Nearly two decades after Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report on Black life in America and in the midst of President Ronald Reagan’s “war on drugs,” network honchos at NBC took a huge gamble: They put a strong, loving and successful Black family on prime-time television.
Debuting in September 1984, The Cosby Show was based on the stand-up comedy routines of Bill Cosby, already a celebrated Hollywood staple, and loosely mirrored his family life. For eight seasons on NBC—five of which it was the country’s most-watched program, according to Nielsen ratings—Cosby’s portrayal of Heathcliff Huxtable—a physician, loving husband and doting Black father-reinforced the widely held virtues of the nuclear family, if not also unwittingly illuminating the hazards of respectability politics (the notion that if Black people simply act “good” and “behave,” the world-at-large will treat them as such.)
Now, some three decades later, as Cosby stands accused of sexually assaulting at least 40 women, Black America is left to grapple with his once-unimpeachable legacy. If Bill Cosby is finished, what does that mean for Cliff, and the rest of the tribe called Huxtable?
America’s First Black Family
The Cosby Show was especially appealing in its early days, offering a 30-minute refuge from some of the negative imagery found on television. Still in their early stages, cable news broadcasts filled 24-hour cycles with images of gangland-style homicides, chronicling the crack-cocaine epidemic and pointing an indicting finger at the rise in single-parent homes. Black America was in turmoil, if one believed the narrative of the day.
The implicit message: If Black people had a problem, it was Black people.
“The Cosby Show debuted during the Reagan era, when the plagues of crack, AIDS and spiraling homicide were ravaging African-Americans,” says author Jelani Cobb, associate professor of history and director of the Africana Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut. “[The show was] huge among Black people because it was a counterpoint to the stream of negativity that we heard and saw about ourselves so frequently during those years,” he opines.
Although the show provided emotional relief from the stereotypes in the newspapers, it may have done very little to prove them false. Cosby—through Cliff Huxtable— inadvertently told America that Moynihan and Reagan were right. They contended that the ability of Black families to make economic and political gains was inextricably tied to —and hindered by—the rising rate of households led by single mothers. Both the cause and the price, they said, were illicit drug use, teenage pregnancy, academic disparities, generational poverty and incarceration. If we could just pull ourselves together and find a good (educated, middle-class) soul mate, everything would be OK.
Read the rest in the November 2015 issue of EBONY, coming to a newsstand near you! Click here to subscribe.