White Awake by Daniel Hill, Free for CAPC Members
White Awake brings us back again and again, gently but inexorably, to the truths that we’re so unwilling to face, steadily prying our hands from our eyes.
Imigrated to the United States from Ghana, West Africa in 1991 at the age of nine. My arrival to the U.S. introduced me to many things theretofore unknown: McDonalds, snowy winters, and family sitcoms like The Cosby Show. I remember watching multiple reruns of The Cosby Show with my brother during summer breaks. Like most, I enjoyed the program for its easygoing portrayal of a loving and stable family. But as an African raised as American, I delighted in The Cosby Show for its depiction of a loving and stable black family.There were no families like the Huxtables in my world, yetI never saw The Cosby Show as though viewing some fantasy program. I believed that the Huxtables existed and much more, I believed that their life was attainable.
The Cosby Show was my door into the realm of upper-middle class black America. There were no families like the Huxtables in my world. Mine was a busy community of African immigrants with taxi driver fathers and nursing assistant mothers who worked night shifts. None of my friends had obstetrician dads or flawless moms with “Esquire” after their names. Yet, I never saw The Cosby Show as though viewing some fantasy program. I believed that the Huxtables existed and much more, I believed that their life was attainable.
In fact, in some ways, I wanted to be a sort of Clair Huxtable when I grew up. I can remember a discussion in my black studies class at the University of Maryland during which I offered Clair as the picture of the ideal black woman: stunning without the usual hyper-sexuality, her appeal was upheld solely by her poise, intellect and articulation; her husband cherished her and her children respected and loved her. This was a woman to be admired; the family of Cliff and Claire Huxtable was one to be regarded. No doubt, The Cosby Show invited its viewers into a circle of a black America unknown to most—whether on television or in real life—and the nation received it with interest.
Sadly, thoughts of The Cosby Show come today with a bitter sting because of the sexual abuse allegations against the show’s creator and star, Bill Cosby. As I write, nearly 60 women have come forward to accuse Cosby of sexual assault, including allegations of drug facilitated rape with the earliest claims dating back to the mid-1960s. While no criminal charges have been brought against the 78-year-old entertainer, the publicity around the sandal has flung a harmful blow to his career and persona.
Actor Malcolm-Jamal Warner (who played “Theo,” on the show) would include the image of The Cosby Show itself in the damage. He spoke with The Associated Press in early October:
“My biggest concern is when it comes to images of people of color on television and film, no matter what…negative stereotypes of people of color, we’ve always had The Cosby Show…And the fact that we no longer have that, that’s the thing that saddens me the most…in a few generations the Huxtables will have been just a fairy tale.”
The Huxtables a fairy tale? For years, they resided at 10 Stigwood Avenue in Brooklyn, New York as America’s family…Dr. Cliff Huxtable was “America’s dad.” He made us laugh with his jocular yet straightforward style. And we received him as an extension of Bill Cosby himself. After all, the show mirrored Cosby’s family-life and Cliff Huxtable embodied everything the comedian praised—fatherhood, respectability and the importance of education.
So when Cosby suddenly emerges as an alleged drug facilitated rapist, it becomes difficult to call Dr. Cliff Huxtable anything but a fairy tale. The reality of his identity also seems to emerge: he was only a character played by a skillful actor. Possibly an alien even to Cosby himself, Cliff Huxtable and his family were more fiction than they were reality. “America’s dad” never existed.
And this saddens us. Like an idolater who wakes up one day to discover that his knees have been bent to lifeless wood the entire time, Bill Cosby’s philandering and possible sexual crimes have muffled the booming ode to television’s most positive portrayal of black life. But that’s what happens when something so seemingly flawless is strapped to the back of a sinful human being—it falls with him.
Malcolm-Jamal Warner’s statement to AP triggered a surprising thought for me: black culture has idolized The Cosby Show. Surely, the heart is a stealthy idol factory, it pushes out self-made gods with ease—but who could have imagined The Cosby Show as raw material? Yet, the heart is resourceful, it can make an idol from almost anything and a show packed with images of success, education and beauty is only (in hindsight) easy pickings.
At some point, The Cosby Show became more than a sitcom; it morphed into a barometer with which to measure success for blacks. But perhaps that was its intention from the beginning. When network executives Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner first pitched the idea of the sitcom to NBC, Cliff Huxtable was a limousine-driving father with a stay-at-home wife and four school-aged children. But before the pilot was shot, Cosby had painted a striking new mural for producers.
His character wouldn’t be blue-collar but upper-middle class, a doctor with a working wife—an attorney. He added a fifth child, Sondra, a returning graduate of Princeton University. A known psychiatrist was hired to add nuance to the writing, which focused centrally on the distinctions of raising children in a high-achieving, two-parent household. While black, the Huxtables weren’t necessarily tuned to broadcast black culture. They were simply everyone’s family. Cosby’s thesis was clear: education and means is the great sanctifier of minorities, it can make them as clean and fitting as the Joneses.
We heard this message in my own home and said “Amen!” It rang true and the show was the sermon illustration. We idolaters love images and The Cosby Show was just the picture for those prone to prize cultural acceptance, education and the hope of wealth as god. You see, “positive images” like The Cosby Show make for “respectable” idols. A fourteen-year-old poor-black-girl can idolize Nicki Minaj to our chagrin, but her friend will worship Oprah Winfrey to our praise.
The problem isn’t so much with the image as it is with the heart. I agree with Malcolm-Jamal Warner; it would be sad for my two young daughters not to know anything of The Cosby Show. The program maintains a distinctively contrarian voice in the mainstream description of blacks and should be recognized. I live today in Southeast Washington DC where 94 percent of the population is black and low-income. Like me, my children don’t see many obstetrician dads or mothers with “Esquire” after their names. Yet, whatever or whoever they might encounter, my prayer for them is the grace to celebrate positive depictions of blacks while always distinguishing between valuable images and the only Image of lasting value. In the end, there’s only one true Sanctifier who never fails.
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