That’s the best way Rainbow Edwards-Barris can describe the first time she watched black-ish, the acclaimed sitcom her husband, Kenya Barris, created. Barris’ conception of the show was autobiographical — a black family navigating upper-middle-class American life — and four full seasons in, he still regularly mines his family’s actual experiences for plot. Watching intimate stories about their marriage and children play out on the screen, as if reflected in a fun-house mirror, often made for uncomfortable family viewing. But over the years, Edwards-Barris has chosen to use that discomfort to her benefit. “I started to say to my family, ‘Let’s make this a little bit more therapeutic for us,’ ” she says. “Now I’m really grateful to have this [show].”
ABC’s black-ish tends to tackle tough topics, from police brutality to use of the N-word, and that’s provided Edwards-Barris with a starting place to engage in complex conversations with her six children, ages 1 to 18. It’s only natural that her new child-rearing guidebook, Keeping Up With the Johnsons, is written from the perspective of her fictional alter ego, Bow Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross), who, like Edwards-Barris, is a doctor. Since so much of black-ish is taken from real life, its plots — even with the sitcom spin — resonate deeply: “When you take these real-life situations where life is happening every day, viewers feel like they know this family — because they can say they are this family.”
One such example: black-ish recently ended its fourth season with a harrowing portrait of Bow and Dre’s (Anthony Anderson) marriage nearly falling apart. Edwards-Barris clarifies that the story line isn’t reflective of her marriage right now but is rather an amalgamation of challenging moments from their past — and a necessary reminder that even the tightest unions can reach a breaking point. She told Barris as the separation plot was being considered, “I think you owe it to your viewers to show this.” It’s not often that Edwards-Barris weighs in on a story line, she assures, but here she felt compelled to maintain the spirit of the show, its essence of truth.
Ross’ Bow has moved increasingly to black-ish’s fore, even as Dre remains its central character. “Because so many of the stories are situations very exact to our life,” Edwards-Barris notes, “Kenya cannot help as a writer but to make the character of Bow more prominent [and] important.” An early season 4 episode explores Bow struggling with postpartum depression after the birth of her fifth child, Devante. Though told from Dre’s perspective, it’s handled with unflinching honesty and sensitivity. It’s also based — exactly — on Edwards-Barris’ experience. “It was a very scary time for all of us,” she reflects, before adding that she found it healing to see it depicted on black-ish. “We all go through so many of the same things, and [the episode] said, ‘You’re not alone.’ ”
Still, black-ish remains a series observed through the lens of a black family patriarch. It’s why Keeping Up With the Johnsons flips the script, staying within the world of the show while shifting to the mom’s point of view. “Just like Kenya takes and shares these experiences that we’ve had, I really do the exact same thing,” Edwards-Barris explains. The book contains anecdotes you could easily imagine in a black-ish episode, as they comically blend imperfection with good intentions — Bow oblivious to the need for a nursing bra while breastfeeding, for instance — and they’re taken straight from Edwards-Barris’ life: “In writing the book, what I did is tell my story.”
With that simple mission, Edwards-Barris’ book has opened up a whole new world within the black-ish universe to explore. And as the show heads into its fifth season this fall, she expects the expansion to continue: “When you’re sharing your life, you can never run out of material.”