America, it seems we have turned a corner. As a culture, we have finally accepted that the Leave it to Beaver model of family life is a thing of the past. Turn on the television today and we see that the new modern family is indeed, just like the ones on ABC’s Modern Family, in which blended families, families formed by adoption, gay parents and family members from foreign countries are all a part of the mix. Of course, I know that network television and Hollywood blockbusters aren’t the best gauge of what’s really going on in American households, but they do reflect the trends. It is true that in real life we are seeing a rise in international and transracial adoptions. We are seeing a rise in divorce and remarriage rates. We are seeing a surge in alternative responses to infertility – from egg donation to surrogacy—and we are seeing more and more households being led by single parents. Welcome to the new normal of family life.
But where are all the black people?
I hate to rain on any parade of diversity in media, but this isn’t just a matter of believing black actors should have a shot at making it big in Hollywood by having our modern families equally portrayed. I’m talking about historical accuracy here. On the one hand, it is absolutely wonderful that sitcoms like Modern Family and The New Normal and dramas like Brothers and Sisters and Parenthood are expanding the definition of the nuclear family on the small screen. Yet, by only featuring white families taking part in this redefining family movement, they are completely ignoring the fact that black people are leading the way in this revolution.
Not only are we leading the way, but we’ve been the supreme architects of family reconstruction in America since, well, before the Reconstruction, when we were having our families ripped apart before, during and after slavery. Black Americans, through sheer desperation and the circumstances of our experience in this country, had to be masterful at redefining family when forces of nature – or Master himself – got in the way. Who among us doesn’t have play cousins and aunties who are no more blood kin than Barack Obama? Many blacks — for decades if not centuries — have been very creative when defining who is included in one’s “family,” out of social and economic necessity.
And this talent for creating family when blood ties and traditional structures aren’t in place hasn’t diminished over time. Everyone knows, for example, that 72 percent of black children are raised in single-family households. But this isn’t the whole story. Black “single parents” are also leading the way in the new trend of co-parenting. Deesha Philyaw, 41, is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer and co-author of the forthcoming book, Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive After Divorce (Harbinger, May 2013). She is also a divorced mom of two, who remarried a divorced father of two. Philyaw embodies the new normal among all American families, and a continuing trend in family life for African-Americans.
“As of 2009, the blended family is the most common family form in the U.S.,” Philyaw tells theGrio. To make her situation even more unique, she actually chose to continue living in Pittsburgh instead of moving to Maryland where her new husband resides. This way she and her ex-husband can continue their 50-50 shared custody arrangement. Her new husband has a similar arrangement with his ex-wife. “I would say that these dynamics are working for us,” says Philyaw, who started a successful website – Co-Parenting 101.org — to talk about her co-parenting experiences and to counsel others who are trying to find a similar balance.
Philyaw can only laugh at the fact that her modern blended family reality – did I mention one of her daughters is adopted and she is also an active stepmother to her new hubby’s teenagers? – isn’t anywhere on primetime. “Well, there was All of Us, the sitcom loosely based on Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith’s blended family, but that only lasted three seasons,” Philyaw jokes. Still, it irks her that the media always seems to take longer to catch up with black America’s reality. “We didn’t even see professional, two-parent households [on TV] until The Cosby Show came along,” she says, adding, “If we let TV tell it, black America is always a day late and a dollar short.”
The same can be said about black Americans who are gay and raising families. Where are they in primetime? And again, this isn’t just about equal opportunities for black actors; this is also about being even moderately honest about family life in today’s America.
Seriously, if Modern Family was billing itself as fantasy television, then I’d probably be quiet. Notice, I have no qualms with that new ABC show about the family who discovers they live next door to aliens. If they don’t feature any black people on that show, that’s okay. As far as I know, there aren’t any black people in outer space. But there are black gay parents raising their kids in almost every city in America.
In fact, the typical gay family raising kids in America today includes at least one black parent. And not for nothing, they’re not living in a luxury apartment in Soho or in a rambling mansion in Hollywood, but rather in Jacksonville, Florida, the city with one of the largest numbers of same-sex parents in the country.
Bless Wanda Sykes, Lee Daniels and LG Grazian — affluent, black entertainment insiders — for openly sharing their trials and tribulations as black parents who happen to be gay. But, wouldn’t it be nice to have just one black gay family to see in primetime? They don’t have to be any more ‘real’ than David and Bryan on the New Normal with their perfect house, perfect jobs and a super cute surrogate with a quirky daughter. I can see it now: a black lesbian couple raising twin boys in Florida. One woman is a civil rights attorney and her partner is an interior designer from New York who hates the South. Shonda Rhimes should get on that. If she doesn’t do it, who will?
Hopefully, with the success of The New Normal, a sitcom featuring a white gay male couple with an assitant played by reality queen NeNe Leakes, there will be more room on the air soon for this type of show. But for diversity on TV to reflect that of African-American families, the public will have to let the networks know what “the new normal” has been for blacks for some time now.
“The public has to push the media to do the right thing,” Sharon Lettman-Hicks, the Executive Director and CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), told theGrio. As the head of a civil rights organization that fights to promote the rights of black LGBT families, Lettman-Hicks recognizes the importance of positive media stereotypes, but she’s not holding her breath waiting for Hollywood to lead the way. “I give a lot of credit to some of the black media for doing responsible coverage of our community, but [Hollywood needs] to catch up,” she says.
Really, I’m not surprised that black people don’t get the credit for redefining the new normal on mainstream television. After all, most of our contributions to American pop culture are repackaged and resold as someone else’s ideas. (Remember when cornrows where renamed Bo Braids because Bo Derek wore them in a movie?) But that doesn’t mean we should give up trying to see ourselves on TV in both positive and realistic ways. If Shonda Rhymes isn’t up for the task, maybe Bill Cosby can come with a black Modern Family-ish sitcom. Now that would be a really different world.
Lori L. Tharps is an author, journalist, college professor and mom. Her book, Hair Story, “contextualizes, demystifies and explains the significance of Black hair in American popular culture,” according to her web site. Follow Lori L. Tharps on Twitter at @LoriTharps.