By Jason McFarley
Remember the Huxtables — Cliff, Clare and the five kids?
Through eight seasons, "The Cosby Show" provided a Thursday night escape from the sometimes crazy and chaotic 1980s. And for so many, the show was much more than a sitcom, more than fiction. The Huxtables were affluent, principled individuals, many to aspire to be.
I was always a fan. My mom, though, was more skeptical. She often asked, "Who are these folks, and what are they supposed to mean to black people?" Of course, to an 8-year-old such an abstract question means little; but now, Mom's words are a source of conflict.
I'm torn, you see, between childhood loyalty to a once immensely popular cultural symbol and my growing cynicism of the world around me. Regardless of how long it took me to realize it, I'm certain that Mom's suspicions of "Cosby" are founded and that the show has unmistakable racial implications.
I'm just not certain yet as to what that means.
On the one hand, I tune into episodes in syndication and I see an African-American family that counters the more prevalent racist stereotypes of black communities. I see blacks portrayed as thoughtful human beings rather than ridiculous caricatures. That fact is, in itself, an achievement.
But it doesn't end there. How can I find fault with a program that seems a celebration of black heritage? The Huxtable children attend black colleges and complete assignments on black heroes, for example. Significant intervals in black history, such as the Civil Rights movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King, also have been introduced into the narrative at various points.
On the other hand, the show's shortcomings may be just as noteworthy. Let's be clear here. As a television sitcom, "Cosby" is bound to have weaknesses and to sometimes deviate from the course of events that characterize real life. Still, critics — especially those concerned with the show's depiction of racial images — may have strong cause to blast "Cosby."
For one thing, the writers of the show ignore the fact combating racism was — is — a fact of life for African Americans at every and all economic strata.
Try to remember a time when the Huxtables expressed any opinions on social issues, race in particular. Is it difficult? Because the show blatantly skirted the issue of racism. Likewise, it didn't teach black America how to deal effectively with issues of race and class.
It's not good enough that the show was a relief from the negative media stereotyping of blacks. We should be delighted that a show portrayed African Americans as intelligent, sensitive and successful; but the problem with that is that it accepts the assumption that, on TV, a positive image is a prosperous image.
As both an old fan and a new skeptic of "The Cosby Show," I'm left with two choices. One, I could be a conspirator in an image system that masked deep racial divisions in this country. Or, two, I can buy into the fiction that blacks everywhere have made it, thereby accepting "Cosby" as a legitimate portrayal of ordinary African-American life.
In this plentiful, diverse "real world" that I will soon enter, to end up with such a choice is an injustice not just to blacks, but to all viewers.
All Inside Stories for Tuesday, August 29, 2000