By now you’ve probably seen or at least heard of the January 11th ‘Black-ish monologue that encapsulated what millions of us have been feeling since November 8, 2016. While the whole episode, titled “Lemonade” (don’t credit Bey ‘til you see teen Zoey’s interpretation) focused on the family’s response to the (s)selection of DJT to lead the land, it was a gut-punching monologue by Anthony Anderson’s character, Dre Johnson, that left America clutching her pearls, waving the church fan, shouting ‘Hallelu-yer’ and finally able to exhale at least a little.
Dre, the father of four who has a position of some prominence in a racially-mixed advertising agency, is trying to spur his colleagues to meet a tight deadline for pitching a potential client. But on Wednesday, November 9, none of his co-workers can stop obsessing about what the DJT (s)election means to them. While Dre’s frustration is mounting—both with the increasingly testy conversation and the ticking deadline clock—his colleagues try to drag him into their rants and raves.
Finally, Mr. Stevens, a White man who I believe is Dre’s boss or supervisor, asks, “Why do you not care about what’s happening to our country?”
And Dre responds:
What did you say to me? You don’t think I care about this country? I love this country even though at times it doesn’t love me back. For my whole life, my parents, my grandparents, me—most Black people—this system has never worked for us … but we still played ball, tried to do our best to live by the rules even though we knew they would never work out in our favor. We had to live in neighborhoods that you wouldn’t drive though, send our kids to schools with books so beat up you couldn’t read ‘em, worked jobs that you wouldn’t even consider in your nightmares.
Black people wake up every day believing that are lives are gonna change even though everything around us says it’s not. Truth be told, you ask most Black people, they’ll tell you that no matter who won this election, they didn’t expect the ‘hood to get better. But they still voted because that’s what you’re supposed to do.
You think I’m not sad that Hillary didn’t win? That I’m not terrified about what Trump’s about to do? I’m used to things not going my way. I’m sorry that you’re not and it’s blowing your mind so excuse me if I get a little offended because I didn’t see all of this outrage when everything was happening to all of my people since we were stuck on boats in chains. I love this country—as much, if not more than you do and don’t you EVER forget that.
The scene was made even more moving with a montage of black life underscored by Billie Holiday’s classic, “Strange Fruit.” ‘Black-ish eloquently summed up what so many of us are feeling as we teeter in the emotional vortex between POTUS Obama leaving and the terrifying specter of the man due to be inaugurated in a few days.
While the scene deserves to be viral and I want ‘Black-ish creator Kenya Barris, his writers and Anderson to win all the awards, I couldn’t help but think about what the scene and the response to it might mean to our own lives.
What a Trump Presidency Means to Black and ‘Black-ish People
First, Dre’s monologue was triggered by a White man challenging his politics, his patriotism and—not-so-subtly—his very humanity. Many People of Color (POC) navigating majority-White environments can relate to not being able to express what we really want (and often need) to say in multi-racial spaces, especially at work. We don’t have the luxury of really setting our colleagues (especially those above us on the org chart) straight when they opt to challenge some aspect of our being that doesn’t sit right with their privilege and entitlement. And being considered inferior and sub-human is simply business as usual.
It’s hard to imagine feeling comfortable enough in such work spaces to express what we’re really thinking, feeling and struggling to navigate. Unless, of course, we are in a top position of power in the company. While Dre’s read left his colleagues—Black and White—speechless and appearing confused and chagrined, I wondered what kind of dramatic follow-up we might see on this show. Telling your White boss or colleague “and don’t you ever forget it” in an anguished expression of controlled, eloquent sorrow and rage might cause most of us to be fired on the spot, or at least “written up” in Human Resources, with our personnel file flagged for “attitude” and “contentiousness.”
While this might not be a concern in sitcom-land, it’s something we have to consider in real life. Many of us were afraid to even come to work in the days after the election, unsure what surprises might await us in the office. Countless POC had to navigate a frighteningly contentious election season, analyzing our colleagues’ and boss’s every word and facial expression for threats or hidden political mines. We do more than code-switch our language, demeanor (often our hairstyles and attire). In the legendary words of Poet Paul Dunbar—“We wear the mask that grins and lies.”
By ripping off that mask, erasing the grin and blasting through the lies, Barris and his writers did a masterful job of summing up the swirl of thoughts and emotions that overtook so many of us when we woke to an unimaginable political future. And while I wouldn’t recommend that anyone who relies on their job to pay their bills try anything similar in their workplace (tempting though it might be), this is a great example of the power of art to perfectly capture, address and express what we’re going through.
The wish fulfillment fantasy aspect of “pulling a Dre” can even be healthy—enabling us to imagine letting off some of the stream of nonstop stress that comes with the code-switching and mask-wearing that we overdo to keep situations neutral and the folks around us comfortable. The burden is on us as POC to smooth things over even before a bump or wrinkle is allowed to occur. That’s a heavy weight to carry, and being able to put it down for even a few minutes is a powerful and necessary thing.
The monologue was a case of art imitating life. As ‘Black-ish Co-Executive Producer Laura Gutin explains, “The pivotal scene in last night’s episode came from a real-life conversation in our writers’ room on the night after the election.”
Gutin said that the group of Black, White and Multiracial writers (half male, half female) was having a hard time processing the results of the election. “Kenya Barris reached a point of frustration where he basically gave the speech Dre gave in the episode—he understood everyone’s sadness, he felt it, but he was not shocked because of how America has always treated him as a Black man. The next day Kenya came in saying we needed to turn this feeling into an episode. It became his baby – he wrote and directed it (with input from the whole writing staff.) We had to switch around our schedule and people had to work overtime to so that the episode would make it to air in time. The turnaround for a show is usually quite a bit longer, but everyone wanted to strike while the iron was hot, and while we were all still dealing with the complicated fallout from the election.”
And the team feels proud of what they achieved with this episode, she says. As well they should! They have given us an empowering and necessary gift.
‘Black-ish: Life Imitating Art or The Other Way Around?
THIS is the power of art, entertainment and all creative forms of expression—to help us not only express what we’re seeing, hearing and feeling, but to create space for others to share their truths. And perhaps for all of us to better appreciate and emphasize with perspective, feelings and experiences that differ from and even oppose our own.
I hope the takeaway of this scene on ‘Black-ish and all such creations is to remind us that we must ALL use our platforms—whatever they are—to articulate and share OUR truths. Especially those of us who are marginalized, stigmatized, underestimated and silenced by various forms of inequality and oppression. Play whatever games you must in the workplace, but create and nurture spaces for your emotional truth to thrive.
Someone needs what we have to show and tell. We might change or even save someone’s sanity or their sense of self. Platforms don’t’ have to be formal, incorporated or profitable. They don’t have to make big money or win awards. Your life is your platform. Your truth is your stage. Your story is your art.
In the spirit of ‘Black-ish, Kenya Barris, his writers and Dre Johnson, let’s all please be inspired to find and nurture our voices and get them out into the world. THAT is what our Ancestors paved the way for us to share. THAT is why we have been given the gifts of expression and access to vehicles for sharing our truths. The world needs your voice, your vision and your version of everything. It needs the fire that erupts from your sorrow, grief and rage; and the undulating joy that springs from your triumph and jubilation. Humanity needs your questions, your answers, your hypotheses and your conclusions. The funk, the fire and the fantastical possibilities that only you can bring.
“And don’t you ever forget it!”