We will pay you," And Blackish is dotted with questionable representations of various Blackness people and a certain implied morality. In the second season’s Halloween episode, the Johnson clan invites their “hood cousins” over for a night of trick or treating. The cousins arrive, led by Uncle Junebug and quickly become the butt of a joke involving their hood-ness which seems to be code for uneducated barbarism.This hoodness is visually striking in the presence of Anderson. Next to Uncle Junebug who is played quite well by Michael Strahan’s bulky, physically intimidating form. Anderson is more suburban: softer, prettier, and preppier. The episode’s resolution finds the hood cousins and the Johnson clan bonding over a sense of family. A meaning the Johnsons possessed from the beginning of the episode (of course), but only illuminated for their cousins after the first three quarters of the episode. In resolution the Johnson family brings their (visibly, culturally, aesthetically) darker cousins to the light. At work here is a privileging of a “right” type of Blackness found in the Johnson’s battling and reckoning of Black-American prosperity.

    Empire, unlike Blackish, has no interest in morals. Not to say the show is somehow immoral, but to say that Vince Staples did just compare it to crack-cocaine. However salacious or flippant his evaluation might be, he does identify a serious concern. Near the end of the interview he says “bring crack back… at least that has a negative connotation.” For Staples, Empire and crack aren’t the same substance, but they do destructive work in the Black community nonetheless. Crack has an inherently negative connotation as a dangerous street drug, while Empire’s cultural violence is hidden by it’s beautiful, bountiful Blackness. Empire is commendable for its presentation of people of color in popular media. However, the how and why of these presentations must be questioned.

And, thankfully, Hughes began this questioning eighty-nine years ago. Mocking the Black call for Black art, Hughes calls “Oh, be respectable, write about nice people, show how good we are,” And the characters of Empire do show how good Black folk can be: economic independence (and control), vitality, and cultural influence are only some of the good that Hughes describes. Yet, it stops short of the complication and liminality of Blackish. The cast of Empire moves through their world bluntly, plodding through the week’s plot points without much existential (which is always racial) consideration. If Blackish is guilty of privileging a certain kind of well-read, literate, upper-middle crust type of Blackness, Empire is guilty of a simplified, reductive concept of racial identity.

But after all the thinking and navel gazing, I doubt there’s a team at ABC, mirrored by one at FOX, cultivating a nuanced series of thought on racial production in media. Is it curious that the same FOX that produces Blackish is the same FOX that often hosts Republican debates? Perhaps. But I’d rather argue that Empire and Blackish actually quite similar. Both series depict two successful, modern Black families. Both present two, very different, yet similarly hostile worlds. And both showcase two, disparate, though equally rigorous, commitments to family.

As I end this essay, I’d like to turn, again, to Hughes’ essay, which he ends with a declaration:    

We... now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased… it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too… If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow... free within ourselves.

So Hughes’ answer? Fuck’em. Not quite, but he does argue that Black art should not be made for Black folk and (definitely) not for white folk, but rather an artistic expression willing and able to wrestle with questions and quandaries of identity. Empire and Blackish are both pretty shitty and both pretty brilliant. Pick your poison. Pick your antidote.