The Huxtables Changed Not Television or Politics—But the Idea of Black Family

“The Cosby Show” was activist television, agitprop theater disguised as sitcom.

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In 1984, when Cosby made its debut, the U.S. was being introduced to the acquisitional yuppie. A tribe of Gordon Geckos was running Wall Street as the country morphed from the peace, love and disco vibe of the ‘70s to the grabbiness of the Reagan-era ‘80s. In a way, Cosby also reflected that sense of affluence and entitlement, but its display of wealth wasn’t about affluence for the sake of affluence. It wasn’t about consumption. It was about uplifting the race in the eyes of mainstream America.

Over the years, there was a parade of cameos from the black and brown glitterati: Lena Horne. Dizzy Gillespie. Sonia Braga. Iman. Tito Puente. Stevie Wonder. Sammy Davis Jr.—notables like Bill Bradley and Christopher Plummer dropped by, too. And it also showcased the stars to be: A very young Alicia Keys hanging out at Rudy’s slumber party. Angela Bassett. Robin Givens. Adam Sandler. Underwood. Kadeem Hardison, who’d enjoy an extended 15 minutes on A Different World.

All were in service of Cosby’s greater mission: To celebrate a black family seeped in a rich black aesthetic. Still, though the Huxtables were clearly and unapologetically black, race was rarely mentioned (save for a few times, like when Theo wrote a report on Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech or when Sondra and Elvin named their twins Winnie and Nelson after the Mandelas). Again, it was all about showing, rather than telling.

Many said that the Huxtables existed on a rarified plane far above life’s harsher realities, that their lives didn’t reflect real black lives, but were some sanitized, made-for-TV fantasy. But there were, and are, millions of black families like them: college-educated, functioning, loving, achieving black folks. Cosby put a spotlight on that reality, affording African Americans the luxury of being black without it being a problem. And the rest of America watched, and took note.

But beneath the laughs and good times of The Cosby Show beat the heart of a propagandist. This was the world according to Bill Cosby, where there was no room for slacking, Ebonics, baby mamas or anything else. This was activist television, agitprop theater disguised as sitcom. In 2004, folks were surprised when the real-life Cosby released his ire about what he saw as the ills of the black community—from juvenile delinquency to absentee parenting. Where was Cliff Huxtable, with his fuzzy sweaters and good-natured mugging? But was his diatribe so different from the first episode of the first season, when Cliff takes Theo to task for bringing home Ds and wanting to be a “regular person” who doesn’t go to college?”