Friday, October 12, 2012

What Happened to the Cosby's? – A Redux

Friday night, mid-march, 1991; do you know where your child was? Of course you do; chances are you probably know where you were as well. In what us 80's babies like to refer to as 'the good old days', we were all sitting in front of the television waiting eagerly for the phenomenon that was ABC's "T.G.I.F.". For years, ABC controlled the cable audience with their Friday night sitcoms, and dominated the water cooler and lunch-line discussions on Monday.

Tuesday night, however, belonged to a man named Cliff Huxtable, his wife Clair, and their children Sandra, Denise, Vanessa, Theo, and Rudy. The Huxtable's, an upper-middle class Black family that lived in a Brownstone in New York City, were a staple for successful family programming. The Huxtable household was headed by successful, college-educated parents who were raising a colorful spectrum of children in front of our eyes. "The Cosby Show" was a beacon of positivity for the Black community. It did not harp on the race of the characters, nor did it ignore the cultural importance of several African American customs. We were welcomed into the home of the Huxtable’s, not as observers of a cache ritual-like black upbringing, but as guests in an All-American home. The show enjoyed a wide and diverse audience because every one could relate to the stories presented.

Some people may argue that 'The Cosby Show' was anything but radical in its approach to Black visibility, but noting the cultural atmosphere at the height of the show's popularity, and compared to the garbage allowed on the airwaves today, one could argue that the Huxtables were the epitome of Black efficacy.

"The Cosby Show" did more than entertain us, it brought Black people into white homes, on a weekly basis. It showed America a contrast to what was portrayed in the media, that not all Blacks were crack fiends or welfare mothers. It placed the idea into young black minds that they could grow up to become doctors and lawyers. It showed every family that we all encounter the same things in life, and made us laugh as an incentive. Even in times when sensitive issues needed to be addressed, it tackled them so eloquently with a sprinkle of humor, and always delivered a happy ending. The show's success paved the way for other families to enter our living room, families like the Banks's, (Fresh Prince of Bel Air) the Cooper's (Hanging with Mr. Cooper), and the Winslow's (Family Matters).

The question becomes, when did shows like this become irrelevant? Why does Black America feel they are no longer necessary in our cultural brand? I would argue that they are more needed than ever. African Americans are fiercely interwoven through every facet of American history but - with the exception of a few “blue moon” moments – we have allowed our narrative to be dictated to us instead of written by us. The ultimate responsibility for our cultural narrative rests in our hands.

I believe that these TV families have fallen into a similar abyss as did some of the leverage gained from the civil rights movement. Once more Blacks became the Cosby's, we forgot why they were needed in the first place. We have fallen into complacency, the severity of which may signal the evanescence of our culture as we know it. Forgive me for the alarmist syntax, but by not acknowledging, nor owning, our own narrative, we are allowing the absorption of our culture and community into an appropriated mainstream caricature of who we used to be. The civil rights movement, the Cosby's, and Black efficacy are becoming afterthoughts, antiquated manifestations of things we no longer require because we are so "accepted and evolved". We have swapped solidarity for “swagger”. Much of it can be attributed to expected sociological assimilation and cultural individualism. The most significant cause, however, can be attributed to the stratification of Black culture across wide socio-economic and geographical spectrums.

An examination of the causes behind this cultural deterioration can be traced all the way back to slavery. Because we were stripped of our customs and languages, the foundation of Black culture is a wayward hybrid of colonial indoctrination and piecemeal African tradition. Like other cultures, we suffer the ills of the "-isms" as well as intra-cultural stigmatization based on things like skin tone or hair texture. It goes without saying that some have been more fortunate than others, but all have had an opportunity to benefit from the suffrage of the civil rights movements of the 50s and 60s. The natural progression of Black culture is not unlike any other in America, the pursuance of the mainstream ideal; the American Dream, if you will.
This stratification presents a problem to our historians; how does one present the Black narrative as a tall, broad sequoia when it is as varying and outreaching as an old willow? A simple answer would be to start by acknowledging we are a willow, a collection of stories and histories that aren’t all the same. The banners we could all stand under 50 years ago, no longer cover the breadth of our experiences. We have to acknowledge and become accountable for the existence of structural inequalities internally and externally. We have to work harder to present all of our stories for all the beauty and diversity they offer. We have to stop shunning our subcultures and welcome them into the fold.

Put simply, we have to define our own narrative by digging our hands in the dirt, planting worthwhile seeds and facilitating their healthy cultivation. We must stop accepting cheap, mediocre, and often insulting images of ourselves in the media. We need more "Cosby Show" and less "Meet the Browns", more Talib Kweli and less Soulja Boy. We need to take responsibility for our own actions and lives. The status quo will endure unchallenged as long as we allow it. We need to address the stigmas that prevent our culture from flourishing and that starts with encouraging the revival of the Black family unit. We need to reexamine the time when there were mothers and fathers instead of baby mamas and baby daddies. We need to demand the right to an education and if we cannot obtain it we must teach ourselves.

Our ancestors taught themselves to read in a time where it was punishable by death; because of their collective bravery, we have access to free education and many other incredible opportunities. Our stories are rich, our history compelling, and we owe it to our fellow citizens, our children, and ourselves to document them properly. Bring the Cosby’s back!