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How Kenya Barris uses his real life to make some of the best shows on TV

The more personal a story is, the more universal it becomes. It is a notion that certainly rings true for the creator and showrunner of the hit ABC comedy series Black-ish, Kenya Barris.

After securing four successful seasons in the cut-throat landscape of network television, in addition to garnering Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for Best Comedy Series, Barris has a lot to be proud of.

Black-ish centers on the story of Andre “Dre” Johnson Sr.; an African-American man who grew up poor but who now resides and brings up his family in an affluent and predominately white suburban neighborhood.

Dre works as a successful advertising executive. His wife, Bow, is a doctor. Dre, however, worries that his four children’s privileged upbringing renders their Black identity to be somewhat compromised.


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It’s time for Dre to embrace the great outdoors! #blackish

A post shared by black-ish (@blackishabc) on Jan 5, 2019 at 10:22am PST

While Barris cited the influence The Cosby Show had on the writer growing up, he explained in an interview with People magazine, that the Cosbys could have easily been substituted for a white family. In creating the hit ABC sitcom, Barris said,

“The world is changing, and that’s being reflected by the Johnsons. I wanted to do a show about what it was like to be a black family living in this environment.”

For this, Barris looked inward and drew from his own upbringing and his own family.

The showrunner has repeatedly dramatized real-life events, implanting conversations he has had with his children, his wife’s struggle with preeclampsia (a pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure) and the premature birth of one of their sons. Barris said,

“The seed of the show came from my own family I looked around and saw that my kids were not like little black kids that I remember growing up. And, I looked around at all their friends … and they were not like the little white kids I remembered. I wanted to be honest with what it’s like sort of raising your kids in a different environment than you were accustomed to being raised in,”

Barris admits there are parallels between himself and Dre.


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My NBA HOOPS pahtna!!… @leyahbarris !!!!! LET’S GO CLIPPERS!!!!! @laclippers

A post shared by Kenya Barris (@kenyabarris) on Nov 23, 2018 at 2:42pm PST

More specifically, there are similarities between the Barrises’ and the Johnson’s whose middle-class status as Black families, expose the implications and pressures of assimilation, that come with entering a higher socio-economic class.

In speaking to People, Barris described his upbringing,

“We were definitely poor, but we never felt like we were destitute. We were in a situation where everybody around us was broke too, and we didn’t even know it. I didn’t know until I got out of that situation and looked around.”

The second oldest of four siblings, Barris grew up Inglewood and Pacoima, California. His mother was a real estate agent and his father was General Motors factory worker.

The family’s life changed dramatically after Barris’ father won a huge settlement after losing a lung from a chemical accident. Their new-found wealth allowed the family to move to a middle-class neighborhood and enabled his siblings to attend private school.


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On our way to #SugarBeach – St. Lucia!!!!!!! Leggo!!!

A post shared by Kenya Barris (@kenyabarris) on Jun 17, 2018 at 7:00am PDT

Barris entered Clark Atlanta University with the goal to study medicine and graduated with a degree in radio, television and film. After graduation, he returned to L.A. and worked as a production assistant.

Admittedly, during his college days, Barris had a stint as a standup comic. While he recognized he didn’t exactly have what it took to be a standup comedian, he did have a comedic voice.

After “selling jokes” for $25 each to comics like the late Bernie Mac, he realized while he may not be the best at delivering the jokes, he could certainly write them.

During this time, Barris’ love and passion for writing grew and he continued to apply his comedic voice to write television scripts which eventually got him steady work as a staff writer for a variety of TV shows.

After selling the hit reality television series America’s Next Top Model, Barris had a comfortable financial cushion that allowed him to move onto his next project.

Barris’ show about an educated middle-class Black family, however, shouldn’t be viewed as a simple ‘diversified’ take on the American Dream or propagation of the bootstrap theory.

Nor, should we view Dre’s didacticism and investment in teaching lessons to his kids about ‘Black culture’ as confining Black identity as homogenous or monolithic. The show has become an important vehicle to explore larger social issues, for both Black and white audiences.

Black-ish, as the title suggests — is that critical in-between space — a liminal space that is produced when Blackness intersects with class and thereby, provokes the weighted ontological question — what does it mean to be Black and how does performance and presenting oneself in a certain way inform this definition?

What’s more, it exposes the tension in how Black people are sometimes perceived as “not Black enough” or “too Black,” as well as how the Black middle-class are sometimes  conceived by the Black community as apolitical, or ‘assimilationist,’ who find themselves abandoning their Blackness or actively calibrating their identity to be accepted by the hegemonic culture and avoid discrimination.

It is the same space between what filmmaker, poet, and activist, Marlon Riggs’ famously dubbed ‘Black is, Black ain’t, wherein, ‘authentic’ Blackness is often equated with the Black working class or living in ‘the hood.’


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Junior surprising his parents by taking a gap year was definitely one of your favorite #blackish moments this year! 😂

A post shared by black-ish (@blackishabc) on Dec 18, 2018 at 1:49pm PST

In this sense, the series marshals an important discourse on Black identity and how sexism, patriarchy, homophobia, colorism and the cultural allegiance to Black institutions like the Church are imbricated in this very discourse.

Additionally, it explores how Black economic mobility does not have to leave one to abandon their racial heritage and identity.

Since Barris’ success didn’t come easy, and of course, didn’t happen overnight, he stresses the importance of teaching your kids the same values of gratitude and the importance of having a strong work ethic, especially when occupying a level of privilege and entitlement.

Kenya Barris is not only a shining example of this perseverance, but a role model and inspiration for any Black creative aspiring to tell their stories at the highest level.


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Thank you both for your service, warmth, leadership, and grace… we will miss you dearly. #potus🇺🇸 #flotus 🇺🇸

A post shared by Kenya Barris (@kenyabarris) on Jan 19, 2017 at 11:06pm PST

Though his time at network television has been rewarding, Barris has parted ways with ABC and signed a lucrative three-year deal with Netflix, that will see him produce content exclusively for the streaming service.

With reboots of Shaft, White Man Can’t Jump, and Cheaper By The Dozen, and even more original titles, expect to see more of Kenya’s work hitting a screen near you very soon.