The True Story Behind black-ish: Creator Kenya Barris' Path from Poverty to Hollywood Success
"We were definitely poor, but we never felt like we were destitute," black-ish creator Kenya Barris tells PEOPLE of his upbringing
As Kenya Barris sends his oldest daughter off to her high school “grad night” celebration with a kiss, he wants to make sure one thing is clear: She won’t be getting a car as a present.
“If you want that jacket, then that’s what you’re getting. No asking for anything else,” he tells Kaleigh, 18, of her latest impulse buy.
“And I might’ve gotten her an even more expensive gift, but she chose the jacket,” the father of six, 43, says in the current issue of PEOPLE. “She’s becoming an adult, and the sense of entitlement that went along with making that choice has to have repercussions.”
“The seed of the show came from my own family,” says Barris. “I looked around and saw that my kids were not like little black kids that I remember growing up.” Like Andre, Barris, is married to a biracial wife named Rainbow (nicknamed Bow) and is raising his kids in an affluent neighborhood much different from the one where he was raised in South Los Angeles.
“The world is changing, and that’s being reflected by the Johnsons,” he explains.
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“The Cosby Show meant a lot to me as a kid, but that could have very easily been a white family. I wanted to do a show about what it was like to be a black family living in this environment,” adds Barris, who also chose to dramatize his wife’s 2016 struggle with preeclampsia (a pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure) and the premature birth of their son Bronx, 1, during the show’s Emmy-nominated third season.
“These are real things that happened to us,” says Bow, 41. “It was strange for my family at first, but knowing our life story means something to people is really special.”
“We were definitely poor, but we never felt like we were destitute,” Barris says of growing up the second-youngest of four siblings born to Tina, a real estate agent, and her ex-husband Patrick, a General Motors factory worker. Barris was raised in Inglewood and Pacoima, California, before his father won a settlement after losing a lung in a chemical accident.
- For more from the Barris family — including if they plan to have any more kids — pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now
Tina used some of the money to move her children to a middle-class neighborhood near Hancock Park and put them in private school. Barris attended Clark Atlanta University, where he started out studying medicine.
“I wanted to be a doctor because I grew up on Cosby,” says Barris.
But after a brief attempt at being a standup comic, he found his passion in writing. He ultimately graduated with a degree in radio, television and film, returned to L.A. and worked as a production assistant until Bow, whom he’d dated off and on since high school, became pregnant with Kaleigh in 1998. Barris soon began getting steady work as a staff writer on TV shows.
“At 24, I was probably making more than 95 percent of my friends,” says Barris. “I was burning through money.”
By the time he was 30, he’d sold America’s Next Top Model with his lifelong friend Tyra Banks.
“I feel like money is an interesting thing when you don’t come from it,” says Barris, whose first big splurge was a Gucci leather jacket and who, like Andre, loves collecting sneakers. “You have a tendency to want to spend it, but at the same time you’re really scared [to lose it]. I live in that duality.”
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Barris finds it similarly difficult to raise his six children without spoiling them. “I never want them to feel the way I felt — to not have,” says Barris. “At the same time, I don’t like the sort of sense of entitlement that goes along with that.”
The key to avoiding that, Barris says, is a lot of family discussions, which conveniently provide fodder for his hit ABC sitcom.
“There’s an episode where Zoey questions her religion — that was me. I’d had a huge fight with my dad about religion,” says Barris’ second oldest, Leyah, 16. “It’s one of my favorite episodes, but it can be a little hard to watch at times. Imagine everything that you’ve been through put out there in such a public way.”
Barris says he tries to give his family a heads-up when he takes inspiration from their home life, but Bow claims she wasn’t really told how the season 3 finale in May would dramatize her own traumatic pregnancy, during which she gave birth to Bronx two months early.
“It was emotional and hard to watch, but I was really proud of Kenya,” says Bow, who recently took a step back from her job as an anesthesiologist to focus on being a mom. “When you have something as scary as what we went through and you show it to the world, I think it’s kind of therapeutic.”
Barris would love to be able to spend a bit more time at home, but doesn’t see slowing down anytime soon.
“I don’t ever want to stop doing this,” says the writer, who’ll launch the black-ish spin-off college-ish — which centers on Shahidi’s Zoey — on Freeform in early 2018 and hopes to follow up his co-writing credit on the new hit movie Girls Trip with more film gigs.
“But most importantly I want my kids to be happy,” he says. “You’re only as happy as your saddest kid.”
Season 4 of black-ish returns Oct. 3 on ABC.