A love letter to the Black Pearsons of ‘This Is Us’
As the hit NBC series comes to an end, we take a look back at the show’s Black characters
bell hooks once defined love as “a combination of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust” — all things fans watched play out over six seasons on NBC’s hit series, This Is Us.
To many, the family drama felt like a welcome escape from an increasingly stressful world (yes, even if they were moved to tears each week). But for Black viewers, This Is Us felt like a love letter to its perfectly imperfect Black characters, handling their stories — and by extension our stories — with nuance, complexity and most of all care.
The series, which wraps its sixth and finale season Tuesday night, chronicled the lives of the Pearson family, following them through different timelines (regularly moving between the ’70s, the ’90s and even the future), generations and connections. Centering mostly around “the big 3” Pearson siblings — Kevin, Kate and Randall — This Is Us managed to not only tackle complex family dynamics (rivalries, marital spats, substance abuse), but it also explores race, and specifically what it’s like for a Black person to be raised in a white family.
The Black Pearsons have arrived
When we first meet Beth and Randall Pearson — played by Susan Kelechi Watson and Sterling K. Brown, respectively — it’s easy to assume they have a picture-perfect life in the suburbs. After all, they have two beautiful kids, they’re financially well-off and they’re taking shifts watching their daughters’ soccer games. But when the show dug into their individual and collective stories, starting with Randall’s adoption, viewers quickly learned they were in for a long journey.
In the series premiere, Randall confronts his biological father, William “Shakespeare” Hill (played by Emmy winner Ron Cephas Jones), who left him at a fire station shortly after he was born. Through the show’s insightful writing, William transforms from a young poet who struggled with drug addiction to an elderly man, who became a beloved part of the Black Pearson clan. Yes, his complexities, mistakes and struggles play out on screen, but we also see him receiving an incredible amount of grace as well. In spite of Randall’s initial plan to tell William off and rub his success in his biological dad’s face, William is embraced by the family and allowed to participate in long-standing family traditions. His life, and eventual death, is honored in one of the show’s most moving episodes, Memphis (Season One, episode 16), in which father and son take a road trip to William’s hometown before he succumbs to cancer. William’s last few minutes of life are spent in the arms of the son he thought he’d lost years before. That moment of honor and compassion aren’t usually afforded to characters like William, but on This Is Us, they are a normal occurrence.
In Season Two, Randall and Beth decide to become foster parents and meet a teen named Deja, portrayed by Lyric Ross, who they later adopt. In lesser hands, Deja’s storyline could have been a sad tale about a young girl who’d seen way too much and fell victim to the system. Instead, we get a complicated picture of how easily kids can end up in the foster system, even if they have a loving family at home.
When we meet her, Deja is fiercely protective of her mother, Shauna (Joy Brunson), and her grandmother (Pam Grier). As we travel back in time, we watch as Shauna becomes pregnant at 16, and Deja’s grandmother swoops in to help. She nurtured Deja’s love of learning and was the backbone of their family before her tragic death, which eventually led Shauna down the wrong path. It’s a small but effective cameo that makes Deja more than just a statistic. And while it’s easy to judge Shauna’s choices, which led Deja into the foster system, she ultimately steps up to sacrifice for her daughter’s well-being and allows Beth and Randall to adopt Deja. Their story is an example of how easy it is for Black and brown people to fall victim to the system and how so many of us are one circumstance away from dealing with it. It’s also a master class on how to write Black characters with the care and concern that allows them to be their full selves.
Together, the Black Pearsons are a wonderfully complicated and cute bunch. Randall is full of corny dad jokes, but he also struggles with anxiety and grief. Beth’s tell-it-like-it-is style is the perfect complement to Randall’s analytical approach. But we also see her stumble when she’s laid off and forced to reconnect with her dreams. Tess starts out as a young girl who adores her family and later becomes a teen exploring her sexuality and freedom of expression. As a part of the Pearson fam, Deja gets an opportunity to enjoy her girlhood before becoming a young woman who falls in love for the first time. And Annie, the youngest and smallest of the crew, recalls how she was always encouraged and empowered to take up space. No matter how much we love them, the Pearsons aren’t perfect — they make mistakes, argue, challenge each other and get on each other’s nerves.
But they also continue to grow, love each other and they set the stage beautifully for the show’s other Black characters in the This Is Us sphere.
Phylicia Rashad was the stern yet focused Mama C — Beth’s mother — which breathed life into Beth’s backstory. Brian Tyree Henry played William’s scorned cousin, a charismatic musician who wished he’d caught his big break and came to forgive the past. Asante Blackk was Malik, a young single dad who becomes Deja’s first love and Randall’s intern, giving the Pearsons their fill of young love drama. Omar Epps appeared as Malik’s dad, Darnell, who isn’t exactly Randall’s biggest fan but offers advice about going to therapy when he senses Randall is struggling. Delroy Lindo captivated audiences as Judge Ernest Bradley, the official who was against the Pearsons initially adopting baby Randall, but eventually came around. And while they aren’t Black, Jack and Rebecca Pearson’s experience raising a Black son in America was a necessary and important story to share. Overall, the show doesn’t shy away from the truth of each character’s experiences — instead, it shows their expansiveness.
In the poignant and poetic penultimate episode of the series, William delivers a monologue that guides Rebecca, the Pearsons’ matriarch, into the afterlife — and to some extent fans of the show toward its conclusion.
“Truth be told, I always felt a bit lazy to just think of the world as sad, because so much of it is. Because everything ends. Everything dies,” William said. “But if you step back and look at the whole picture, if you’re brave enough to allow yourself the gift of a really wide perspective, if you do that, you’ll see that the end is not sad, Rebecca. It’s just the start of the next incredibly beautiful thing.”
This Is Us has given us a gift of expansive Black characters who feel real and full and human. As the show comes to an end, I’m thankful the Black Pearsons will continue to live in reruns and TV history, hopefully making space for the next beautiful depiction of Black life on our screens.