Commencement 2017: Biographies - Kenya Barris
Race and class are perennially difficult subjects for American political and cultural discourse. Your special gift is to use humor to open these challenging issues for discussion without sugarcoating them. As a writer, director, showrunner, and producer, you blend social commentary with laughter in the tradition of Norman Lear and Spike Lee: an approach that is exemplified most fully in your award-winning television show Black-ish. In this breakthrough sitcom—about an African-American ad executive and a biracial physician raising their four children in a largely white upper-middle-class suburb—you examine the cost of cultural assimilation, mirroring conversations that take place in homes and workplaces across the country. Drawing inspiration from your own childhood, Black-ish powerfully captures the interplay of emotional and social forces in the lives of its protagonists. “That’s our family,” President Barack Obama told you. For giving voice with wit and compassion to some of the most important issues facing our society, Tufts University is pleased to award you the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.
Asked to review a formal program bio, KENYA BARRIS’ instinct is to send up the pious conventions of the genre. “What can be said about a man who has a neck tattoo on his tongue?” he suggests it begin. “From arthritis research to subsistence farming, Kenya Barris has done it all. The proud recipient of a prestigious 1998 Federal Tax Lien...” But Barris’ accomplishments are in fact very real–as a writer, director, showrunner, and producer whose work blends comedy and social commentary in the tradition of Norman Lear and Spike Lee.
His Emmy-nominated, Golden Globe-winning show Black-ish just finished its third season, and Barris has earned it. He sold 19 pilots before he finally got Black-ish on the air. The series centers on Andre “Dre” Johnson, who, like Barris, is the father of a large family, the husband of a doctor, and a highly successful Black professional with inner-city roots who’s often bewildered by the world of privilege in which his children grow up.
Barris was raised by his divorced mother in a low- income neighborhood of Los Angeles. Midway through his childhood, the family relocated to the more affluent neighborhood of Hancock Park, a move up the socio-economic ladder that was life-changing for Barris. “We sort of went up a rung, and I was just at that age where I was old enough to see both sides, so that really influenced who I am,” he recalled during an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air in 2016.
He attended Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he got involved in the Atlanta comedy scene doing stand-up that he describes as “meh.” Back in Los Angeles, he began writing for television, including the sitcom Sister/Sister, the late-night The Keenan Ivory Wayans Show, the Showtime drama series Soul Food, and the comedies Listen Up, Like Family, The Game, Girlfriends, and I Hate My Teenage Daughter. Together with his childhood friend, model Tyra Banks, he co-created the reality TV blockbuster America’s Next Top Model, which has run on VH1 for twenty-three seasons. He also wrote and created BET’s The Start Up and Hulu’s first half-hour comedy series, We Got Next. His first feature film, Barbershop: The Next Cut, was released in 2016.
Black-ish premiered on ABC in 2014 and has received critical and audience acclaim. Barris has penned the particularly topical episodes: one about police violence titled “Hope,” and one that closely followed the 2016 presidential election, “Lemons”.
“We want to start a conversation,” Barris told the New York Times after the broadcast. “We try to do it in a way that’s entertaining and doesn’t feel saccharine or like we’re on a pulpit.”
This past year, Kenya has co-created the hour-long pilot Unit Zero starring Toni Collette and the half-hour pilot Libby & Malcolm starring Courtney B. Vance and Felicity Huffman. He’s also developing several projects with 20th Century Fox Film, including White Men Can’t Jump, Cheaper by the Dozen, and Stir Crazy.
Barris will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.