Some thoughts on ABC’s ‘Black-ish’

Note: I pitched this to a pub, but it was shot down, so since there’s no kill fee/agreement, I decided to post it here on my own site. Enjoy!

There’s a line toward the end of ABC’s “Black-ish” – officially premiering Sept. 24, but already available for free download on iTunes – where Andre Jr., the teen son of the protagonist, tells his father during a one-on-one basketball game that, “I’m just being me, I’m just not quite sure who that is yet.”

Inadvertently, this could be the tone of “Black-ish” going forward. The sitcom takes its name from dialogue in the pilot episode, in which Anthony Anderson plays an ad executive wondering if his family is “real” enough – and by “real,” we mean “black.”

Rarer these days are the network sitcoms that offer inside views of non-white families, but this season is shaping up to be a banner year – at least with ABC — with “Fresh Off The Boat” and “Cristela” peeking into Asian and Hispanic households, respectively. Neither of those shows, however, will likely be compared to similarly cast predecessors. “Black-ish,” a show about an upper-middle-class suburban black family, will, though.

With black families, we’re either the Evanses or the Huxtables, with the latter always having served as the answer to the former and rarely any middle ground. “Good Times,” as the theme song noted, was about a family barely keeping their heads above water. Save for the short-lived “Julia” and the occasional soap opera, “Good Times” was the ultimate culmination of decades of small-screen black characters – maids, nannies, other servants — in the working class.

But as time has put distance between the Evans family and our current conscience (even the real-life Chicago housing project where the family lived has been demolished) most of today’s creatives have been taking their cues from “The Cosby Show.” Bill Cosby wanted all African-Americans to aspire to be the Huxtables, but showrunners had the loftier goal of their creations having that show’s longevity and impact.

“Black-ish’s” parents have been in this space on other shows, swinging and missing. Anderson paired up with – of course – “Cosby” alum Tempestt Bledsoe for NBC’s “Guys With Kids,” a not out-and-out black sitcom but featuring a portrayal of a black family nonetheless. Tracee Ellis Ross was screen-married to another “Cosby” kid, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, for BET’s “Reed Between the Lines.” All four actors, but especially Warner and Bledsoe, were forced to address the inevitable Huxtable comparisons in press surrounding those shows, both of which were canceled.

Perhaps several shows with predominantly black casts are often upheld to the “Cosby” standard because there are so few outstanding examples to begin with, making their intended audiences their harshest critics. When BET gave us “Being Mary Jane,” an hour-long drama about a single, successful, career-driven woman dating a married man, the similarities to ABC’s “Scandal” couldn’t be overlooked. (“Mary Jane” star Gabrielle Union would exacerbate these comparisons by revealing she had pursued the role of Olivia Pope before being turned down in favor of Kerry Washington.)

Endless comedies about 20-something friends can stand alone next to, well, “Friends.” The comedy graveyard is filled with “Cosby” clones — “Charlie & Co.,” “Minor Adjustments,”  “Me and the Boys,” “The Royal Family,” “Built to Last” – and those that can’t be mentioned with the Huxtables in its footnotes – “The Bernie Mac Show,” “The Hughleys,” “My Wife and Kids.”

To be sure, “Black-ish” seems funny enough. Laurence Fishburne is a scene stealer; it’s as if we’re catching up with Dap from “School Daze” at the 25-year Mission College alumni picnic. Ross’ character is biracial, as is she. And Anderson finally seems to be growing up, after years of being the kooky sidekick.

But if “Black-ish” can survive a first season – and ABC hasn’t had a successful, long-running sitcom with an all-black cast since the aforementioned “My Wife and Kids” ended nearly a decade ago – it, too, may be asked to take the “Cosby” test. And then again, maybe not.

“Black-ish” confronts identity issues head-on in its pilot, dancing in the middle of the intersection of class and race rarely touched on in “The Cosby Show,” and given, at best, the very-special treatment in later shows like “Sister, Sister” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Turns out, those issues are what fans of the latter show have held in higher regard. Few recall the time an armed robber held up the Banks family during Christmas, but everyone remembers when Carlton’s blackness came into question when he tried to pledge a fraternity.

It’ll be interesting to see how far “Black-ish” can go, what it wants to be, and whether audiences won’t be worn thin too easily. And let’s say “Cosby” never finds its way into conversation. It’ll then face the next issue so many other black sitcoms face: unnecessarily being compared to white ones. It’s Wednesday night lead-in? Another suburban-family farce, “Modern Family.”

My Month Of Freelancing — May 2014

A bit delayed, but here it is. Last month, I had a goal of three publications a month. I hit that target, so we’re still good.

The song of last month was “Cotton Candy” by The Sylvers. It plays regularly on Sirius XM49.

1. I started May with my first of (hopefully many more) columns for Bridge.

Detroit doesn’t have stop-and-frisk, the controversial New York City police policy of randomly stopping individuals to see if they’re up to no good. But if you pay attention to what’s going on with Belle Isle, it seems we’re taking at least baby steps toward it.

2. I ended May with a quick Q&A for the BNP Media-owned National Driller. (See, I can tackle all subjects!)

Hands-on experience is a necessary lesson for all disciplines, and drilling is no exception. Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, Pa., this year welcomes a drilling rig simulator to its campus that shows students of the trade how the industry works.

3. In the middle of May, I strung for the Detroit Free Press for Movement and also told you about the Black History 101 Mobile Museum partnering up with the 5E Gallery. (It was the first time I’ve done something for the Freep since I was an apprentice there in 2001.)

If a hip-hop time capsule were unearthed, its contents would surely resemble what’s on display here. “Yo! MTV Raps” trading cards. Lauryn Hill on a 1998 cover of Time, the first time the news magazine featured hip-hop. Public Enemy-branded bandanas. Movie posters from classics like “Breakin’.” A rare Notorious B.I.G. doll. How El-Hakim and 5E Gallery founder DJ Sicari Ware arrived at this point is a study in Detroit hip-hop history.

 

To get a full idea of just how much sound was reverberating through Movement on Saturday, you could step inside one of the three dozen or so portable toilets near the edge of Hart Plaza. There you could feel the rhythms coming from every direction. On one stage, a live local band from Detroit. On another, a DJ spinning nu-disco with French lyrics.

4. As usual, I contributed a bunch to Jalopnik, with a few standouts:

How Lowriders Helped Boys Become Men In Southwest Detroit

Every year during Cinco de Mayo, there’s a tradition where men and women gather around Impalas, Regals, Caddys and other rides for “Blessing of the Lowriders,” an only-in-Detroit event where steel, salvation and stereotype-breaking meet.

Once Again, Gawker Is Absolutely Fucking Clueless About Detroit

The thing about living in Detroit is that when something goes viral locally, you pray that if it reaches a national level it gets translated to the masses properly. And it’s a fucked-up game of Telephone that Gawker writers fail at every goddamn time.

The Difference Between Detroit And Metro Detroit: An Explainer

After the Detroit Silverdome/Pontiac Silverdome dustup between Jalopnik Detroit and Gawkerthis weekend, quite a few readers questioned why Detroiters got so offended if a city in question is technically part of the metro area. There’s a reason for that: Most cities in Metro Detroit are worlds apart.

4. The Metro Detroit explainer got me a spot on The Progrim (second time!) with Mike P. Check me out.

June is under way.

My month of freelancing — April 2014

Starting this month, I’m going to start chronicling where I’ve been and what I’ve written. My goal is this: At least three different publications a month. So far, so good.

I’ll also try to throw in a random, unrelated song for the month. It’s Bjork’s “Bachelorette” for this month. Heard it on XM35 and can’t get it out of my head. Yes.

COMMENCE THE SELF-PROMOTION!

1. I contributed a bunch to Jalopnik, but here are three standouts:

Here’s How Not To Crowdfund A $3 Million Detroit Mansion Purchase

There’s no doubt that Detroit is bustling with young creatives with the romance but not the finance to make their dreams come true. So we’ve got Kresge grants and Gilbert bankrolls, but crowdfunding is one of those things that we still have a tricky time with. Case in point. Here’s a bro who wants to turn the $2.8 million Col. Frank J. Hecker House in midtown Detroit, a 21,000-square-foot railroad baron’s mansion, into a “coworking heaven.”

The Times Chronicles The Plight Of Young, White Detroit Entrepreneurs

Guys, there are risks and rewards in opening a business in an American city, and the Times is ON IT. Specifically, the New York Times, whose reporters are still allergic to black people in one of the country’s largest black cities.

ABC Wants You To Visit Detroit But Skip Visiting Detroit, Wait What?

I’m a little bit confused by this ABC News (by way of Travelzoo) piece that encourages people to visit Detroit. If I haven’t made it plain by now, I’m all in favor of Detroit tourism — except this piece is telling you to skip all the best parts of Detroit.

2. It’s every black journalist’s dream to be published in Ebony (or Essence or Jet), so I marked that off the bucket list last month with an update on what’s going on with the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History.

In the Cultural Center of Detroit, it’s impossible to miss the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History, with its enormous black and gold African mask hanging above its main entrance. A quick stroll through the main floor indicates all is well. And the sun is finally pouring through the massive skylights, covered way too long in snow from Michigan’s second-most-brutal winter.

3. I got the lucky Detroit journalist invite to Craig Fahle’s Friday Follies segment on WDET. Listen here.

4. I did a quick write-up on the developments in Palmer Park for The Architect’s Newspaper — in print, too!

The city has attracted new residents in search of lower rents, prompting near-capacity occupancy in the city’s downtown and Midtown districts. Business districts, universities, and other usual trappings of urban life anchored both areas. Palmer Park, on the other hand, is relatively far-flung from the hustle and bustle. Like so many of Detroit’s older neighborhoods, it was conceived for turn-of-the-century auto barons and executives seeking country homes in open settings, but not too far from the central business district. The neighborhood’s centerpieces are a 30-acre park and a golf course, with a winding boulevard of apartment buildings in styles ranging from Moroccan to art deco to English Tudor.

5. I previewed Red Bull House of Art’s latest cycle and told you about each one of the artists exhibiting there. (My favorite part of this coverage was talking to a self-described housewife who now has studio space in Corktown.)

Paula Zammit has one of those Hollywood-ending stories in the making as we speak. Right now, we’re in the beginning of the second act. After years of raising a family and working as a sales executive, Zammit waited patiently for her youngest child to leave for college before deciding to go back to college herself. Initially, the Lathrup Village residents enrolled at Schoolcraft College for culinary arts. But every cooking class was booked. Thank God, she says. To fill up credit hours, Zammit turned to art classes.

6. I’ll be honest, I’ve been super critical of Model D in the past. But I’m glad they listened to my rant about how much it irritates me when you guys use the term “the neighborhoods.”

You don’t hear “Belle Isle to 7 Mile” anymore because now, more than ever, Detroit is separating. It’s one thing to rep your neighborhood (or, as so often the case in Detroit is, your cross streets). It’s another to separate your neighborhood from the city completely.

7. Finally, The Detroit Anthology is out in a few weeks. Metro Times spoke to our editor and curator, Anna Clark, and MT gave me a nice little shout-out. Awww.

Anna Clark wears many hats. A freelance writer living in Detroit, her work has appeared in The New RepublicAmerican Prospect and Salon, among others. She’s a writer-in-residence for the InsideOut Literary Arts Project, a gig that sees her teaching creative writing at Detroit high schools, and she’s also a board member of Write a House, a residency program that aims to fill three houses in a neighborhood north of Hamtramck with writers. She also edited A Detroit Anthology — a collection of stories from the likes of Jalopnik’s Aaron Foley, noted sociologist Thomas Sugrue, and MT’s very own Larry Gabriel to name a few — which will be released by Rust Belt Chic on May 12. 

Stay tuned for May!

Open for business

Self-promotion makes me uncomfortable and the term “branding” makes me itch, but I’ve been told I should be doing this more as a freelancer.

I feel I’ve been pretty good at “putting myself out there” since I have been independent. (We’ll talk later about how I feel the term “freelancer” has a negative connotation.) But since I have to think of myself as a business, I should advertise. So here goes.

I’m a writer first. I’ve been in journalism all my life (bylines in the elementary school paper, son!), but working professionally for almost a decade. I’ve written general news. I’ve written entertainment. I’ve written education. I’ve written automotive. None of these are “hard” or “soft” topics; they should all be treated with the same level of respect. Therefore, if you need someone to report on any of those subjects — anything from one-off strings to long-term projects — let me know.

Living in Detroit, the city is one of my main subject areas. But it’s not my only subject area. I could probably give you a story about luxury sales in Germany vs. those in America, or I could recap your favorite crime drama. I’ve interviewed mayors, children, grieving parents, automotive executives, a man who sells raccoon meat, your favorite rappers, aging rock stars, racists and 100-year-olds on their birthdays.

I’ve written a lot. Therefore, I think I know my way around a sentence beyond journalism. I could write you a press release or your marketing copy. Many people in the last year probably found me through some snarky blogging I do over at Jalopnik Detroit, but I’ve been blogging long before that. Need a guest blog? I can do that. Need a ghost blog? I could do that, too.

Among one of my many current freelance projects, I’m doing community management for a soon-to-be-launched automotive enthusiast site, which means I could manage your social media accounts if you need me to. I can tell you what works, what plays to certain audiences, how to get noticed and how to make sense. Why, just the other day I picked out a promotional hashtag!

Oh, speaking of site launches. I was behind the scenes of MLive Detroit before that launched, so I know a thing or two about getting a new project off the ground. I’m very proud of my involvement with that, as it’s now one of the most-read news sites in the region. So if you need someone who’s not afraid to take risks with new developments, let me know.

I’m comfortable on radio and on camera; I’ve done local radio here in Detroit, provincial radio in Canada and lent my voice to a national launch of a new public radio show. I told you where a certain city councilman was hiding on the news and I’ve recently appeared in a soon-to-be-aired Web series about Detroit.

I also don’t mind offering guest commentary. I’ve done that for publications big and small, and if you need someone to offer up a quote or two for your journalism class project, I can do that, too. Ask me anything!

I started my career as a copy editor, so if you need a once-over on that essay you wrote (I live with a microbiologist; do you know how many scientific papers I’ve had to edit over the years?) or if you’ve got a project you need some help on, I can do that.

Finally, if I can’t help you, I probably know someone who can. I’m fortunate to know lots of talent always willing to lend a hand.

So let’s talk. Want to do some business? Email me at aaronkfoley[at]gmail[dot]com.

I haven’t blogged here in a year

….mainly because I’ve been everywhere else, literally. Check out the “media appearances” tab up above to see where I’ve been!

I have some ideas for what I want to do with this blog but I’ve gotta wait for some dust to settle. Hold tight.

The rise of the white girl power anthem

One thing to check off on my bucket list is to coin a term a la “yuppie” or “manic pixie dream girl” that becomes so popular that it earns its own place in regular conversation or Wikipedia. So maybe that’ll happen with this…(wishful thinking since like three people read this blog, but whatevs.)

I was out working in the backyard garden when Keith cranked up his Kelly Clarkson Pandora station. Most of her songs sound the same to me, but one that stands out is “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You).” Then a few Pink songs come on. And then a few Katy Perry songs in between. All these women are singing about the same thing: Self-assurance, self-reliance and independence.

The only thing is, though, is that all these songs are mostly gender-neutral. Unlike, say, Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls),” anybody could relate to the themes in these songs, whether it be a breakup, a move-forward, a goodbye, or whatever. They avoid making too heavy-handed statements, which would nix a “Born this Way” or something similar. They’re all pop songs with faux guitars to give it a rockier edge. Most can cross between adult contemporary audiences and younger ones. There are no hints of R&B or soul, so they’re easier to digest. And they’re all sung by white women.

I’ll call it the white girl power anthem. Examples of these include:

“Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” – Kelly Clarkson
“So What,” Pink
“Raise Your Glass,” Pink
“Fuckin’ Perfect,” Pink
“Wide Awake,” Katy Perry
“Part of Me,” Katy Perry (the definitive white girl power anthem)
“We R Who We R,” Ke$ha
“Already Gone,” Kelly Clarkson
“King of Anything,” Sara Bareilles

Feel free to add some more to the list.

Where have you been?

Phew! It’s been a while, so here’s what’s going on.

1. Left my old job, which was not as scary as I thought it would be when I did. It was hard to leave this job. It was my second post-college job, the one job that everyone secretly judges you on. The first job is your starting point and stepping stone. The second is the one where you’re supposed to be a rock star and have that extra oomph on your resume. Hopefully I did: I helped to launch a brand new digital newsroom, owned every story I did and helped expand the presence of a news org. But it was time to move on. I was 24 when I left my first job. It was easier the second time around at 27.

2. Started a new job two days later. I’ve jumped into the world of automotive reporting, which is fantastic if you live in the home of the Big Three. And I’m covering one of the Big Three. (Sticking to my rule of not diverging too much info on the blog, but I do enough of that on Twitter and Facebook anyway.) Few people know I’m a car nut. It’s not one of those things I wear on my sleeve, so with this job comes a few dispelling of myths. No, pop culture and entertainment isn’t the only thing I’m into. Yes, I can tell you the difference between a V6 and a V8. No, the job’s not easy, but I’m up for any challenge. Yes, I’m ready for the challenge.

I’m happy that thus far I’ve had a short career, but I’ve held jobs — short- or long-term — that some people take years to get to. Features copy editor. Columnist. Entertainment writer. Big-city education reporter. Now, having an “editor” title and your name in a masthead. And covering the Big Three in Motor City! A million girls would kill for this job.

That said, the career isn’t the only thing going. This house is still being restored (I know, I know…), I still haven’t written that book that I’ve always wanted to write, I planted a garden (again, failed last year, let a bunch of plants die due to laziness/busyness) in the backyard, I quit listening to urban radio and I bought the newest car I’ve ever owned in my driving lifetime (2010 Honda Civic with 15K miles). I’ve suddenly become become one of those people who travels for work, which means I’m fast on the path of becoming one of those dads who travels for work. (But hey! No kids on the horizon — yet.) I still tweet too much and I still watch RHOA. And I’m still taking things day by day.

Quick thought

It seems like the fastest way to get ahead and get noticed in journalism is to somehow create a huge public spectacle of yourself, whether intentionally by deliberately ratting out the company you work for, or unintentionally by making a press release about the new job you haven’t started yet, getting fired and gaining sympathy from hungry job recruiters. Strange, because it seems like merit and subtlety had always been the name of the game…

Now that you’ve seen Scandal, please save your rants about race

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OK, so we all watched “Scandal” tonight, right? ABC has promoted this nonstop in the last few weeks — endless commercials and paid Twitter ads abound.

I watched because I’m a fan of Kerry Washington. I loved her in “Ray.” But the elephant in the room is the blind support us black TV watchers have to show to shows with black lead characters. Lately there’s been a backlash against this — not everybody watches Tyler Perry’s sitcoms and we’ve given critical reviews of BET’s attempts at bringing back black sitcoms. Still, this was a pop culture moment: Black woman leading a hourlong series on one of the major networks.

I wasn’t so much the black viewer supporting a black show, per se. I was curious about how a series scripted by a black woman (Shonda Rhimes) starring a black woman would fare when the topic itself isn’t rooted in black culture. Unlike, say, “Soul Food” the series or “City of Angels,” there wasn’t an all-black cast and the issues aren’t necessarily reflective of black America.

That all said, I can see where the complaints are going to start rolling in. I can hear it now — “she’s not black enough.” “Where are the other black characters?” “Why does she have to be involved with [white character who I won't name to avoid spoilers]?” (I actually thought the relationship between those two reminded me of John and Mamie on “The Young and the Restless” in the early ’90s. #thingsonlyAaronwouldknow)

On the other side of the coin will be those die-hard, support-everything black TV viewers will be on guard for any sort of criticism lobbied at the show. “Why can’t you support a positive black show?” “Why do you have to hate?” “Why can’t we have good things without someone ruining it?” Nowadays, you can’t criticize anything black without being called a hater, and that’s sad because people with valid opinions will be stifled because they want to keep up appearances.

I do have some criticisms after one episode. Actingwise, Kerry was on her A-game; the other actors weren’t. That’ll sink the ship immediately if that isn’t fixed. I see some MAJOR character flaws in Kerry’s character that will eventually become annoying, kind of how Meredith Grey on Rhimes’ “Grey’s Anatomy” gets really annoying. The blueprint is there, and yes I will throw shade at it when I see it. That said, I won’t be criticizing her because she’s a black woman. I’ll be criticizing her because she’s a fictional character who just happens to be black.

But this is what we face as characters who happen to be black lead television shows: The arguments that will crop up that are directly related to race. Just for once, I’d like to leave race out of the discussion. Is that possible? We’ll see.

Mary J, please have a seat

During April Fool’s weekend, of all weekends, Burger King launched a new ad campaign that quickly drew fire because in one of the ads, Mary J. Blige sings about chicken. Singing all extra about a tasty tortilla, and throwing up six fingers for three cheeses. BK has had singers poking fun at their images before (I’m thinking Darius Rucker’s ad a few years ago), but with this ad, you really can’t tell if MJB is in on the joke or not.

Never mind that BK committed two advertising cardinal sins: Urban music used to market chicken products, and white people dancing off-beat to it. It’s very possible that BK was, in a sick, twisted way, making fun of “urban” ads we’ve been bombarded with for years. But considering the rush to bring down the commercial from YouTube and other sites (and blaming it on copyright issues even though one would assume BK would have had to seek copyright permissions before even filming the ad), maybe not so.

On The Detroit News’ Poptropolis blog, Adam Graham says it might be a good thing because people are talking about MJB again after her last album pretty much flopped. While I like Adam’s work, I have to respectfully disagree.

People are talking about MJB for all the wrong reasons, and this ad is just the latest in a series of career missteps. When Mary bombs, she bombs huge. Her image has always been that of a serious, soul singer who’s been more about the music than the product. But it’s been hard for Mary to maintain that image.

Who could forget that horrendous VIBE cover from a few years ago? Or her claiming to have been accepted to Howard University even though she only holds a GED? Or that epic, epic, damn-you-autocorrect fail of the decade when she demanded that no one “understand estimate my intelligents“? Her Twitter breakdown after losing out on an Oscar nomination?

To be fair, some of those were beyond her control. The things within her control after a 20-year career are inexcusable. Since “The Breakthrough,” it seems MJB has been working too hard to hold onto her crown that no one, not even Keyshia Cole, could snatch. From lending her voice to damn near everyone’s remix or hook (Robin Thicke’s “Magic,” Ne-Yo’s “Do You,” T.I.’s “Remember Me,” Musiq’s overly generic “IfULeave,” and so on) to dropping album after album of radio filler, it seems like the MJB who effortlessly gave us classics of the ’90s has devolved into merely staying relevant. The My Life II, the prologue, the Intermission, the Haiku, whatever she called it album title was the last straw for me.

And to be honest, Mary and national advertising don’t really mesh well, anyway. I couldn’t stand her Chevrolet ads around the time of “The Breakthrough” album — particularly the one where she’s driving a Tahoe with all of her former incarnations of herself. Remember that one? What does the journey between “What’s the 411?” and “The Breakthrough” have to do with a Tahoe?

No one can take MJB’s place, but it seems like she’s inadvertently losing her grip. Maybe after 20 years in the game, this is her “awkward phase” that Janet and other long-standing divas have gone through. That means MJB is around the corner from a proper comeback. Until that time, however, please have a seat.

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