Black-ish Creator Kenya Barris' Wife Tells Her Story, Her Way
Black Enterprise Magazine September/October 2018 Issue

Fans of ABC’s Black-ish had a group meltdown on Twitter the other night during an episode titled, “Blue Valentime,” in which the show’s endearing main characters, Dre (Anthony Anderson) and Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross), confronted a marital split.

“Nope….nope….as a child of divorce, I am not about to have Dre and Bow break up our family a week after Cosby is convicted and the same day Kanye is saying slavery was a choice,” tweeted Brittani Jaccaro, aka Binge Watch Bestie.

Perhaps fans take the show so personally because they know that Dre and Bow and their brood of five children sprung less from the imagination of show creator Kenya Barris than they did from his actual life.

Award-winning writer Barris has six children with his wife of almost 20 years. Like the character Ellis Ross plays, she is a physician who works hard, laughs easily, and doesn’t ever take herself too seriously. She also happens to be smart, loving, opinionated, bi-racial, and is nicknamed Bow, for Rainbow—just like her counterpart on TV.

(Rainbow Barris)

She met Kenya in high school, although they didn’t start dating right away. And while the couple is living large now (not merely because of the size of their brood, ages 18 to 1), they each worked long and hard for their success.

In fact, Dr. Barris, the middle of five children in a blended family, was the first in her family to attend college. Although she was gifted in science and math, she had few professional role models and no thought of being a physician until a professor suggested it at the end of her sophomore year.

“I didn’t have a vision,” she says, looking back on her and Kenya’s early years of struggle. “I had a lot of nights of tears, and times when I wanted to give up. People think things happen overnight and you’re so driven. I just knew I had to keep going because there was nothing to fall back on.”

While her husband spent the last four seasons presenting his celebrated fictional version of their family life on TV, Dr. Barris quietly decided to pen her own version of the real thing. Drawn from notes she began recording on their family life several years before the show was even a thought, her new book, “Keeping Up With the Johnsons: Bow’s Guide to Black-ish Parenting,” is being released on May 8.

(Rainbow Barris)

In an interview hours before last night’s unsettling episode aired, she made it clear that her and Kenya’s real-life marriage is on solid ground, and she’s pleased to finally be having her own say.

 

What’s the difference between your telling of your family’s story and Kenya’s?

Mine is the truth and it’s right! [she laughs] Black-ish tells so much of our life, but it’s told from a male perspective. The situations are the same, but the narrator really does control how that situation is received. In my telling of the story, I probably focus more on the kids and things around me, not as much on myself—which is what we do, as women.

 

The book opens with a story that is hilarious but shocking. It’s hard not to give too much away, but it involves a fitting room, a nursing baby, a screaming toddler and a serious bathroom emergency—yours.

I had conversations about that with the publisher. What were we going to do with this story about my pooping in my baby’s diaper? I said, let’s open with it. I led with the most humiliating story because I wanted it to be clear that I’m sharing things I’m not comfortable with. If I’m only sharing things I’m comfortable with, I’m not really being authentic. It was hard, but I wanted to be vulnerable. That I kept it in there—I’m proud of that.

 

Your book is not full of tips or advice or resources, it’s really a book of your experiences. Why call it a guide?

I was very deliberate in calling it a guide, but it’s meant almost as a play on words. Most guides are written by experts who give us a plan, and we always want a plan. As an anesthesiologist, women come in and present their birthing plans to me all the time, and then nothing goes the way they expected. That’s how parenting is. Life is about the lessons you learn when nothing goes according to plan. My experiences have been my guide.

 

Who is your parenting hero?

It would have to be my mom. She trained me to look up to her, to respect her, and she also prepared me for therapy [more laughter]. We were raised with a lot of chaos and a lot of love. I’m doing the same thing with my kids. It is my job to try to help them be the best human beings they can be but I’m ready for all of my kids to blame me for therapy.

 

What’s the most important thing you try to impart as a mother?

Your family is your family. You have ups and downs and disagreements but no matter how upset you get, you always have to come back to each other.

 

You have children ages 1 to 18. What do you know now that you wish you’d known 18 years ago?

And this too shall pass. If it’s a good day, it passes. If it’s a bad day, it passes.

 

What do you hope readers take from this book?

I know how important it is to let even one other person in the world know that someone else has gone through what they’re going through and understands. I want that person to know, you’re not in this alone.

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