This Is Us has turned out to be the television show we didn’t know we wanted and now cannot live without—which is saying a lot.
Two thousand sixteen was an extraordinary year for Black folks who love television but struggle with depictions of Black life represented there. It gave us award-winning (and Black AF) shows such as Underground, Queen Sugar, Insecure and, of course, Atlanta. But unlike the other shows mentioned, the plot of This Is Us seemed absolutely annoying and problematic: A White family, out of grief but mostly out of benevolence, adopts a Black newborn who was abandoned at a fire station by his drug-addicted father after his drug-addicted mother died during childbirth? Non, merci!
White-savior films and television shows are always so clearly written to assuage White guilt, and I initially refused even the thought of spending my Tuesday nights watching a program seemingly created to prove that White people “aren’t so bad” while also perpetuating dangerous tropes and pathologies about Black people (In This Is Us, the abandoned Black baby and the drug-addicted parents, for instance).
But…I was wrong.
I have sniffled through every single episode of the series, especially during last week’s show in which we journeyed with William and Randall through William’s difficult life and witnessed him succumb to stomach cancer.
So many viewers (and I count myself among them) find parts of themselves in each of the characters presented on the show. Like Rebecca, I had a very traumatic birth experience and am steadily trying to find the balance between being a good mother and partner and being a woman who has a meaningful life that exists outside of motherhood and matrimony. Like Kevin, I am sometimes self-defeating and insecure. I have lived my entire life feeling undesired and othered because of how I look, much like Kate. And then there’s Randall. So many of us are Randall, trying to be the very best at everything, hoping that our obsession with being the best will prove our worthiness.
Of the characters presented, however, William—played brilliantly by both Ron Cephas Jones and Jemel Nakia—may be the most important. This Is Us writers, including the talented Kay Oyegun, who also writes for Queen Sugar, made William a Black recovering drug addict who is beautifully human and queer and brilliant and tender. We are not accustomed to seeing gentle, compassionate portrayals of Black men on television or in film who struggle with addiction, and who are given opportunities to recover and be redeemed. The closest we’ve come to such a character, I believe, is Bubbles in the critically acclaimed show The Wire. Otherwise, we’ve only seen some variety of Pookie from New Jack City or Gator from Jungle Fever when chronicling Black addiction on television or the big screen.
But then came William, the poet and musician. The parent unselfish enough to choose what he imagined would be a better life for his child. The giver of sage advice. A man vulnerable enough to be accountable for how he had failed many, many times in life. William became the father and grandfather we all wish for; one who is patient and loving despite the lack of patience and love shown to him throughout his own life. In last week’s episode, we saw the character return to his Southern roots and rediscover idyllic moments from his childhood. We witnessed him reconnect with, and seek forgiveness from, the family he abandoned. During flashbacks, we observed his fall into addiction, using drugs to self-medicate and dull the pain of losing his first love, his mother. Through Wiilliam, we see much more than an addict, and that matters so much.
Why do compassionate portrayals of Black people as drug addicts, both while in the throes of addiction and as they recover, matter? Because we understand now, after decades of being criminalized and dehumanized while fighting addiction, that addiction is an illness that must be treated as such. I grew up in the 1980s and distinctly remember how the crack epidemic ravaged Black communities, and how President Ronald Reagan’s (and later, Bill Clinton’s) response to that epidemic was to incarcerate rather than rehabilitate Black addicts.
Today, as I see how conversations about drug addiction are shifting as a new heroin epidemic is taking hold of White suburbia, I am wondering where these kinds of nurturing, holistic conversations were concerning Black addicts, their families and our communities. As Ekoh N. Yankah wrote in a February 2016 New York Times article, “When the face of addiction had dark skin, this nation’s police did not see sons and daughters, sister and brothers. They saw ‘brothas,’ young thugs to be locked up, rather than ‘people with a purpose in life.’”
Through the This Is Us character William, we finally get to see a portrayal of a Black addict who is someone’s son, father, friend and lover. Thus, the show is doing its part to alter the nation’s ideas about the pathologies associated with Black addiction, and as the magical Black girl Viola Davis so eloquently stated in her recent Oscar acceptance speech needed to be done, This Is Us is exhuming those bodies.
Josie Pickens is a griot, cultural critic and professor of English at Texas Southern University.