Patrick Howell looks at The Cosby Show and how, 30 years later, visions preceded reality.
I had to laugh and just shake my head in quiet disbelief—another article about Phylicia Rashad, America’s mom, and how the Cosby Show of the 80’s was vilified because it thought it was all that. Haters never ever give in do they? The April 3rd article by Chris Witherspoon was published on Grio, the African American MSNBC e-zine:
The Cosby Show is without a doubt an American treasure; however the series has received some backlash from critics who believe the show’s portrayal of an upscale African-American family wasn’t realistic.
In all fairness, the Grio was merely reporting a story. I guess part of my ongoing disbelief at the dyslexic dissonance in American life early in the 21st. Part of that dissonance has to do with class, part of it is issues of self-esteem and depression within the black community and part of it is race in America.
It’s funny to me because in 2014, 30 years later, the Cosby family, with their picture perfect family and pedigree, reside at a few million households in America including 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Visions always precede reality. Architectural designs and schematics are drawn up prior to building empires. By that I just mean that visionaries not only see the future but speak it into being. If you read on you will see what I mean.
In my case, America’s Dad and my dad seem to have some unspoken ‘this is wassup’ understanding. America’s mom and my mom, an engineer with Pac Bell at the time, seem to enjoy regular girlfriend lunch time rendezvous from their offices to co-sign on children and child rearing.
Back in the day, every Thursday was family night on NBC TV and that was unusual because my father, a professor of political science and American history, regimented our media and popular culture intake with the strictest diet. We had carte blanche on the evening news with Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw or Peter Jennings. Unlimited healthy snacks—read: Public Broadcast Station. Open pantry Sundays with Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, NBA or 60 Minutes. During the week, championship diet of textbooks, activities and jog around the neighborhood with Daddy and my younger brother. No Hill Street Blues, no Wise Guy. But my brother and I knew how to tip toe quiet down those stairs past curfew while mommy was grading and catch a glimpse of all the evening action. Saturday mornings we enforced our rights with Hong Kong Fuey, Fat Albert, Voltron, Speed Racer, Bugs Bunny Road Runner and Soul Train. No to Alex Haley’s Roots. No to Dallas, No Falcon Crest – definitely no to Dynasty. What’s Happening and Different Strokes were taboo too. I guess he subscribed to the 100 Black Men of America mantra of “What they see, they will be”. For some reason Fantasy Island and the Love Boat were cool—maybe that had something to do with Mommy and Daddy going on date night.
But every Thursday night, somehow, by the grace of God, the whole family would gather religiously around the television set for 30 minutes with Dr. Huxtable, Claire Huxtable, Esq., Denise, Vanessa, Theo and his homeboy, Cockroach. Theo and his friend Cockroach tried to pass an exam on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” without actually reading the play. As long as Theo Huxtable gave it his best in class, Dr. Huxtable was willing to forgive a ‘hard earned C’ (when I tried that one with my dad, he said in his characteristic Caribbean bravado, “stchupidness”). Little Rudy Huxtable and her best friend, the blues -loving chauvinist Kenny had a thing for each other but were too young to realize it.
The Cosby Show was family time. It was dream time. It was ‘be one’ time. We watched. We imagined. We cuddled. We learned. We laughed.
It was no different when Cosby’s ‘A Different World’ came along following Denise Huxtable’s adventures at the historically black Hillman college with Dwayne Wayne and Whitley. The monotony of my junior high school at Sacramento’s St. Anne’s and Sister Madeline’s strictest regimen of literature, were frequently offset by daydreams of Lisa Bonet and her Denise Huxtable. Ms. Rafanan and Sister Madeline gave me everything I could handle in 7th and 8th grade, sharpening English, reading and language skills that inform you as you read this blog. Those daydreams were this brother’s only relationship to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Matter of fact, I went through a Dwayne Wayne stage my junior year in high school, embracing my inner geek with glee, sporting flat top, showcasing nerd wear (pleated corduroys, plaid shirts, with suspenders) and flip glasses because that cat had figured out how to woo Denise Huxtable.
The Cosby show was a paradox where radicalism and yuppiness intersected. Dr. William Henry ‘Bill’ Cosby, Jr., Ed.D. re-imagined the Andy Griffith Show in stunning full Technicolor. To me, the show simply said, ‘We are all just fine, matter of fact we are way cool, and that’s cool.’ Or ‘Dare to be everything you can be.’ Radical could be cool and matter of fact chill, like a Brownstone in Brooklyn Heights, a castle of Buppiness. Radical could be copasetic; it did not have to be radicalized and lethal like a Black Panther. It was matter of fact and jarring all at once. Cosby, a true griot*, and his venerated team of educators and producers dared to imagine a world- a way forward. Just like the presidential campaign slogans in 2008: Forward.
Oprah Winfrey, in the aforementioned Grio article, agrees with the Cosby show’ significance globally:
“We probably wouldn’t have the president in the office that we have right now had there not been the Bill Cosby show because The Cosby Show introduced America to a way of seeing black people and black culture, that they had not seen before,” Oprah said.
More than likely in another 30 years from now, in the year 2043, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will be multiplied exponentially with zip codes in 90210, 92010, 60615, 30319, the African continent and the Caribbean.
Now I’m thinking about Jack Black on the classic 90’s High Fidelity flick. There was this scene where Jack Black’s store clerk character is insulting the record store manger’s (played by John Cussack) choice of attire. Animated the store clerk bellows with a snooty nasal intonation, “a Cosby sweater! A Cosby sweater!” On the 20th Anniversary of the Cosby Show, I shamelessly snatch Jack Black’s crack. I bellow, a fanaticism animating my face, eyes wide open, pupils nearly dilated “It’s a Cosby America! A COSBY USA!”
*A griot (/ˈɡri.oʊ/; French pronunciation: [ɡʁi.o]), jali or jeli (djeli or djéli in French spelling) is a West African historian, storyteller, praise singer, poet and/or musician. The griot is a repository of oral tradition, and is also often seen as something of a societal leader due to his traditional position as an adviser to royal personages. Wilkepedia