It’s not like this was the first time we got to see black folks, professional black folks, representing up there on the little screen. After all, in the late ‘60s, we had Diahann Carroll, all classy restraint as widowed nurse Julia. Even Bill Cosby played a Rhodes scholar in I Spy back in ’65. And it’s hard to forget Sherman Hemsley, dry-cleaning magnate, cutting the fool—“WEEEZY!!!”—as George Jefferson in that ‘70s-era deee-luxe apartment in the sky.
But The Cosby Show, which celebrates the 25th anniversary of its debut this week, provided us with something else: It introduced the idea of a well-entrenched black bourgeoisie to a mainstream audience, illustrating just why the entertainment industry is called show business. Cosby showed us, rather than told us, about black excellence and black achievement—from its highly functional family to the fabulous art on the walls to the glamorous friends in their living room. It not only showed us the world of a loving, upper-crust black family, but it normalized it in the most natural, matter-of-fact way—30 teachable moments served up each and every Thursday at 8.
Plus, it was funny. Really funny.
The sitcom, written and created by Cosby (with heavy input from Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint), also revealed a little secret about the black middle class: That it was, at heart, conservative and deeply rooted in family values and an up-by-your-bootstraps ethos; that education was highly valued and excellence was expected—demanded—by exacting parental units.
That this was revolutionary—and continues to be revolutionary 25 years later—says a lot about from where this country has come, and to where we’ve yet to go.
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.