Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Question at Hand: Is the Cosby Show Black...Enough?

Hello. My name is Gregory Coleman. And, yes. I am a fan of the Cosby Show. I feel it necessary to preface and begin my blog with this introduction—confession really. I have been a fan for quite some time now. During the multi-season run of the show, my family and I gathered around the television set to watch what would be one of the few representations of black life which mirrored our reality. As a black middle class man from the suburbs, the Cosby show has become my “guilty pleasure” and way of escape. It’s is one of the only places I see glimpses of myself, my day to day experiences—which is odd some might say being that the show is not concerned with racial issues—neither the trials nor triumphs. In fact, some have argued that race is absent from the show entirely, leaving us with the question: Is the Cosby show a black show?

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.

Peace,

Greg

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