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?”
“Maybe I was born to be a regular person and have a regular life. If you weren’t a doctor, I wouldn’t love you less, because you’re my dad,” Theo told Cliff. “Instead of acting disappointed because I’m not just like you, maybe you can accept me just as I am and love me anyway. Because I’m your son.”
Cliff’s response? “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life! No wonder you get Ds …. You’re afraid to try … I’m telling you, you are going to try as hard as you can. And you are going to do it because I said so. I brought you into this world, and I’ll take you out.”
He did bring Theo into the world, and while many say otherwise, Cosby, ultimately, did not create Barack and Michelle Obama. To say so undermines the first couple’s accomplishments, and the hard work of the scores of black professionals and politicians who came before them. To say so is to forget Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and Mayor Maynard Jackson and Congressman Andrew Young. Television is often a step or two behind the times—it is art reflecting back at reality, not the other way around. But television has the power to influence, to alter perceptions, to shift worldviews. Images register on the subconscious in ways that aren’t easy to parse. So, no, The Cosby Show didn’t create the Obamas—and Cosby is the first to tell you that. But it did make room for the idea of them.
Twenty-five years after Cosby, there are next to no TV shows about strong black families. Everybody Hates Chris has been canceled, as has The Game. (Tyler Perry’s mediocre House of Payne doesn’t quite do the trick.) So for now, we’ll have to content ourselves with reality—watching the real black family that occupies the White House.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer.