So, The Root is covering The Cosby Show and its cultural influence to celebrate the NBC series’ 25th anniversary, in a manner similar to how they reflected on Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Now, once again aware of the problematics of my identity with regard to fandom, I will admit that growing up a white girl in the rural suburbs of Houston, I totes wanted to be in the Huxtable family. I would have been fine being one of Rudy’s friends (I was probably closest to the shy, chubby white boy). Specifically though, I aspired to be like Clair. Admittedly a glib comparison, but maybe young women and girls of many different racial and ethnic identities have ascribed a similar aspirational status to our first lady.
Many folks have rightly critiqued the show for its idyllic, comforting, and unrealistic depiction of the charmed Huxtable clan against the racially charged climate informed the social dimensions of AIDS, drug addiction, incarceration, wage gaps, single-family incomes, education, and other major issues that many believe were ignored, if not outright caused, by the Reagan administration. And these are, for the most part, valid critiques. Indeed, Kanye West spoke and continues to speak for many people when he says “I ain’t one of the Cosbys, I didn’t go to Hillman” in “Can’t Tell Me Nothin’.” I’d even go so far as to point out that this was true for many prime time families by the end 0f the 1980s: there’s not a college degree between the Connors, the Bundys, and the Simpsons. Assuredly, the classed dimensions of racial inequality were in Bill Cosby’s mind, even going so far as to originally conceptualize Clair as being a plumber of Dominican descent and later, pairing up again with Phylicia Rashād on Cosby, making their characters decidedly more working class.
And I don’t think we can talk about The Cosby Show‘s influence without mentioning how no other show with an African American principle cast has since followed its legacy. Fledgling networks like FOX and, later, the WB and UPN, would incorporate a wide range of prime time programming featuring African Americans, though often met with middling to low ratings, short life cycles, and diminished corporate interests in representational politics as networks began to flourish.
And of course, we can’t discuss The Cosby Show without mentioning Dr. Cosby’s troubling history with partiarchy and sometimes limited view of what is considered respectable mediated representations from/of African Americans. That said, while I empathize with Lisa Bonet’s reported run-ins with Cosby, I’ll hedge that Angel Heart does look fucking terrible.
That said, The Cosby Show was a considerable cultural milestone and a damn entertaining sitcom that did an admirable job widening the scope and depth of representation for African Americans on prime time network television. And they were really funny.
I’d also like to add, echoing Erin Evans’s piece on the show’s theme song, that The Cosby Show broadened the scope and depth of African Americans’ contribution to music. Jazz, blues, rock and roll, hip hop, gospel, classical, Afrocuban, Broadway. It’s all there. “Kiss Me” was discursive and malleable, changing arrangements, historical moments, and generic arrangements from season to season.
Sometimes these contributions were peripheral, much like many of the paintings that hung on the home’s walls — Vanessa’s Michael Jackson poster most immediately comes to mind.
Sometimes these contributions dialoged with other musical forms associated with traditionally coded “white” culture (my mother would always giggle when opera tenor Placido Domingo sang to Clair; I’m always reminded of my mother in episodes involving Rudy’s teacher, played by Broadway’s salty Elaine Stritch, now recognizeable to many as Mother Donaghy on 30 Rock).
And sometimes music’s shifting racial dynamics back-and-forthed within one body, a point I’d argue is evident in Olivia’s Village coffeehouse performance of Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes.” This is a noteworthy song selection, as punk legend Legs McNeil argues in Don Letts‘s documentary Punk: Attitude that it is one of rock’s most political songs and an influence to punk’s stripped-down, anti-hippie, confrontation style, as it’s a song about personal freedom (to single in on McNeil’s comment, start the clip at 7:33). That said, I’d like for none of to step on Olivia’s face. Thanks.
Let’s close with Olivia, and extend this discussion of musical moments to focus on the ladies, both within the Huxtable family and within music culture writ large. In addition to Olivia’s performance, let’s remember Vanessa’s struggle with the clarinet, enforcing that not all black people are inherently musical. Let’s remember Clair singing with Stevie Wonder. Let’s remember Lena Horne and Miriam Makeba. Let’s remember Rudy jubilant lip-synced performance of Margie Hendricks’s part in Ray Charles’s version of “Night Time Is the Right Time” for her grandparents anniversary. And let’s not forget: don’t step on their blue suede shoes.