The Cosby Show entered homes across the nation thirty-one years ago in September of 1984. Ronald Reagan was three months away from his second term. With Reagan winning every demographic group, except African Americans, Reaganomics, would go on to dominate the 1980s. Crack sprawled into U.S. streets. Though overstated by media pundits and politicians, crack cocaine was a visibly disruptive force in the 80s. By 1987, according to the Foundation for a Drug-Free World, crack was reported to be available in all but four states. The number of people who admitted using cocaine on a routine basis increased from 4.2 million to 5.8 million during the 80s. The increase in drug use was followed by a rise in addiction and incarceration rates for black and brown communities. Policymakers eager to be re-elected ran on a ‘tough on crime’ platform, resulting in sentencing laws that disproportionately targeted the working class. Higher penalties for the possession and sale of crack, the cheaper to produce crystal form of cocaine, despite pharmacologically, it being the same drug as cocaine. For example, possession of 28 grams of crack cocaine yields a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for a first offense. While conversely, it would take 500 grams of powder cocaine for the same sentence. Drug policy reform advocates argued, these laws in effect helped to populate the prison industrial complex with far more black and brown bodies. Adding to this was the empty promise of a rising economic tide for all. Between vilifying the fictitious welfare queen and discussions of black pathology as expressed in the 1986 CBS special report, The Vanishing Family: Crisis in Black America, The Cosby Show emerged as an oasis of respectability, hope and promise.
Dr. Bill Cosby was already a household name by the time of The Cosby Show. From his stand-up routines, groundbreaking 1960s I-Spy series, films and the innovative animated series Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids during the 1970s, The Cosby Show was poised to cement Cosby’s legacy and redefine African American representation in prime time. Although Amos ‘n’ Andy would be the first black cast TV show and programs like Good Times and The Jeffersons would follow with images of intact black nuclear families, it was the Cosby Show that set the standard for black families of prime-time. After being rejected by ABC, the struggling network NBC gambled on The Cosby Show. After making changes to the roles of Cliff and Clair Huxtable, played by Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad from chauffeur and maid to gynecologist and lawyer, The Cosby Show would go on to be the number one rated show for four of its first five seasons. The series with each script (except for one) vetted by Harvard psychiatrist, Dr. Alvin Poussaint, was strategically designed to emphasize safe-read so white people will watch, blackness. The Cosby Show dominated prime-time from 1984-1992. Aesthetics (art, music, black college apparel), and celebrity guests offered relatable blackness. A blackness fit for prime-time that could be viewed each week without the complicated details of in-depth exploration. The series, though hugely popular ignited conversations about race and class. The model upper-middle-class Huxtables carried the mantle of respectability with their well-adjusted children and storylines that never sunk beneath the dignity of African American class consciousness. For many African-American families, the show was a retreat from the stereotypical news stories and limited images of African Americans across television and film. For white audiences, the series was proof, since they enjoyed the show that they, and society, in general, was not racist. The series was a reminder that any failings of African American success were individual, not institutional. The series was a reference point of the possibility of the American Dream. For all audiences as one reviewer put it, “the message is racism will end when blacks become successful”. Researchers Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis explored the ideological role TV has in shaping our understanding of class structure in their work, Enlightened Racism: The Cosby Show, Audiences, and the Myth of the American Dream. Jhally and Lewis argue that this idea of success being the panacea for racism ignores the reality that in a class-based society, by definition most people will never achieve this. Racism will persist regardless of some blacks gaining economic success.
Despite the implications of what The Cosby Show means, Cliff Huxtable remained an icon. The patriarch of the Huxtables was a stand-in for real-life model father, Bill Cosby. Bill Cosby, family ad pitchman, and author of 1987s bestseller Fatherhood was America’s favorite father. He was an image of African American success. Cosby on television and off was a living challenge to longstanding assumptions about black men. At his best Bill Cosby was a champion of education, advocate for children and a major force in changing standard media industry practices of keeping people of color out of positions of power. Cosby gave writers, directors and actors of color opportunities and was a key financial contributor to Sweet, Sweetback’s Baadassss Song, the 1971 film credited with birthing a new generation of black cinema. Cosby also used his celebrity status to endorse or narrate educational documentaries such as the classic, Black History Lost, Stolen or Strayed. At his worst he was classist in his appraisals of the poor. An out of touch conservative wet dream. Cosby offered a respected black body espousing cornerstone arguments of the right. The reason, the black working class, are poor folks — is not discrimination or exploitation or even actions on the part of the wealthy. Instead, the black working class is poor because of a lack of the right values, morals and sense of direction. In essence, in spite of opportunity they don’t produce. Maybe the best-known illustration of this was his “pound cake” speech at the N.A.A.C.P’s fiftieth anniversary gala commemorating the Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education Supreme Court decision. Cos eviscerated the poor. His commentary seemed tailor-made for conservative talk show pundits. A go-to-play in conservative America’s, ‘what’s wrong with black people’ playbook was now coming from the mouth of America’s father, Bill Cosby.
Scholars, critics, and fans had a field day. Many wondered, was Cosby right? Had he in fact lost it? Should Cosby air dirty laundry regarding the most vulnerable in our community without contextualizing white supremacy in his analysis? The once venerable Dr. William H. Cosby, America’s fictive father had become a grumpy old man with a grudge against the poor. A divided allegiance seemed to be the final public chapter for Bill Cosby. The once unshakable bond between the public and a celebrity figure was now fractured – something like the love for a childhood-favorite relative who you recently discovered was cheating on their spouse. You might have issues with Bill Cosby’s politics, yet he still symbolized success, Cosby did it the right way. Besides, no matter how you felt, he would always be Cliff Huxtable. This idea came crashing down as stories broke about Bill Cosby’s alleged history of sexual assault and violence against women. Taboo practices of discussing African American shortcomings in public spaces would be tested. A once loved figure and unquestioned pillar of black manhood was now polarizing for a much different reason. Comedian Hannibal Buress is credited with fueling interest in the alleged misdeeds of Bill Cosby. In one of his stand-up routines on October 16, 2014, according to reports, the second time Buress publically used this particular bit, he targets Cosby. Buress told the audience, Cosby has no place to tell black people what to do, because “you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches.” Adding with, “When you leave here, Google ‘Bill Cosby rape.’ That shit has more results than ‘Hannibal Buress’.”
This otherwise routine roast of a well-known comedian by lesser-known talent went viral. The commentary sent the world debating Cosby’s innocence, as victims of his alleged history of sexual assault came forward (and continue to come forward). Complicating the matter is the history of racial paranoia that sees guilt as a black persons’ birthright. If that were not enough, allegations against Cosby would trouble how we would reconcile conversations about rape and our collective memory of the Huxtable clan. Similar to Pearl Cleage in her short treatise, Mad at Miles, I ask, can we still love the Cosby Show, if Bill Cosby sexually assaulted, drugged and raped women? If so how do we begin to have conversations about black masculinity that are not at the expense of violence against women? Can we still love the Cosby Show, if Bill Cosby sexually assaulted, drugged and raped women? If so how do we discuss the possibility that Cosby’s attempts to purchase a once struggling NBC network made him an open target as a pariah? Can we still love the Cosby Show, if Bill Cosby sexually assaulted, drugged and raped women? If so how do we begin to name white supremacy, patriarchy, and the complicated intersection of our memory of The Cosby Show?
Maybe it starts with classic steps of recovery, acknowledging that there is a problem. Beginning with vulnerable conversations about art, gender, violence, politics, and white supremacy. Although the names of suspected black men change, (Clarence Thomas, R. Kelly, Mike Tyson, Chris Brown, etc.), the rationale for the oppression of women remains fairly consistent. She shouldn’t have been there; it was her fault because of how she dressed/looked, or this is a calculated attempt to bring (insert male name here) down. It is not a zero sum equation. We can intervene against the assault of women and name white supremacy as an accomplice in the vilification of black men in the media. Violence against women cannot be shrugged off as some nefarious plot to destroy black men; we have to own our culpability in our relationships AND resist. There is no doubt about the deeply ingrained power of white-supremacist- capitalistic-patriarchy in popular culture; its presence is real in the building and destroying of public figures. Paraphrasing Derrida, mass media is spontaneously ethnocentric making democratic possibility difficult. However, it begins with acknowledging that regardless of the legal outcome of the man who gave life to Cliff Huxtable, we will watch The Cosby Show with different eyes. If it means those eyes are open to the level of violence against women, racism in our society or how patriarchy shapes who gets to be powerful or not in Hollywood, then it will be worth watching.
Dr. Akil Houston is an associate professor of Cultural and Media Studies in the Department of African American Studies at Ohio University. Connect with him here and also join the hiphopscholar community on Facebook and Twitter.