You know times have changed when within the span of a year, television gifts us with two different episodes—each from a popular show with a predominantly black cast—taking on Juneteenth, the overlooked holiday celebrating the end of slavery in the United States. In its first season, Atlanta used an upscale mansion party commemorating the day as backdrop for a typically muted and bizarre episode—the drinks menu included “Emancipation Eggnog.” And for its Season 4 premiere on Tuesday, Black-ish stepped in to educate primetime network viewers about the commemoration via a broadly rendered, but sharply conceived skewering of America’s discomfort with addressing its own racist history.
Dre (Anthony Anderson) causes a scene in the midst of the twins’ school play, which touts all of the whitewashed facts about Christopher Columbus that have long since been corrected and debunked. Instead, he suggests, we should all be celebrating a holiday like Juneteenth, and he brings soul singer Aloe Blacc (playing himself) into his office to write catchy songs in that spirit. And so goes this very entertaining episode, which features musical numbers with The Roots on one song (“I’m Just a Slave,” an animated segment in the style of Schoolhouse Rock, but way bleaker) and the entire Johnson family, reimagined as slaves, on two others.
The best number is titled, “Freedom,” performed on a stage designed to look like the most expansive slaves’ quarters that ever existed. The family has just learned that they are “free” and, in the style of an uplifting Kirk Franklin song (complete with gospel choir), naively recite all of the things they’re now able to do and accomplish. The writers’ tongues are planted firmly in cheek here: “Ooh, ain’t that something! I can finally whistle at a white woman!” goes one lyric. And: “I can take a vacation and when I’m gone/ They won’t burn crosses on my lawn!” Black-ish may be in its fourth season, but it clearly still remains one of the funniest and most scathing explorations of race on TV right now.