Taking Back the House—The On-Screen and Real-Life Politics of Bill Cosby

A “fan” of what he calls “The Obama Show,” the Cos says if you can’t be a doctor, at least be an electrician.

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Nostalgic recollections of The Cosby Show place Cliff Huxtable—Cosby’s duck-walking, sandwich-loving, mugging alter ego—as the smiling patriarch of a well-adjusted nuclear family with two professional incomes in a Brooklyn brownstone barricaded away from the first stirrings of the crack era. It was gently political: “There were no “whitey” call-outs à la George Jefferson, no power-to-the-people pronouncements—just an upscale black family trying to keep it together.

Normalcy itself was the message: “All I ever wanted was ... to take the house back,” Cosby told The Root in a recent interview. “I just wanted … to show people that this is parenting, this is home, and this is deep.”

Throughout the series’ eight-year run, Huxtable-style parenting meant making a tough-love case for responsibility and self-development—delivered with a mix of humor and stern incredulity. Witness the pilot, when Theo makes an impassioned defense for mediocrity and the right to be a “regular person.” “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” Cliff snaps. “You are going to try as hard as you can—because I said so.”

A somewhat grouchy, slightly punitive approach has characterized much of Cosby's output, both personal and professional, for years. Behind the scenes, The Cosby Show was a carefully calibrated treatise on race and “positivity,” says Alvin Poussaint, the Harvard psychologist, longtime collaborator and close friend of Cosby’s.

“We wanted to show black people not in a buffoonish way,” he says. “We didn’t want any stereotypic humor.” Poussaint served as a consultant to every script of the show, and recalls a scene in which Cliff’s daughter, Rudy, is having her hair combed by her mother, Clair. “Rudy was crying bloody murder,” Poussaint says. “And I said, ‘I don’t think we should be reinforcing the idea of black girl’s hair as being difficult and nappy without anything positive being said about it.’” The white producers of the show, he says, didn’t see what all the fuss was about. After some heated back and forth, the entire scene was scrapped.

As a result of this race-conscious script-parsing, the show helped to change cultural perceptions of black Americans among a mixed-race audience. Instead of loud hair-brushing scenes, the Huxtables took a road less traveled. “We went straight at them,” Cosby told The Root. “We went at them with visual art, we went at them with music; we went with James Brown, B.B. King, Stevie Wonder.” These backstage efforts to enact a social agenda may be the most enduring legacy of the Huxtable saga. White families watched the show into the No. 1 slot on TV. Cosby recalls black women coming up to him, saying, “Thank you for showing my boyfriend what to do with my feet when I come home.” And he credits A Different World, the 1987 spinoff that depicted life at a historically black college, for increasing rates of enrollment at these schools.

“I’m tired of losing to white people,” Ta-Nehisi Coates, a blogger with The Atlantic, reports Cosby saying in a Detroit church in 2007. Throughout his long public career, Cosby’s flexible facial gestures and physicality had been a hallmark of his personality. But traveling the nation in a series of public “call-outs” that formed the data set for Come on, People, his book with Poussaint (Thomas Nelson, 2007), the archetypal Cosby grimace now telegraphs real pain and despair.

“When I think of politics, I think of Washington, D.C.,” Cosby says. He credits his own conscience with bringing him into the political fray. In 1969, he told Playboy that there was no “time to sit around and worry whether all the black people of the world make it because of me.” Forty years later, he’s changed his tune. “You have to do more,” he says. “This is insane.”  He's particularly distressed by the rates of school dropout and out-of-wedlock childbirth among black youth. “The males who are being raised in these lower economic neighborhoods are not being protected by the voice and law of the house to fight against that which is in the street.”

Cosby’s crusade against black failure and black victimhood came to its apex in 2004, in the infamous "Pound Cake Speech” to the NAACP on the anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education—a speech for which he was both pilloried and praised. “Who are these sick black people, and where did they come from and why haven’t they been parented to shut up?” he asked. The crowd was receptive, laughing and clapping throughout the speech. It was only later that certain members of the black intellegentsia turned on Cosby.

Georgetown professor and author Michael Eric Dyson emerged as one of his fiercest critics. “He dismissed the vicious consequences of Katrina and instead indicted the people for what happened before Katrina,” he says of Cosby. Today, Cosby brushes off these critiques. “How can you ignore four or five kids on the subway train starting a fight and beating up somebody else? These are kids. I’m not saying they should behave perfectly, but we’ve got to look around the room and do something about it.”