When it comes to television shows, there aren’t many dramas that specifically center manhood as it pertains to fatherhood. In many network shows, fatherhood is typically a footnote in the character’s life. Sure, he might be a dad but he’s also fighting crime or is a crime lord or is a superhero or is a powerful attorney or…is something more important than the role of being an involved father.
This Is Us is NBC’s groundbreaking fall series where family—and fatherhood—is the glue that drives the other storylines in the show.
The premise of the show is this young couple, Jack and Rebecca, was supposed to have triplets. One of the babies dies during childbirth. As fate would have it, they wind up adopting a newborn that same day who is black. I’ll admit that when someone was describing the pilot to me, it sounded off-putting at first. I didn’t want to watch another of those “white Savior” type of shows, where a white family comes in and rescues some poor black kid. However, This Is Us is nothing like that. In fact, their adopting a black baby (along with the flashback format the show employs) is what makes the show resonate with people of all demographics.
The fact that they have a black son is the prominent plot for the debut season. The family faces Randall’s conflict with his racial identity and differences from his siblings head on. Even with the flashbacks taking place over 30 years ago, there are tough conversations that most people wouldn’t even consider; something as simple as getting a haircut is addressed. I think when white families adopt children of color, they tend to think of it through an idealistic, myopic manner. In some cases, rather than making sure the children are well-aware of ancestral connections and develop a cultural framework, white families sometimes attempt to sever that attachment entirely. This Is Us shows that as a white parent, it’s possible to raise a black child who can exist and maneuver in both worlds without having to choose.
There was one particular episode that made me a fan of the show and brought me to tears. Randall is craving connections to blackness because he doesn’t see any—not at his private school, not in his social circle, not in his neighborhood. His interactions with black men are limited to play dates. He wants to find his father and he goes so far as to start asking random black men in public if they can roll their tongue. His father notices the desperation in his son so he takes Randall to a karate class in which the entire class is black men and their sons. More importantly, the instructor is black.
The instructor puts the father and son through an initiation ritual that embodies the dedication that a father has to his son. At a formative age, young Randall can literally see that his father doesn’t and will never quit on him.
This show has led me to having some thoughts on my ideals about fatherhood. Adoption is a choice that couples make with the best of intentions. Parenting doesn’t come with a manual. Although, adoption has its own set of uncertainties that can be emotionally jarring as well. When you add in the component of race, you’re dealing with circumstances that force you to evolve on a deeper mental level; maybe even cellular because racism isn’t always overt.
As a couple, Jack and Rebecca have differing views on how they want to handle Randall’s curiosity about his identity. Eventually, they reach a middle ground to Randall’s detriment. I can’t imagine adopting a child and preventing him/her from knowing where they come from. Even if it hurts me, I would want them to feel whole in terms of appreciating their foundation. I think as a parent, too, we deserve second chances to do better for our children. While Rebecca’s need to protect Randall is based in her fear of losing him, it’s hard to ignore that she doesn’t see the efforts in Randall’s birth father to be there for him as a positive black male influence—the very thing Randall was begging for.
This Is Us explores fatherhood in a way I haven’t seen a show do in a long time. It’s honest without being heavy-handed. It doesn’t use race as a crutch nor does it tow the line. It’s progressive and as a man who isn’t yet a father, it’s given me a different perspective on the dynamics of interracial parenting. If you haven’t seen it, it’s now on a winter hiatus so it’s the perfect time to binge-watch.
Photo: YouTube/This Is Us