Denial, anger, bargaining, depression — if you’re one of the nearly 66 million Americans who supported Hillary Clinton, chances are you’re still muddling through one of the first four stages of grief about the looming inauguration. In its most important episode since the Black Lives Matter–centric “Hope,” ABC’s Black-ish offered a path forward by spearheading pop culture’s response to the paralyzing despair that has haunted so many of us since election night. Provocative, intellectual, and all-embracing, last night’s “Lemons” suggested a much-needed alternative to our rut of apocalyptic visions without diminishing the justifiable fears that the new administration stokes.
Written and directed by creator Kenya Barris, “Lemons” presents us with two gifts: a recognition of our frustrated misery and, more importantly, a shift in perspective. No other show takes the long view of America’s racial history as often nor as powerfully as Black-ish does, and it’s the episode’s historical approach that most effectively argues for optimism. “Lemons” is divided into three story lines: Dre (Anthony Anderson) caught in a toxic debate at the office about which demographic cost Clinton the election, Junior (Marcus Scribner) learning from his grandfather (Laurence Fishburne) about the whitewashing of MLK’s rhetoric, and Bow (recent Golden Globes winner Tracee Ellis Ross) attempting to convince her eldest child, Zoey (Yara Shahidi), to spend her afternoon protesting instead of making lemonade for her school.
Black-ish’s fatherly frame of reference was crucial to what made “Hope” such an essential half-hour. That parental, middle-generation outlook is key to “Lemons” too, as the episode looks both backward and forward in its assessment of where we stand in 2017. At work, Dre mostly stays out of the mudslinging about who’s most to blame for Clinton’s loss until he’s accused of not caring about the outcome of the election. Then comes Barris’s incisive reconfiguration of Donald Trump’s victory as part of a long line of African-American losses throughout history:
For most black people, this system has never worked for us. But we still played ball, tried to do our best to live by the rules, even though we knew they would never work out in our favor. Had to live in neighborhoods that you wouldn’t drive through. Send our kids to schools with books so beat up you couldn’t read them. Work jobs that you wouldn’t even consider in your nightmares. Black people wake up everyday believing that our lives are gonna change, even though everything around us says it’s not.
Truth be told, you ask most black people, and they tell you that no matter who won this election, they didn’t expect the ’hood to get better. But they still voted, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. You think I’m not sad that Hillary didn’t win? That I’m not terrified about what Trump’s about to do? I’m used to things not going my way. I’m sorry that you’re not, and it’s blowing your mind. So excuse me if I get a little offended, because I didn’t see all of this outrage when everything was happening to all of my people since we were stuffed on boats in chains. ... Maybe instead of letting this destroy us, we take the feeling you guys felt the day after the election and say, ‘That morning, we all woke up knowing what it felt like to be black.’
That stinging last line isn’t entirely fair, if only because the American left has lost a whole lot of battles in the last half-century’s political wars. But there’s truth to the fiery charge that suddenly feeling like the country has slipped from your grasp is a white privilege, especially from the point of view of minorities who have never felt like their country was on their side. And if the knowledge of “what it feels like to be black” is that awful, well, what more straightforward road to empathy can there be?
But “Lemons” doesn’t want the future moored to the past. Junior is deterred by his grandfather from extending the Johnson family tree’s line of “angry black men.” Instead of dwelling on history’s sins, the cheerful teenager is encouraged to embrace his “beautiful, bright way … of looking at the world” in a character-based nod to Junior’s personality.
Even more inspiring are the kitchen scenes between Bow and Zoey, through which the show holds out hope for a vision of politics beyond today’s tribal totems and bitter partisanship. Without diminishing the importance of groups like BLM, Planned Parenthood, and The Trevor Project, whose knickknacks Bow covers herself in during a post-election stupor, Zoey manages to do her part to fight for progressive values outside of her mother’s institutional liberalism. It’s here that Black-ish’s parental POV — in this case, trusting a younger generation to forge its own ways of being — shines again. Bow tells her daughter, “I feel like I failed you … because as a mom, it’s my job to deliver a world where the values that I raised you to believe in mattered. And they didn’t! Half of our country rejected them.” “Our values don’t disappear just because our side lost one election,” counters 17-year-old Zoey, asserting the perspective of someone for whom Donald Trump will eventually be a blip during her long life. Like lemons, ideals need time to take root and to bloom. Black-ish’s glances at the past and the future remind us to plant now for the things we want to see in the years ahead.