Obama, Cosby, and America’s Black Family
I grew up in the late eighties in a conservative Christian family that was both financially impoverished and situationally broken. We moved around a lot, almost always living in poor, multi-ethnic communities where we were the sole white family amongst the many brown and black ones. The Cosby Show was one of the few TV programs that passed parental muster for wholesomeness, so I watched it every chance I could. As a now forty-something woman, I can look back to my adolescent love for the Huxtables, and my fascination with the trappings of their emotionally and financially stable life, and understand the yearning I felt. The fictional life The Cosby Show portrayed was far removed from the real life the families around me, as well as my own, were experiencing. But it was everything I longed for.
For the past eight years, the new media channels of the Internet have been steadily broadcasting vignettes from the White House and around the country of President Obama living out everyday life as a model husband and father.By the time Barack Obama was elected president, God had granted me the desire of my heart in the form of a loving husband and three daughters, then eight, five and three. Having attended a conservative Christian college during the Clinton administration, I had been thoroughly steeped in the argument that the gospel was most essentially displayed through the foundation and constructs of the family and that my political loyalties should be aligned accordingly. This meant voting for candidates whose policies and personal life combined to demonstrate a commitment to upholding so-called family values—most centrally, the sanctity of traditional marriage and the protection of the unborn. Commitment to those principles left me with little room in my heart to celebrate the 45th president’s place in history when there was so much to fear over his policies as a progressive Democrat.
During Obama’s campaign, his casual comment about not wanting to “punish” his own girls with a baby as a justification for his determinedly pro-choice position had been like a knife to my mother-of-daughters heart. But as I watched the inauguration on TV, the ghost of my adolescent self saw something familiar in the scene of the new President’s daughters, standing with their mom next to their daddy, wearing J.Crew coats in my own girls’ favorite colors of pink and purple, and I couldn’t help but smile at the scene. I thought back to my college days and to the way the last Democratic President Dad with a daughter had behaved while he was living in the White House. It wasn’t a difficult exercise in obedience to Romans 13 for me to pray that God would help this president at least to be a better husband and father than the last, if not a better president.
For many conservatives, the countdown to the 2012 election season began the minute Obama was sworn into office. With each new policy or action—from withdrawing troops from Iraq, to nominating liberal Supreme Court justices, to pushing through the Affordable Care Act—conservatives like me felt unmoored by a seismic shift in the stability of our country. As the next presidential election season finally drew near, questions began swirling around who the Republican candidate might be who could best rescue America from its downward political and economic spiral. With so much at stake, the last name I expected to hear from the Republicans as a contender was Newt Gingrich.
While his policy positions were straight out of the social conservative handbook, Gingrich’s personal history read more like a Jackie Collins novel. Gingrich married his high school geometry teacher at 19, only to later negotiate divorce proceedings in a hospital room as she recovered from cancer. He asked his replacement wife for a divorce after she declined his suggestion of an open marriage (so he could continue an extra marital affair with the woman who would become wife number three). Newt Gingrich wasn’t a “one woman” man; he wasn’t even a “one woman at a time” man. But early polling indicated that he was the leading choice by close to one-third of Republican voters, including, if my social media feeds were accurate, many conservative Christians. Suddenly, it appeared that for some conservatives, and some Christians, there were things to be valued more than family.
The nomination ultimately went to Mormon millionaire Mitt Romney, whose family values credentials were impeccable, albeit grounded in a theological framework few Christians would recognize as legitimate. But Romney was defeated, and once again Barack Obama stood with his wife and daughters on a dais to be re-inaugurated. While I was deeply disappointed politically, on a personal level, the sight of the President’s daughters once again standing nearby him, with their taller and leaner adolescent frames so like my own growing girls, made me smile again.
In the wake of the Gingrich capitulation and Romney’s defeat, family values conversations amongst conservatives grew quiet. But then a polarizing incident halfway through Obama’s second term brought the conversation back to life, and with new focus. On August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, a black teenager was shot to death by a police officer after shoplifting from a convenience store. Ferguson exploded in anger, and social media along with it. All the usual social ills were indicted, from racism and white privilege to police brutality and poverty. But once again, the focus from conservative Christians, both white and black, was on family values, and specifically, the problem of black fatherlessness. Too many black sons, they argued, were growing up in single mother homes, neglected by their baby daddies, and consigned to surrogate families in drug gangs, leading them inevitably to lives in prison to perpetuate the cycle. Where were the black leaders who would model a better way and call black men to a higher standard?
For many years, at least one of the leaders to whom Christian conservatives could eagerly point was Bill Cosby. In the years following the end of The Cosby Show, Cosby’s trans-racial popularity gave him a platform from which to opine about the problems facing the black community, a platform on which he willingly stood. In remarks at an NAACP event commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, Cosby lamented that the generation who had marched and endured suffering for the right to an education had become a “people getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake.” Many in the wider black community were critical of what were perceived to be generalizations devoid of context, but Christian conservatives gladly embraced Cosby’s voice, and Cosby himself, as a model of the ideal for which they were advocating.
But ten years after the now famous “pound cake speech,” and only two months after the Ferguson riots had reignited the arguments about the importance of black family values, Bill Cosby’s outspokenly conservative public persona was revealed to be an even bigger fiction than the fictional father he played on TV. In October 2014, a grainy video went viral of a two-minute sketch by comic Hannibal Buress, calling Cosby out for his “pull your pants up, black people” persona when he was, according to Buress, a rapist. This wasn’t the first time accusations of sexual misconduct by Cosby had surfaced and then been silenced; it was just the first time it had happened in the era of Twitter. Two weeks later, an invitation from Cosby’s PR team to meme Cosby on Twitter in advance of a new television special was accepted in the virulent and profane manner most of us (unsuspecting PR agents excepted) now know to anticipate. The tsunami of Twitter-rage from ordinary citizens drowned out the voices of Cosby’s defenders, emboldening woman after woman among his acquaintance to come forward with tales of drugging and assault.
The torrent of testimonies grew so large that entertainment outlets scrambled to do damage control, racing to wipe Cosby Show reruns from their broadcast schedules. I YouTube replays of my favorite Cosby moments, like the “Cake for breakfast” story or the “Tacky Barrette” sketch, stopped being part of my girls’ after school snack time routine. Recently, a county court judge ruled that Cosby could be tried in criminal court on charges of sexual assault. Cosby’s legacy as the pater familias of ’80s weeknight television is now being overwritten by his real-life sin and its consequences, and conservative Christians have lost a beloved media figure to whom they could eagerly point as a role model.
But even as the social good of The Cosby Show has been forever marred by the hypocrisy of its creator, another type of feel-good family drama has been growing in popularity, playing on America’s laptop and mobile phones screens. For the past eight years, the new media channels of the Internet have been steadily broadcasting vignettes from the White House and around the country of President Obama living out everyday life as a model husband and father. From date nights with his wife to coaching his daughters’ basketball teams to throwing the first pitch at a baseball game in “Dad jeans” to protecting his schedule for family dinner time at least five nights a week, Barack Obama has been the kind of family man that conservative Christians once insisted America needed, the kind that the Republican party once demanded. On Twitter, the #Obamaandkids hashtag broadcasts a cornucopia of kiddy cuteness featuring pictures of the President with babies and children, in moments that are a powerful mix of the everyday and the never before. Scenes of Obama’s surrender to nostalgic moments of baby-love and childhood joy are recognizable to any parents reliving their now older children’s earliest days through an encounter with other people’s kids. The pictures of Obama bending in front of his desk in the Oval Office to let two African-American boys rub his wiry hair, then lifting one up to make sure he’s in the group picture, captures a moment of childhood ordinary and historic extraordinary all at once. On YouTube, the viral video of 106-year-old Virginia McLaurin literally dancing with joy at the opportunity to visit the White House to meet “a black President and his black wife” became, at least for me, a real-life reenactment of The Cosby Show episode in which Cliff and Clare Huxtable danced the Jitterbug in their living room, and a poor white girl and her multi-racial friends watched and wondered what it might be like to dance with them, or to be them.
I’ll gladly thank God for granting my request that President Obama would be a faithful leader of his family, in the midst of my concerns about how he would, and did, lead our country.Now, another election season is upon us, and for Christians who remain committed to the tenets of social conservatism as the center of their political engagement, or to the Republican Party which for so long laid claim to them, the choices are nigh unto impossible. The now presumptive Democratic nominee is well known for her unreserved commitment to Planned Parenthood as well as brushes with scandal so numerous that the first word which comes to mind for 20% of voters is a variation of “liar”. The irony of the first woman nominee for President being a woman who serially overlooked, and some say enabled and covered over, her President husband’s numerous affairs, is impossible for many to reconcile.
That the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party may be even worse is a testament in itself to how much times have changed, and how quickly. A three-times-married, four-times-bankrupted businessman, Donald Trump’s double- and triple-speak on policy still manages to be dwarfed by speech and behavior so misogynistic and racist that Newt Gingrich looks gentlemanly by comparison. Both candidates are being investigated for potential crimes. Both bring with them family baggage of unprecedented heft. The tragedy of this election season is that no matter who is elected President, the next husband and father to occupy the White House will be either a man who is returning to the stage on which a mere subset of his sexual sins were committed and exposed, or a man who seems overqualified to upstage him in them. It’s as if the choice we face is between a presidency resembling Keeping Up with the Kardashians and one resembling House of Cards.
As the final scenes of the Obama presidency play out, the uniqueness of the political moment we Christians find ourselves in is an opportunity to consider how we got here, and how we might choose to move forward. Cynics would want us to consider only Obama’s political record: to lament eight years of sweeping contra-traditional family legislation and administrative overreach, and to view Obama’s private persona as nothing more than the masterful manipulation of social media as a means to soothe the gullible into sentimental acquiescence to a grand agenda. But cynicism is not the mark of a follower of Jesus, and evidence exists that far too many Christians have already fallen into acquiescence of a far more serious kind.
By linking gospel faithfulness to certain spheres of life (the family, the rule of law) but not others (righteous leadership, the poor, the widowed, the refugee), Christians have been seduced into alliances that subvert or denying the gospel as a whole, even as they purport to uphold its tenets in part. The light of our gospel witness has been dimmed by political pragmatism, and the fabric of our country is beginning to unravel, instead of being more tightly knit as we had hoped.
There is a more excellent way, of course. We could reorient our engagement of the public square around the gospel in all of its fullness, and find ways to affirm leaders who, through common grace or the particular grace of their own faith, live out any aspect of the gospel in their personal lives or their policy decisions. We could be free to affirm leaders who model personal integrity, without compromising our opposition to policies that are contradictory to it. We could speak out against politicians who attempt honor God with their lips, but whose positions and public lives reveal hearts that that are far from Him.
The heat of the current political season has been so intense that November 4 feels alarmingly near. In reality, there are still months to go, months which offer an opportunity to prayerfully consider how best to subordinate our earthly stewardship to our heavenly one. I look forward to whiling away the idle moments of summer cruising Twitter with my girls for more #Obamaandkids adorableness. We‘ll be sure to re-watch My Brother’s Keeper PSA featuring President Obama and Steph Curry doing homework and practicing free throws together. As we do, I’ll gladly thank God for granting my request that President Obama would be a faithful leader of his family, in the midst of my concerns about how he would, and did, lead our country. I’ll lament that we will not see his kind for yet some time, and pray with even greater earnestness that we will again one day.
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