Cosby Redux

“Look daddy, it’s the Cosby man!” My then three-year-old daughter kind of caught me off guard with that one. She had only seen The Cosby Show a few times up to that point, but was familiar with Cosby’s face because of the Little Bill cartoon that Cosby created and executive produces for Nick Jr.. When my daughter got old enough (around two) to have distinct taste in her television viewing, my wife and I began the struggle to find programming that more reflected the brown skin that my daughter marveled at in the mirror.

While we enjoyed animal-based fare like Arthur (which, while centered around animals, has managed to address issues like class, ethnicity, and single parent-hood), and The Powerpuff Girls, with its veiled feminist critique, increasingly we craved visual stimulation (other than what we found in her books) where my daughter could see her “chocolateness” (we live in a “chocolate,” “vanilla,” “banana,” and “graham cracker” world) animated. Little Bill (with the most “finely” drawn black women in the history of television animation) and the now defunct Gullah, Gullah Island (which was way before its time) helped broaden my daughter’s perspective.

Coming from the proverbial middle-class professional “flies in the buttermilk” type family, my daughter has had very little interaction with folks who look like her, save during extended family and trips to New York City. It was perhaps out of that dilemma that we began to introduce her to The Cosby Show on weekend evenings, when the program began to air regularly on Nick at Night in January of this year. It was in the context of watching The Cosby Show from the perspective of a parent, that I began to re-evaluate my — and my generation’s — ambivalence about what remains one of the most successful television sitcoms ever.

It’s not that I had never appreciated The Cosby Show. I was a sophomore in college when the series premiered in September of 1984. The series first aired five years after the cancellation of the highly influential Good Times. With the exception of the often buffoonish The Jeffersons, examples of screen “blackness” had been few and far between save folks like Roger Moseley (Magnum P.I.), Robert Guilliume (Benson), Alphonse Ribiero (Silver Spoons) and Tim Reid as WKRP in Cincinnati’s “Venus Flytrap.”

As bell hooks and others have discussed, black audiences greeted The Cosby Show with a certain amount of euphoria, simply because it was regular opportunity to see “black” life portrayed in a “responsible” manner. For some of us, that euphoria lasted only a year or so, as the distinctly upper middle-class world that Cosby and his writers constructed for the show’s audiences often clashed with our emerging hip-hop generation nationalism. If the “conscious” members of the hip-hop generation were looking towards the booming bass of Chuck D and the stinging anti-white supremacist rhetoric of Louis Farrakhan for vision, then The Cosby Show was often viewed as being out of touch with urban realities.

Truth be told, though I watched the show virtually every week, I often did so out of the chance I’d get to peep that “fine-ass” Lisa Bonet — a desire no doubt shared by a generation of young men aged 13-30, including a young musician by the name of “Mikki Bleu”. Even Bill Cosby himself sensed this rift within some of his black audiences and he offered the Lisa Bonet vehicle A Different World (which followed Bonet’s character “Denise” to a fictional historically black college). Though The Cosby Show always outperformed A Different World in Nielson ratings, the later was more widely watched in black households.

The root of hip-hop generation displeasure with The Cosby Show was not simply that the show wasn’t “political”, but rather the show did in fact serve the political function of diverting attention away from the harsh realities of Reagan-era social policies. In effect, the Huxtable family was posited as the “model” black family, overriding the legitimate criticisms of Reagan’s attacks on social policies that were enacted a decade earlier to address the very inequities that The Cosby Show‘s commercial success helped obscure.

In the minds of many mainstream audiences, the Huxtables were antithetical to the images of welfare queens, “Willie Hortons”, and the unruly, uncontrollable black youth that fueled the rage and noise of rap music. As Ron Daniels notes, “the critical subtext of Reaganism and Reaganomics was race . . . [Reagan] persuaded the American people at a time of crisis, of stagflation and insecurity, that the burden of government had to be lifted off the backs of the American people. Translation: All of those Black people and people of color who are on welfare, food stamps, all these social programs, and burgeoning entitlements, are really the cause of the crisis in American society…” (Race and Resistance: African American in the 21st Century, 14).

In other words the image of an upper middle class black family being piped into the living rooms of “white America” helped validate Reagan et al’s scapegoating efforts. For example, conservative pundit William Buckley was quoted as suggesting that it was not accurate that “race prejudice is increasing in America. How does one know this? Simple: by the ratings of Bill Cosby’s television show and the sales of his books. “A nation simply does not idolize members of a race which that nation despises.” (quoted in Media Matters: Race and Gender in U.S. Politics, 98). What Buckley didn’t understand was that those audiences who adored Cosby, did not necessarily see him as “black” — he had in fact, in their minds, transcended race, an issue that Spike Lee brilliantly addressed in Do the Right Thing.

Many of these divergent opinions about The Cosby Show were due to the fact that many saw the show not simply as entertainment but as an ideological tool — largely for the political right. A sampling of some of the scholarly writing devoted to The Cosby Show accentuates this reality. In his book Am I Black Enough For You?: Popular Culture from the ‘Hood’ and Beyond, Todd Boyd argues, “Cosby represents an assimilated world where the persistent issues of race and upper-class existence have been normalized. These issues are no longer in need of discussion as they have been transformed into more universal, thus humanistic causes,” adding that “Cosby assumed a great deal of importance . . . almost to the point of denying any other form of popular American imagery.” (23). Of course part of the appeal of The Cosby Show to older black audiences was the fact that it allowed for the presence of a stable and successful black middle class on television, but as Boyd suggest, it was often at the expense of working class and poor blacks.

Michael Eric Dyson lauds Cosby for shattering “narrow conceptions of African-American identity and culture,” but notes that the program had a “responsibility to address these issues [race, sex, and class] precisely because he has created a cultural space for the legitimate existence of upper-middle-class blacks on television.” (Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism, 84) In yet another example, John Fiske took issue with what he called the “Anita-Clair-Murphy” configuration. Juxtaposing the fictional characters “Clair Huxtable” and “Murphy Brown” with the real-life Anita Hill, Fiske writes “this configuration . . . carries hot issues in the debate around family values, single motherhood and race: Murphy the white single mother, Anita the hypersexual Black woman or oppressed raceless one, and Clair the black opposite of both, the embodiment of every possible family value.” (Media Matters, 105)

Of course, Bill Cosby wasn’t beyond seeing the show in an ideological manner himself, though his motivations were very different from those of the political right. In a Los Angeles Time piece in 1989, Cosby compares his show to past examples: “You had Amos and Andy . . . but who ever went to college? Who tried for better things? In Good Times, J.J. Walker played a definite underachiever. In Sanford and Son, you have a junk dealer living a few thousand dollars above the welfare level.”

In his seminal book on post-Civil Rights television and race, Herman Gray suggests that “positioning The Cosby Show in relation to the previous history of programs about blacks helps explain its upper-middle-class focus . . . the show’s discursive relationship to television’s historical treatment of African-Americans and contemporary social and cultural debates (about the black underclass, the black family, and black moral character) helps explain its insistent recuperation of African American social equality (and competence) . . . ” (Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for Blackness, 80) Addressing his own ambivalence about staking out a position on the show, Gray admits “this unwillingness, I am increasingly convinced, is part of the show’s appeal, its complexity in an age of racial and cultural politics where the sign of blackness labors in the service of many different interests at once.” (Watching Race, 84)

Gray’s comments reflect my own sense of The Cosby Show as I now view it as a 30-something parent. In my opinion the ideological readings of the show have obscured the more potent cultural influence of the show, as Cosby used The Cosby Show to broaden the cultural palate of the mainstream public, by creating space where the rich and diverse legacy of black culture could be made visible. Cosby often achieved this in subtle ways, as he regularly wore the sweatshirts of HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) and had two of the Huxtable children (Denise and later Vanessa) attend the fictional HBCU Hillman and the real Lincoln University, respectively. (The oldest daughter, Sondra, was a Princeton graduate and the son, Theo, earned a degree from NYU).

During several episodes, Cosby used the music of his youth as a backdrop to story lines. Ray Charles’s “The Night Time is the right time” was mimed by the Huxtable family in celebration of Cliff’s parents, the brilliant stage actors Earle Hyman and Clarice Taylor, who likely would not have had a television presence save the Cosby Show. I for one hit the record bins the day after viewing episodes during the original run that featured the music of Jimmy Scott and Big Maybelle (“Candy”) that I was unaware of before. And of course there was the Ellis Wilson painting that adorned the family’s living room.

In more direct ways, Cosby used the show to showcase “classic” American artists. The late vocalist Joe Williams had a recurring role as Claire’s father. The late Betty Carter appeared as Vanessa’s music teacher, making Carter visible to mainstream audiences in ways that she never sought. Indeed, the day after Carter’s appearance on the show a few years ago, I cited The Cosby Show for students in my African-American Studies who didn’t know who she was (“oh yeah, I remember that episode”). Legendary song-stylist Nancy Wilson appeared several times, including one occasion where she and Phylicia Rashad (Claire) performed “Moody’s Mood for Love” together. A virtual “who’s who” of American music graced the Cosby set as Dizzy Gillespie, Mario Bazu, Sammy Davis, Jr., Tito Puente, B.B. King, Celia Cruz, Lena Horne, Mongo Santamaria, Art Blakey, Max Roach Stevie Wonder (and even Special Ed) put in their time. `

Cosby gave a shout out to both the old guard of black actors and actresses (many of whom had links with the famed Negro Ensemble) and both the “new-jacks ” of the era. Moses Gunn, Roscoe Lee Brown, Al Freeman Jr., legendary film-maker Bill Gunn (the underground classic Ganja and Hess), Pam Grier, Joe Seneca, Gloria Foster, Ted Ross (The Wiz’s Lion, who passed last week), Denise Nicholas (who played opposite Cosby in Let’s Do It Again and A Piece of the Action), Roselind Cash (who like Ross and Brown would have a recurring role on A Different World and Minnie Gentry all appeared on the program. Gentry, then 75, appeared as “Aunt Gramtee” in one of the series’ most moving episodes as the entire Huxtable clan attended a special church in honor of their visiting aunt. “Aunt Gramtee” was serenaded by Mavis Staples, who performed a stirring rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy.” The episode, which first aired in May of 1990, was a striking reminder of the wondrous things that could only occur in what Gary has called the “Cosby moment.”

Actors such as Allen Payne (“Lance”), Karen Malina White, Deon Richmond (Kenny aka “Bud!”), Carl Anthony Payne (Cockroach and later Martin’s Cole), Merlin Santana (later The Steve Harvey Show’s Romeo), Erika Alexander (later Living Single’s Maxine) and Dondre Whitfield (Vanessa’s first love Robert) all had their first recurring roles on The Cosby Show. In addition, folks like Kadeem Hardison, Sinbad (both became leads on A Different World), Stacy Dash (Clueless), Robin Given, Tico Wells, Kristoff St. John, Blair Underwood, Mario Van Peebles, Naomi Campbell, Tatyana Ali, the late Michelle Thomas (Steve Urkle’s love Myra on Family Matters) and even a four-year-old Alicia Keys made guest appearances on the show.

Cosby also took aim at the conventions of television sitcoms. In the very first episode, most of which was jacked from Cosby’s concert film Bill Cosby: Himself (1982), Cliff deals with his underperforming son, Theo, who we find out later in the series suffered from dyslexia. In the episode, Theo makes a weepy speech about his “successful'” parents loving him for “who he is”. The scene has been played out hundreds of time on sitcom television, as the characters were expected to embrace and the after 20 minutes of crisis, all would be resolved. But Cosby trumped those conventions and responded by telling Theo his comments were “the stupidest thing that he had ever heard” before admonishing his son for not working hard enough. In one swift flip Cosby literally changed the face of television sitcoms and introduced the nation to the tradition of “black parenting”. Indeed, existing shows like Family Ties and Growing Pains had to retool after the success of Cosby, and a middling show like Family Matters ran for seven years, largely as a less ambitious version of The Cosby Show. Probably the best example of the show’s success was the emergence of anti-Cosby shows like Rosanne, The Simpsons, and most notably Married With Children which ran an unfathomable 11 seasons.

My daughter now regularly ask for Cosby, The Smart Guy and “Will” (meaning the Fresh Prince of Bel Air). She is often oblivious to the humor of the shows, but seemingly relishes the brown bodies she sees on the screen. These were subtleties that I would have missed a decade ago when The Cosby Show was still in production. Perhaps I take for granted that I was one of the first generation of young black and brown shorties who got to peep ourselves on screen on groundbreaking PBS programs like Sesame Street, (the original Gordon, Matt Robinson, was a regular writer on Cosby), Zoom, and The Electric Company (hey was that Morgan Freeman?). And damn if I don’t seem to recall a Saturday morning children’s program hosted by “the Cosby man”. Bill Cosby is never gonna be mistaken for the radical race man, but as a card carrying member of the hip-hop generation, it’s about time I give Dr. William H. Cosby, Jr., Ed. his props.

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