Thursday, December 17, 2009
I think it goes without saying that this question is loaded. But, it’s precisely this question which has led scholars and audiences alike to question the realism and authenticity of the shows presentation of black life. Situated in the suburban community of Brooklyn Heights, New York, the Cosby show depicts the daily happenings in the Huxtable home. During the pilot episode, viewers were introduced to a family which was like every other middle class family in America. Parents Cliff (Bill Cosby) and Claire (Phylicia Rashad) were a successful doctor and lawyer parenting team. Their five children, Sondra (Sabrina Le Beauf), Denise (Lisa Bonet), Theo (Malcolm Jamal Warner), Vanessa (Tempestt Bledsoe) and Rudy (Keshia Knight-Pulliam) were model students and citizens. Sounds like your average middle class American family right? Wrong. The Huxtable family was different than any other middle class family they encountered because they were black. However, audience members and critics alike were divided over whether such a successful black family could and should exist. More importantly, critics pinpointed the wealth, privilege, and leisure the Huxtable family enjoyed as being disproportional to and deceptive of the experience of “real” black folk. Thus the question is not “is the show a black show?,” but rather “how black is the Cosby show?”
Implied within this larger question is that there are varying degrees of blackness by which someone or something can be measured. And, who determines these degrees? Who sets the standard? I honestly don’t have an answer. Mostly, because it’s so complicated. For starters, black folk have long been judged against a standard of whiteness—one which served to posit blackness as inferior, uncivilized, licentious, violent, etc. It became necessary, especially within the context of television and film media, to then construct images of black folk which preserved this binary. What developed were concomitant narratives of black and white experiences in America. Although every now and then, an image would come along which would disrupt this binary; however, such images have traditionally been subsumed, marginalized or discredited altogether. As a result, black folk in an attempt to create some sort of semblance of their experience in film and media, created a standard of blackness in what Stuart Hall (What is this ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture) calls an “essentializing moment.” What this standard is and who most adheres to it, I can’t say for sure or otherwise. Thus, this standard of blackness and the notion of being “black enough” are illusory, if not unachievable. How can one pass the text of authenticity when the terms on which they are graded are linked to—what?
To return to the middle class issue, Todd Boyd in “Am I Black Enough for You?” points to the issue of class as the major point of conflict. For many, the black experience is believed to be linked to urban- and working-class subject positions, as well as the challenges to overcome poverty, which characterizes these experiences. It is impossible to deny the economic disadvantages historically experienced by black folk in America, and the world more broadly. However, this experience does not exclude nor preclude the middle class subject position—which to be honest, many of Cosby’s viewers belonged to. I think it critical to note here that even at the present moment, there is a drive and expectation on black folk, black men especially to “keep it real.” This includes denying one’s middle class status to perform whatever is the popular trend (currently urban and ghetto black life) of the time. Please. Fifty said it best when he coined the phrase: You’s a wanksta! But seriously, what could be more inauthentic than performing a version of blackness which is not your own, which is not a reflection of your everyday experiences. In this way, it becomes clear that the problem over class is more about visibility than believability. It is making the black middle class visible, moving it from margin to center, that leaves a lot of people wondering where they fall within the range of black subjectivity. I conclude by amending my original question and instead: Is Cosby black enough? I would argue yes for several reasons. However I will save those points of further discussion for future blogs.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Claire: I bet it’s those kids he hangs out with.
Cliff: Well, the kids seem to be alright honey.
Claire: Cockroach. Buzzard. The Mouth.
Claire: Don’t you find it a little suspicious that all of these people are running around and nobody is using their real name?
Cliff: Now, come on honey you know that when children are born parents just look at the child and say Lillian, Roy, you know, Richie. But after the child develops whatever comes out, the neighborhood looks at it and says…
Cliff: Cockroach looks exactly like a cockroach.
Demonstrated in this scene is what Henry Louis Gates Jr. defines in the Signifying Monkey is signifiying, a rhetorical device which includes the tropes of marking, loud-talking, testifying, calling out (of one’s own name), sounding, rapping playing the dozens. Cosby in drawing on this tradition, also also legitimates the practice as he indirectly explains to viewers how the process of signification works.
Then again, on the episode "Breaking with Tradition" we see that orality becomes a means by which family history and values are preserved as well as passed down.
To view a clip from breaking with tradition Click here: "Breaking with Tradition"
As illustrated in both of these examples, Orality is present on the show serving as the major means by which the narrative and plot of the show develop and progress. As discussed by Janet Staiger in the chapter on the Cosby show from her book Blockbuster TV: Must See Sitcoms in the Network Arena, one of the major forms of narrative resolution is talking about the problems among family members (158), as illustrated in the scene above. In addition, orality also becomes a major way in which the Cosby show signifies on the orality of the black experience, indirectly marking itself as "black."
Although the most widely recognized incidences of signifying which occur on the show surround oral modes of communication, the act of signifying also serves as the framework by which to examine those other modes of signification and cultural representation present on the show—namely music and dance.
I would now like to turn to these examples and discuss their role in the reading of the Cosby show as black.
Season One Opening:
The season one Opening depicts the Huxtable family through a series of pictures (presumably in a photo album). Important to note are the lack of distinct class signifiers.
Season Two Opening:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ioa0-cZAO6M
Season two foregrounds music and dance as part of the Cosby show cultural repertoire. In this opening sequence, the entire cast dances in front of a gray backdrop. Emphasized are the fashionable clothing and trendy dance moves of each character.
Season Three Opening:
Within this season's opening, the cast of the show dance to a Latin-Jazz inspired version of the popular theme song. Also, important to note is that there movements parody Salsa, Bolero and other forms of Latin dance.
Season Four Opening:
The season four opening depicts the cast dancing to a 1920's inspired version of the theme song, wearing clothes characteristic of the time period which include: Claire's floor length ball gown, Sandra's flapper-inspired tasseled dress, and Vanessa's World War 1 inspired bomber jacket and pilots cap. This opening draws on the cultural significance of the 1920's including the Harlem Renaissance and World War1.
Season Five Opening:
Probably one of the most elaborately choreographed and stylized, this season opening appears to be set on a tropical location. Also, important to note are the cast member's brightly colored clothes. (please see further analysis of this season's opening below).
Season Six and Seven Opening:
Set in front of what appears to be the famous Apollo Marquee in Harlem, New York, the cast again perform the latest dance trends to what appears to be a blues inspired version of the theme song.
Season Eight Opening:
Set in front of a mural which depicts an urban community, this seasons opening is stylized in what could be considered an urban-hip-hop style. The cast wears cross colors, baggy suits and street gear, and tennis shoes. Also, break-beats and horns are emphasized in the shows theme song.
Close Reading the Season 5 Opening Credits
More importantly, however, is the dance sequence itself which was choreographed by the iconic Geoffrey Holder, a native Trinidadian. The dance its self is rather broad in style, avoiding easy categorization and incorporating stylistic elements of dances from various cultures specifically Latin, African, and Caribbean folk dance. Signifying on these various qualities and technical aspects, the dance which the cast performs parodies works produced by choreographers Katherine Dunham and Alvin Ailey; more specifically, Alvin Ailey’s “Pilgrim of Sorrow.”
Click here to see Alvin Ailey's "Pilgrim of Sorrow"
In drawing these visual connections, I wish to call attention to the way in which Cosby’s show signifies on cultural images and experiences linked to the African Diaspora, popularizing them within American pop-culture and depositing them within the cultural imaginary. The use of dance on the Cosby show not only serves as a means by which draw attention to the legacy of American black dance tradition, but also African and Caribbean folk dance traditions more broadly. In drawing on this tradition Cosby invites his audience to contemplate over the repression and exploitation of the black body in the cultural and historical past, as well as celebrate the liberation of that body through dance.
Click here for examples scenes of Cricket and Petanque
Similarly, Clair Huxtable (Phylicia Rashad) fluently speaks Spanish throughout the course of the show. Some of these moments include: the pilot episode when she scolds her children, the episode "Mr. Quiet" when the Huxtables visit the community center, and the episode "Claire's 46th Birthday" in which she speaks Spanish with her brother in law played by Placido Domingo.
In addition to the incorporation of language practice, food culture is also celebrated as on the episode "If the Dress Fit's, Wear It" where Claire expresses her love for Mexican cuisine which she must resist in order to fit into her party dress, and the episode "27 and Still Cooking" in which the Cliff and Claire celebrate their Anniversary by eating "authentic" Caribbean cuisine.
Click here to watch a clip of "27 and Still Cooking"
Lastly, the Cosby show also highlights Caribbean culture through the highlighting the inter-marrying of African Americans with Jamaican, West-Indian, and Latin American people. As noted on the show, Claire's mother has a Caribbean accent, Alvin's (Sandra's husband) father is Jamaican, and close family friend Dr. Hamond who is also Jamaican. In this way, Cosby's call attention to the contribution and confluence of these cultures to the formation of the American black identity and cultural experience.
These brief examples are just a few of the ways the Cosby show highlight's diasporic blackness, calling attention to the presence of diasporic blackness on the show. I next want to call attention to the way in which the show themes and traditions also communicate the diasporic blackness of the show.
To be continued....
These elements can be divided into three common themes on the Cosby which I will briefly describe and discuss. I have also provided several links and images to the these scenes for your consideration and, of course, viewing pleasure.
Music and Musical Guests: Jazz, Blues, and Cosby
In retrospect, audiences should have seen it coming. From the first few moments of the opening scene of the pilot episode, viewers watch the Cosby children bicker, eat, complain, and dance. This scene is so infused with soul, with rhythm and vibrancy which is only matched by Bill's later performance in which he pop-lock's to Jazz. From this moment on Jazz music, and blues and R&B for that matter, became staple signifiers of blackness on the show.
Cosby Show Pilot Episode
As seen in the episode entitled, "Jitter Bug" break, and subsequent episodes, Jazz music and dance were identified as passion's of Cliff. It is important to note that Cosby in linking his character to Jazz music, he undoubtedly draws on the rich history of Jazz as both a resistance movement and form of resistance to racism, linked to the hypersexualition of the black body. In drawing on this history, Cosby's character in essence signifies all that America once feared in its cultural past. On a more light-hearted note, the vibrancy and energy of these scene's are also inspiring. Cosby in having famous guest stars, brings them from the margins to the center of American cultural awareness. Legends like Lena Horne, Betty Carter, Nancy Wilson, Mavis Stables, Dizzie Gillespie, Stevie Wonder, Tito Puente, and Sammy Davis Jr. have all made appearances on the show, acting as signifiers for the genres of music they each perform. Below I have provided links to these guest appearances by artist:
Celebrating the Black Body in Motion: Dance, Resistance and Liberation
Dance also became a major cultural signifier for the Cosby shows blackness. Although it wasn't until the second season did the first of many opening credit sequences appear; however, dance was introduced early on in the shows life span. As noted above, the pilot episode did depict both Cosby and his children dancing--moving freely. This freedom becomes significance when one considers the long standing relationship that white society has had with the black body. Viewed as licentious, hypersexual, and all around threatening, black males and female bodies became the target of racialized fear and curiosity. This fear was most apparent during the Jazz age, in which white youth flocked to black neighborhoods to listen to this new and emerging sound called Jazz. Highly improvisational and rhythmic, Jazz was seen as a nuance and threat to white morals, as many believed it encouraged--caused even, sexually deviant and immoral behavior. In addition, Jazz has also been viewed as having cultural origins in Africa and other black cultural hot-spots.
Some of the most memorable examples of dance on the Cosby show are seen during the opening credit sequences of season's 2-8. However, the episode Jitterbug Break stands out as a critical moment in that the show hosts guest stars Judith Jamison and Donal McKayle (both of who are choreographers having danced with famous dance companies such as Alvin Ailey) who teach the Huxtable children a lesson in dancing.
Another example of dance on Cosby came years later when Cosby held a battle with famous tap dancer Howard "Sandman" Sims." What begins as a battle of modern moves, eventually leads us back in time as both character's end up soft-shoeing--which carries with it a problematic and painful past. However, Cosby nonetheless calls for the appreciation of this form of dance and cultural expression.
It's a Family Affair: Black Music, Song, Dance, and Tradition
I would next like to discuss the function of music and dance on the Cosby show as a means by which to create and model tradition. There are lots of traditions which become part of the shows theme and narrative style. One in particular, as it relates to dance and music, is the "Happy Anniversary" dance and lip-syncing performance in which the Huxtable family performs Ray Charles' "Night Time is the Right Time." This tradition of the Anniversary performance would crop up time and time again (think Olivia's rendition of Koko Taylor's "I'm a Woman") and become one of the most recognized and celebrated aspects of the show. Modeled on the Cosby show, was the way in which music and dance, as part of the black folk tradition, were also a means by which story's were told and passed along.
Another tradition with regard to song and dance which appears is the black choir tradition. Although it was not depicted regularly, the scene exposed audiences to a tradition which impacted and shaped American music and theater performance. In the scene below, Claire sings with the Hillman Choir. Also, linked below is a video of historic singer Leontyne Price.
Leontyne Price "My Man's Gone Now"
We also see music emerge as a tradition within the Huxtable family itself. The episodes "Play it Again Vanessa" and "Play it Again Russell" mirror each other in that they depict members of the Cosby family having to overcome the fear and challenge with regard to playing an instrument.
Diasporic Representations of Dance and Music on Cosby
There have also been several diasporic representation of blackness with regard to music and dance, displayed on the Cosby show. Below is a brief account of some of the references:
- The opening credits of Season 2
- The Appearance of guest stars Graciela, Willie Colón, and Mario Bauza and His Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra
- The opening credits of Season 5
- Guest Appearance by Spanish singer Placido Domingo
These examples were critical in that they situated Latin culture firmly within the scope and range of the black cultural experience. In so doing, Cosby drew connections between the experiences of specific groups which included Cuban, Latin-American, Brazilian, Caribbean/West-Indian cultures more broadly. Thus, Cosby called attention to these other experiences of blackness which were often marginalized or subsumed by the essentialized African-American black experience.
Cross Generational Representations of Black musicality
The Cosby show also drew connections between Hip Hop culture (which oddly enough Cosby critiqued) and Jazz Culture. As observed in "Jitterbug Break," what ensues is a multi-generational and cross cultural dance experience. Discussion of Hip Hop, cultural references to Hip Hop are few but present. Break Dancing and Hip-Hop are just some of the cultural references made to urban hip-hop culture.
I realize that these examples are brief and in now way exhaustive. However, I hope that they have been helpful in instigating further consideration into how the Cosby show is black.
"African Diaspora, (di.ās’.por.ä). noun. The scattering of people from Africa and the sowing of their cultures globally."
Until next time,