ABC’s Hit Sitcom Black-ish Does God, Pushes Theological Respectability

Like the Cosby Show before it, ABC’s black-ish dismantles narrow depictions of black life. By presenting a family beyond the stereotypes of African Americans as dangerous, chaotic, one-dimensional misfits, the show, now in its third season, encourages viewers to challenge contemporary social issues, and to do so without losing a sense of humor.

Unfortunately, a recent episode, entitled simply “God,” encourages us to laugh with stereotypical depictions of African Americans as opposed to having us laugh at them—that is, to accept the stereotype as an inside joke.

The episode centers on Zoey (Yara Shahidi), the eldest of the Johnson kids, who refuses to pray at the start of family dinner because she has growing doubt concerning the reality of God. For her, the suffering that overwhelms human experience challenges belief. Can there really be a God in light of so much misery in the world?

Theologians call this question about the meaning of suffering “theodicy.” For Zoey, the answer has shifted away from the certain—albeit ill-informed—belief in God of her father Andre (“Dre,” played by Anthony Anderson). Zoey’s uncle Johan, her mother Rainbow’s brother, has just arrived from two years in Paris and is still in love with all things French. He endorses his niece’s theological doubt. In fact, he is an atheist who argues that reason and science rule out biblical fantasies.

Dre is furious and demands that Zoey acknowledge her faith in God as part of her connection to family and community. The episode ends with dad and kids at the doctor’s office with Rainbow, who is pregnant with the newest member of the clan. When the baby’s heartbeat is finally heard, after some worry, we hear Zoe say softly “thank God.”

The family embraces and we are to believe Zoey has reaffirmed her belief and all is well—except for the matter of Johan. We cut back to the house, with the godless, European wannabe uncle on the couch with a glass of wine—outside community and bound to non-black opinions. The show might try to challenge the culture of respectability in some ways but, on the issue of God, it embraces without a second thought a theology nestled within a vision of theological respectability.

Good, upstanding, community-minded people believe!

Within the context of thirty minutes, questioning the existence of God, or denying it altogether, is presented as a problem to solve – one that points to a loss of “true” black identity, a departure from the safety of the African American community and its cosmic protector. Nonbelievers and doubters are presented as the foreign element, not authentically black, and we are asked to both laugh at (and pity) their identity crisis.

In a word, those who question the existence of God are either trying to be white (the uncle) or confused (Zoey) and in need of a swift reminder that inclusion in the “family” requires belief. Lost on the writers of this episode is the distinction between agnosticism and atheism: the first concerns God as an open question and the latter proclaims there is no God. In terms of the story line, this distinction doesn’t matter. Both positions are outside the safety of belief and are foreign to black life and thought.

Sure, there are humorous moments, but in general the episode is marked by affirmation of problematic assumptions limiting the number of those who qualify as “black” by restricting what constitutes an acceptable relationship to dominant religious claims. For example, Dre wrestles with the origins of his daughter’s turn away from God, and concludes, based on a survey of his co-workers, that whites don’t believe and African Americans do.

The implication is sure: belief in God is part of the cultural DNA of African Americans, and any move away from belief is merely the problematic influence of people of European descent. This is brought home through the portrayal of uncle Johan, who apes assumed European preferences related to food, drink, culture—and atheism. While this makes for a laugh, it does the diversity of African American communities a disservice and fails to consider why a growing number are shifting away from belief— a shift that is tied to a long history of African Americans challenging belief in God.

This narrowing of African American’s opinions on belief misses an important point. “Free thought,” in a variety of forms, has a presence in African American life that is centuries old. To question or deny God is as African American as is embracing the idea of God.

African Americans aren’t a one-theological-note people. Questioning or rejecting the idea of God doesn’t emerge out of an effort to be “white.” Rather, it comes from a desire to make sense of injustice in light of religious promises gone unfulfilled. African Americans have a long history of encounter with injustice and just as substantial a history of probing what ongoing injustice says about theological claims. What can be said about God in light of moral evil (e.g., racism, sexism, classism, homophobia) in the world?

Early African American work songs, for instance, suggest that some African Americans signified belief in God due to the misery of life. The blues, growing out of these earlier songs, turn instead to human effort and human pleasure without any reliance on divine intervention. While the exact terminology isn’t used, the philosophy of life within these musical forms speaks to an approach to life outside the confines of what we’ve called religion—or more precisely, theism. If this weren’t the case, why would devout believers have called the blues “devil’s music”?

This secular thinking carries on in African American folktales addressing the importance of human ingenuity and human agency in the world. The literary expression of agnosticism and atheism hits a high point during and after the Renaissance of African American literature, grounded in places like Harlem, that gave us figures such as Nella Larsen (Quicksand), Lorraine Hansberry (“A Raisin in the Sun”), and Richard Wright (Black Boy). These and others like them turned away from the supernatural and grounded the struggle for justice and the expression of life in human effort within the confines of human history.

Some, as Dre’s character demonstrates, fear that loss of belief will mean a loss of morality and ethics, a surrender of the values that drive us forward toward the “good.” But that fear is misguided. Those questioning belief in God don’t reject values, they simply demand a different grounding for those values.

Rather than saying we should behave in certain ways because God requires it, as outlined in some sacred text and preached by some leader, those not relying on God or gods argue for values and proper conduct simply as a matter of human responsibility and accountability. Demand and practice justice because it is all we can do to promote health and wellbeing. Think about it. On the political front, suspicion toward, if not rejection of, belief in God gets explicit expression during the earlier twentieth century when some African Americans embraced the potential of Communism to transform life, and combine this with a rejection of the Church and its teachings as the safeguard of African American life.

The challenge to racist economic-political practices tied to a rejection of God also informs the labor and civil rights work of non-believers such as A. Philip Randolph. And, who can forget W. E. B. DuBois, whose frame (“the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line”) continues to inform what we think about race? What we often forget is that he was an agnostic.

James Weldon Johnson, who provided the anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” was a nonbeliever who rejected believe in God as a college student. Yes, DuBois and Johnson wrote about religion, but they did so in recognition of the cultural force of organizations such as the black churches not as an endorsement of the theology of those churches.

DuBois and Johnson are some of those who, based on their lack of belief, wouldn’t be black enough for black-ish‘s father of the house.

Assuming all African Americans believe because they are African Americans flies in the face of a growing trend, tracked by pollsters. The Nones, or unaffiliated, represent a growing percentage of the US population. And African Americans represent an important demographic within this growth.

Keep in mind, too, that the number of African Americans falling into this category has almost doubled over the past thirty-years.

Belief in God doesn’t bind African Americans to one other, and it is unfortunate to assume—even with a laugh—that belief in God is some sort of litmus test. What holds African Americans together isn’t a particular response to the challenges and mysteries of life. No, what binds African Americans together is a complex history, many spaces within a rich geography of life in which to be African American is to be the “other” whose full humanity isn’t a given but a struggle.

If only the writers for this episode had allowed Dre Johnson to see it this way.