Last week on her Web-based show, Katie Couric highlighted the rise of Islamophobia as one of the more disturbing news stories of 2010. In a discussion that included The Root‘s Sheryl Huggins Salomon, Couric suggested that America needs a Muslim version of The Cosby Show to fight the fear and ignorance that exists about Islam and Muslims, very much the same way The Cosby Show challenged racial stereotypes about African Americans.
Couric’s instincts are right when she draws parallels between Islamophobia and racism. And she is correct in focusing on the role of media and cultural production in that fight. But her Cosby Show proposal is misplaced, both historically and socially. Perhaps what is needed more than another Cosby Show are the lessons learned from the first one.
When the sitcom created by comedian Bill Cosby debuted in 1984, it rode a wave of black political awakening and cultural triumph in mainstream America. The year before, Harold Washington had been elected the first black mayor of Chicago, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson launched his historic bid for the presidency by organizing a multiethnic Rainbow Coalition of progressives. In 1984 Michael Jackson swept the Grammy Awards. Eddie Murphy emerged as a bona fide Hollywood lead in Beverly Hills Cop, Vanessa Williams was crowned the first black Miss America and the Chicago Bulls drafted Michael Jordan, who — with the help of Nike — would become the star athlete of the next decade.
The Cosby Show‘s portrayal of a successful, upper-class black family headed by a doctor and lawyer dominated prime-time television, long before cable became a force. Millions of households of all ethnicities invited the Huxtables into their homes, rescuing the ailing sitcom format and inaugurating NBC’s long reign over Thursday night.
In many ways, The Cosby Show transcended race by showing but not telling about black life in America. The show featured witty dialogue, black art on the walls of the Huxtable home, and a stream of guest cameos by top black actors and jazz artists. But the story lines were notably depoliticized in favor of themes universal to all families, and the class divisions within the black community remained invisible. This led some critics, while praising the refreshing portrayal of African-American life, to question its authenticity. And therein lie the lessons and challenges for Muslims moving forward.