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Relationships
January 9, 2024

We Are Family!

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Take a pinch of Huxtable (The Cosby Show), stir in some Banks (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) seasoning and add a splash of Jefferson (The Jeffersons) stock and you have the recipe for America’s new prime-time faces of the Black family in the Ellises. The only difference is, they are doing it unscripted.

As stars of a popular, self-named web series and hosts of an award-winning podcast (Dead Ass with K&D, described as “Love, Sex, Marriage and everything in between!”), Devale and Khadeen Ellis have earned a growing fan base for their unvarnished and unapologetically upbeat celebration of family life.

Spotlighted by The New York Times (headline, “Family Comes First in Their Full House”) the mid-30s Los Angeles-based couple with 4 million Instagram followers between them have also penned the forthcoming marriage book We Over Me: The Counterintuitive Approach to Get- ting Everything You Want from Your Relationship.

There are no off-limits. Podcast episodes—among them, a lengthy conversation with then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden—include “Hot Girls and Hoochie Daddies,” “How to Get the Ring” and “Rekindling Intimacy after Pregnancy.” Among many The Ellises YouTube offerings for their near-500,000 subscribers are “Working out together is the best foreplay,” “Husbands need homie time too” and “5 facts about married sex.”

While dispensing their clear and hard-earned wisdom on everything from relationships to raising children, the parents of four (sons Jackson, Kairo, Kaz and Dakota) aren’t afraid to admit they don’t have all the answers. Rather than pretending they know it all, they invite viewers along on the journey as they work it out, promising there will be some fun on the way.

And if ever Black marriage needed new cheerleaders, it’s now. Though the number of African Americans who are married has grown by around 1 million to 4.7 million since 1990, as a proportion of the community they are at an all time low: around a third, compared to half of all Americans.

‘Give them grace’
Boil it all down, the Ellises say, and the most important thing for successful family life is good communication. It’s been a learning curve over their 20 years together, Khadeen admits. “It’s something that we still, to this day, have active dialogue about,” she says, “trying to figure out how to express our-selves in a manner where the person on the receiving end can really understand not necessarily your intention, but what it is that you’re trying to communicate at the baseline.”

Extending grace is a critical part of good communication, adds Devale, who also finds time for an acting career with a current credit as part of the cast of Tyler Perry’s Sistas, (recently in its fourth season) and a leading role in spinoff series Zatima. “Because sometimes you may not like what the person sitting across from you has to say, but you have to learn to understand that their perspective is just different from yours,” he says. “So maybe I don’t like it, but I can appreciate it and try to understand where they’re coming from.”

Khadeen feels a responsibility to model this well for their sons. “We want to make sure we empower our boys to speak, to be vocal about the way they feel,” she says. “Yes, of course, in a respectful manner, particularly with elders, but also making sure that they’re able to express themselves and they feel a comfort in that… We want to make sure [we are] raising four Black men to be strong men who know how to communicate in many different relationships, not just intimate, not just parent-child, not just brother-brother, but with everyone.”

That’s why grace isn’t important just for a healthy family life, Devale notes. “It’s any relationship—let’s learn each other. Let’s give each other time and have patience to develop emotional intelligence and learn what’s best for both parties.”

Devale tells how he grew in this area after becoming aware that he was too quick to jump in to correct their oldest son. “I started to realize like, if I don’t give him the grace and the latitude to make mistakes and learn, he’ll never learn. He’ll just be a robot. And he’ll just be always looking at me for the answers. I’m not always gonna be there to give him the answers. So, I learned I had to learn to give him grace. And, as a parent, it taught me, wait, if I’ve got to give my son grace, I should give my wife grace. I should ask for grace.”

At this point, their conversation with WayMaker Journal mirrors one of their podcasts or videos, as they piggyback each other’s thoughts. With grace comes accountability, Khadeen adds. “It’s cool for him to give me grace,” she says, “but I have to know also when I need to step up to the plate, when I need to accept the challenge and say, ‘I appreciate the space and the grace that you’ve given me to receive this information, but now it’s up to me to figure out how to maneuver and then take it a step further and deliver on what it is that needs to be done.’ So, it’s a simultaneous thing that needs to happen.”

Devale nods in agreement. “She summed up everything I was saying, but added a button which makes sense: You can give people grace, but also hold them accountable and then it’s on that person to step in.” (“That’s beautiful, babe,” he tells her in an aside.) You don’t juggle a family of six and all they have going on well without being organized. The Ellises have a team beyond their family (“we outsource, we delegate,” Khadeen says), and also recognize their own individual strengths. If Devale is the visionary of the two, Khadeen is the voice of caution that’s needed sometimes. “He’s like the free thinker; he’s coming up with the ideas,” she says. “And then sometimes I have to reel him in and say, ‘OK, so how can we actually execute this?’ I am more of the Type A: ‘We’ve got to plan it out, we have got to organize.’ We have that perfect kind of dance that we do where he’ll throw something out and I’ll catch it and I’ll just figure out how everything would happen.”

‘Work the plan’

Although the couple admit they don’t have all the plays worked out, that doesn’t mean the Ellises have no game plan. In fact, they have had a goal in mind from day one. On their first date, while students, she asked him what he wanted to do in life—not your typical 18-year-old’s question. Martin was on TV at the time—another positively family-focused Black character—“and I said, ‘I want to do that,’” Devale recalls. “And she looked at me and she said, ‘Well, how are we going to do that?’”

Her response shocked him. “So then I sat down with her and I told her my plan and she looked me in my eyes the whole way; she didn’t blink,” he says. “It was the most intimate part of our relationship that I remember; it wasn’t physical. It was a woman believing in my dreams and believing in me. And I said, ‘Dang, this may be the woman I may spend the rest of my life with.’”

From there on they “stuck with the plan,” which included getting their degrees from Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. Devale’s brief time in the NFL—two seasons with the Detroit Lions and a spell with the Cleveland Browns—was part of the strategy. “I told her I was going to use the NFL as a down payment to get us a home so that we can live and not have to worry about how we were gonna pay rent every step of the way.”

Part of the plan has involved recruiting help; they believe in the old saying that it takes a village to raise a family. That has meant making room in their home for Khadeen’s parents. “How many men are doing that nowadays?” she asks. “But he foresaw that, ‘You know what? I have a woman beside me who is down for the cause, she’s down to ride, and I want to empower her to do the things that she wants to do as well. So in order to make that happen, to take some of the load off of her… let me bring her assistance,’” Khadeen says.

“If we’re not with the boys in this particular moment, who better to have them than our parents?” she goes on. “You know, our parents did a pretty decent job with the two of us, so if the boys can be with them too, that’s great.”

Devale sees the extended household as an all-around positive. There is help with the children and every Friday night, Khadeen’s mother “pushes my wife and me out of the house,” he says. “I’ve had more access to my wife because my mother-in-law is in the house; just facts.”

‘Do not apologize’

The Ellises both speak gratefully of their upbringings (Devale notes the tendency these days for people to blame everything on their parents). Khadeen mentions the work ethic she inherited from her mother and father, who came from Jamaica and St. Vincent respectively in search of the American dream. Mom worked her way up from Burger King server to management, to put herself through nursing school. Dad became a lab tech.

“One thing that was never at a deficit in my house was hard work,” says Khadeen. She did everything she could to make them proud because “my parents worked round the clock; they sacrificed so much for me.” There was no shortage of love, either. “They may not have communicated well, they may have found ways around family issues and drama, but one thing that they always did was lead with love. And that’s how I am with my boys. Love and support.”

For Devale, the family emphasis on accountability and pride in his heritage was formative. His mom was one of the first Black students integrated into all-white schools in Brooklyn, while his dad’s family had owned property in South Carolina at a time when not many Blacks did. Devale embraces that spirit of dignity and determination.

“That’s something I talk to my boys about,” he says. “You have a responsibility as a Black man… to continue to be great in front of everybody. Do not apologize to people for being great, because that’s all our family ever did was be great and survive… It’s OK to love yourself and love the people around you unapologetically.”

Both tell how coming from families that were givers has influenced them, recalling how the door was always open to relatives or people in the community who were in need. “And now we live in a space of abundance, where our responsibility is to be good to other people,” says Khadeen. And “every time we just give [because] God places it on our heart to give, we get it back tenfold more.”

For all of Devale’s positive memories, there was a challenging part of his growing up that provides some of the fuel for his determination today. He speaks openly for the first time about the fear he experienced while taking the bus to school as a 14-year-old high school freshman, watching other students get dropped off.

“I was worried, and I felt like there was no one there to protect me,” he remembers. “And I said, ‘Man, when I have my kids, I’m gonna make sure that I have a lifestyle that allows me as a father to be there, to walk them through new moments. And I want to have a wife that can be there to welcome them home from those new moments.’”

‘LIFE WITHOUT BALANCE’:
THE ART OF DELEGATION

To everyone who wants to know whether women can “have it all,” Khadeen has this to say: Yes, but it won’t always look picture-perfect.

“That is just not realistic,” she says. “I have all of these things: I have my husband, I have my boys, I have my career. I have so many things going on, but I fall short sometimes in certain roles because I’m a human being. So, I want to tell women that you can have it all, but . . . there is no balance. It’s about me being able to say, ‘You know what? These are the things that need to get done, these are the things that I can get done in this time period. Now I have to delegate because why? It’s just not possible for me to be able to do this in that moment. Let me delegate. Let me find my village. Let me call my mom.’

“We can have it all, and the narrative is we can’t.”

‘CRACKING THE CODE’: SERVICE

A huge moment in their marriage for Devale came when he feared he might lose Khadeen when she gave birth to their first son, Jackson. She survived a four-hour surgery but not before he vowed to God: “If you bring my wife through this, I promise you I will do everything in my power to be the best man I can for this woman and for my son.”

He realized he had “cracked the code” when he started focusing on serving Khadeen. “The more I became of service to my wife, the better my marriage became, the better my kids were, the better my wife was to me,” he says. “When I stop being of service to myself and start being of service to my wife, I actually get all the things I desire out of my life because now I have someone who’s fully committed to being of service to me. That’s ultimately how relationships work.”

It’s not about being “a simp,” if you’re a guy, or “submissive,” if you’re a woman, he insists. “This is a marriage; we have to be of service,” he says. “You being everything you want to be to your wife doesn’t mean you’re a simp; it means you’re a great husband.”

PROUDLY OWNING THEIR BRAND

While they try to live as an open book, the Ellises know that there’s a balance between being real and being responsible. Khadeen especially was hesitant at first about “putting our business out on front street… I worry as a mom, as mama bear, about my boys.”

This article was originally published in the Winter 2022 issue of WayMaker Journal.

Talk about protecting your “brand” can sound negative, but Devale sees the word as just a term for “the life that you want to live. Like, this is the life I want to live, and I want to curate it and create it. People call it a brand, but every- body curates their life… you just create the life you want to live, and that becomes your brand.”

“Brand” can have a negative connotation “because, as Black people, we’re not allowed to own anything,” Devale says. “So, the minute you start to move and curate your life—and part of that curation comes with ownership—they say your focus is not on the right thing. ‘You’re thinking about the money.’ But let’s be honest: we live in a capitalist country where Black people have been the commodity for a long time, but have never reaped the benefits of the work we put in.”

From an interview with Louis Carr

WARDROBE STYLIST: Sherrie Simmons; KHADEEN HAIR STYLIST: Nicole Newland; MAKEUP ARTIST: Shennel Patrick; PA: Anyeka Frith, Halima Miller; DIGITAL TECH: Matthew Ellis.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2022 issue of WayMaker Journal.