I am a true 80’s baby so that means The Cosby Show was and still is my jam. Every Thursday, you could find me and my brother on the couch, in front of the television, waiting on the opening credits to roll. Of course we weren’t the only ones. (And even today, don’t let there be a Cosby Show marathon happening on a Saturday because I might not leave the house for a while.)
The Cosby Show was a beloved institution for millions of people of all ages, colors, and creeds; and because it’s timeless continues to entertain kids today. But I think 80’s babies have a special fondness for the show. Doubly true if we’re Black.
Earlier this week The Cosby Show was celebrated throughout the media world for having aired 30 years ago in 1984. While there had been other sitcoms featuring Black folks, (Good Times, The Jeffersons, What’s Happening, etc.) The Cosby Show was different because Bill Cosby came with a clear vision about the kind of show he wanted and how he wanted Black folks to be featured; and he was a major power player in making sure it was realized. At the onset the show was different from a lot of the loud talking and jiving that had occurred on other Black shows.
The Huxtables were Black without having to say, heyyy we’re Black and this is what Black should look like! Their undeniable Blackness was seamlessly woven into the characters’ lives and the storylines – so that even if the show had broad appeal, there were still some gems that sparkled bright for Black people. Like, the fact that Cliff and Clair attended HBCU’s (and rocked HBCU shirts), the Black visual and music artists who were featured, or that there was usually an EBONY or Essence magazine on the coffee table, or the episode where they talked about attending the March on Washington, or the episode when Clair and her friends’ recounted their sit-in experience, or when Cliff’s father, Russell, tells the story about how his son put conk in his hair to impress a girl. These are not insignificant details that should be overlooked. No, they are strategic placements of and shout outs to Black culture.
As much as mainstream loved the Huxtables and the universal humor, there were certain aspects of the show that gave a nod, a wink and a gun, as it were to Black folks. I didn’t know just how special the show was when I was 7 years old. I knew that it was a beautiful thing to watch a show where people looked like me, where kids got chided in a tone my mama would use, where there was a fun and funny daddy like my own father, and where problems got worked out together as a family.
I guess I took it for granted. Throughout the 80’s and into the 90’s network stations would give us A Different World, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Martin and Living Single just to name a few. I mean I swear 80’s and 90’s sitcoms were part of our reparations package or something. We were on TV. But more importantly, we were also behind the scenes as producers, writers, and directors. And we were putting out quality television that showed Black culture and still had mass appeal. We were visible.
And then we weren’t. Somehow we became relegated to reality show shenanigans or being the ‘funny friend’ on mainstream shows. How long has it been since an all-Black cast appeared on network television? I’ll wait.
Enter ABC’s new sitcom, Black-ish which airs tonight. The show features Anthony Anderson as the patriarch of the Johnson family, Tracee Ellis-Ross as his wife, and Lawrence Fishburne as grandpa, plus four kids. The premise is that Anderson’s character believes his children are getting too soft since all they know is an affluent life and being in a mostly-white neighborhood. The show will feature his struggle between the kids’ urge to “assimilate” into the culture of their classmates, and their father’s desperate attempt to keep them rooted in his idea of Black culture.
I’ve already heard people deriding the name. Black-ish, they say. I don’t want to be Black-ish. But that’s just it, in this “post-racial” America where people love saying that race doesn’t matter all while acknowledging your race, Black-ish gives a modern day wink and nod to what so many Black folks who can read and are “articulate” have to go through when they hear something ignorant like, “you’re like Black, but not really Black because you’re not like those other Black people.”
Come again? Could you please tell that to the police offer and the bank loan manger then? And what other Black people? Ohhh those other Black people.
As a lover of television sitcoms (all kinds), I’m excited about Black-ish and all its possibilities. I would never put some ‘next Cosby Show’ type pressure on it because The Cosby Show thrived for reasons specific to its era. It came during a critical time, the Civil Rights fights still fresh for many people who were climbing into the Black middle class, and served as a much needed bridge between past sitcoms with Black people and future ones.
Black-ish is now needed for different reasons, to respond to current racial issues, and modern situations. It’s needed for a next generation of Black children who should be able to see people on television who like them, Black children who might be struggling with if they should totally assimilate or maintain some sort of racial pride. And it’s needed because the rest of the nation needs to see people being regular, ordinary, funny, a family, loving and loved. Oh and bonus, they’re Black.
Diana Veiga is a Spelman woman, a DC resident, and a freelance writer. Of course, she’s also on Twitter.