TV’s ‘black-ish’ makes an issue of ‘Juneteenth,’ US holidays

LOS ANGELES — If Juneteenth fails to ring a bell, the season debut episode of ABC’s “black-ish” should fix that.

With animation, musical numbers and help from The Roots and Aloe Blacc, the sitcom delves into the holiday that marks June 19, 1865, the date on which a Union Army general ordered laggard Texas to put a stop to slavery in the months following the Civil War’s end.

In the daring manner in which “black-ish” has tackled the casual use of the N-word, police shootings and other thorny issues, tonight’s episode (9 p.m. EDT) uses the holiday as a pivot point to debate what America honors of its past and what it sidelines.

Series creator and executive producer Kenya Barris admits he initially brushed off a fellow “black-ish” writer’s suggestion that the show address Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day and first celebrated in 1866.

Then one of Barris’ six children — who are a regular source of inspiration — schooled him on a historical figure that gets no lack of attention, the 15th-century Italian explorer Christopher Columbus.

” ‘Dad, you know Columbus never set foot in North America?’ “ Barris recalled the preteen saying. “I said, ‘I think you’re mistaken, son.’ Then I decided to look it up and found he was absolutely right.”

Barris’ research turned up more, including accusations from Columbus’ contemporaries that he brutalized and enslaved people on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola and mistreated others he encountered on his expeditions to the new world.

“It made me start thinking, ‘Why can we celebrate this guy, but when someone says Juneteenth it’s a laughable thing?’ “ Barris said.

“So often, myself and my friends don’t like to talk about slavery or Kwanzaa (December’s week-long African heritage festivities) or anything like that we celebrate ourselves,” he said, even belittling such holidays as “stupid.”

He’s come to believe such reluctance reflects deeper concern over non-black attitudes.

“It makes other people uncomfortable to deal with the fact of wanting to celebrate things that aren’t considered part of the whole fabric of Americana,” Barris said. “As much as I love the Fourth of July, shouldn’t the real or another equally important Indepe­ndence Day be the day that all Americans were actually supposed to be free?”

The “black-ish” episode is especially ambitious, starting with the animated segment in which The Roots and Blacc, who also guest stars as himself in the show, perform the song “I’m Just a Slave.”

(The words are new but the music isn’t: It’s drawn from jazz veteran Dave Frishberg’s “I’m Just a Bill” song that he wrote for a 1976 “Schoolhouse Rock!” segment about how laws are enacted, and he gets a co-credit with other writers including Blacc.)

There are also two original musical numbers produced by guest star Fonzworth Bentley (“Think Like a Man Too”). They feature dancers, singers and the full cast of the comedy headed by actors Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross.

One of them, “We Built This,” honors slaves’ uncompensated labor that contributed to the U.S. economy — which, according to one scene involving an exchange between Anderson’s Dre and Blacc, totaled $300 billion unadjusted for inflation.

It’s counted in the trillions in today’s dollars, Barris said. His goals for the episode, which per usual uses clever humor and punchlines to leaven serious themes, aren’t quite so stratospheric.

The intention is to “go out there and say something and try to be honest with it,” he said. “That’s all we want to do, is start a conversation.”

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