For eight television seasons (NBC, 1984-92), the Emmy Award-winning The Cosby Show, written by and starring comedian Bill Cosby, beamed an unflinching, yet humorous black family portrait into living rooms across America. Cosby, as Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, presided over this historic foray into black upper-middle class life. The sitcom was a window into a certain, often enviable kind of black familial and romantic love, a showcase for amazing talent and a place where the situations or “problems” of a black family were mostly just the same as any other. The No. 1 hit celebrates its 25th anniversary this Sunday.
In this second installation of Cosby’s exclusive interview with The Root, the show’s creator shares the story of his political evolution, including strong words on black fatherhood, women in the Huxtable house, Joe Wilson, Jesse Jackson and rap music.
The Root: I read a recent speech on education you gave on Detroit—that’s policy, not just politics. Did you feel like you needed to do more?
Bill Cosby: You have to do more! …. The Detroit speech was my reaction to 460 young men, black and Hispanic, between the ages of 16 to 25, being murdered by their own. This is insane. And then when you look into the areas where the education is 70 percent dropout. You start with a class of 100 kids in ninth grade, and by the time they reach the twelfth, 30 people graduate.
They need love. They need Huxtabling. I have said out loud: The revolution is in the house. It’s in the apartment. The revolution is in your apartment building; it’s on your street, it’s in your neighborhood.
TR: You’ve suggested Barack Obama is a unique phenomenon—is he so exceptional?
You can’t get elected because of somebody you see on TV ….
Now, there are people crying because they don’t want [Obama] to tell their children something where he may influence them. What is that about? These people are calling him all kinds of names. They’re begging politicians to ‘stop him.’ They’re calling him a Marxist socialist, and then in the middle of a speech where a man is trying to straighten out the lies that are being told on health care reform, and a man stands up and says ‘You lie!’
TR: When your TV son, Theo, asked to be “a regular person,” Cliff yelled at him. You’ve brought that disciplinary instinct across the country, to your ‘call-outs,’ and to your infamous “Pound Cake Speech” to the NAACP. Is this, as Jesse Jackson says, “talking down to black people”?
Gloria Steinem said, “The truth shall set you free, but first it’ll piss you off.” And when you [hear about what] I said in 2004, they leave out a statement on purpose. That statement is: Our children are trying to tell us something. And we’re not listening. I brought up the dropout rate from our schools. I brought up our children leaving school and walking down the street and loudly cursing, using profanity.
TR: There is no Cosby Show today, no strong black family on TV. Does today’s entertainment culture contribute to this state of affairs?
I don’t know. I do know that because of A Different World and The Cosby Show back to back that enrollment in black colleges went up 50 percent all around. Now, Cliff and Clair are married. But somewhere along the line in some neighborhoods, the male drops and the female is head of the house. And at some universities the ratio of female to male at some are as high as 70 to 30 ….
Years ago, Jesse Jackson, [Louis] Farrakhan and [Rev. Al] Sharpton and maybe someone from the NAACP called a meeting with the rappers and these people. And I’m saying, ‘Hello, black fellows—you’re talking about your black women.’ I’m not talking about the ones where there are lyrics and they’re pretty good. But in terms of what are you saying except: ‘You’re wet; I’m wet, let’s do it.’ We got 28 percent in terms of venereal disease that our children are giving each other. We’re knocking each other out of the box. Sexually.
TR: Is it harder for young black women, or for young black men to be successful?
Theo was the one who caused this ‘regular people’ problem. But on the first show, Sondra is at Princeton. The next child is Denise. She’s got problems, too. [Cliff] has to go around that whole house and deal with kids. So it wasn’t just the males—that house was loaded with women ….
But there’s a need to look at the numbers where the children happen to be failing. There’s a need for us to address and attack why some children cannot fathom jobs or a career, and we need to … discuss it with the children. These are our children … I’ve seen the difference with the parents who give love and recognize where the dangers happen to be and do their darndest to protect them … So these things have to be taught. Our black children, by the age of 12, should get from the home as much black history as possible, so they feel like they know their blackness and know the black people who have done well and not only succeeded but came from damn near worse conditions than where they’ve come from.
TR: Fatherhood is very important to both you and to the president. Have you ever spoken with him about this?
I could throw a dart in a room and hit somebody and ask: ‘Do you know your father?’ And it’s: ‘He’s not in our life.’ People need to do something about it, instead of saying it and walking away as though it’s a part of life. This is a part of life we need to make corrections on. Our children are trying to tell us something.
If we have a black president and black first lady and black first children and black first grandmother and all that, we have got to pull up and say: ‘This is it everybody; this is the example; we had excuses before, but here it is.’
If you don’t teach your children about it, we’re never getting better. It’s not on Obama. It’s really still on us. And there are many who don’t like the idea that somebody brings up all these ills. It proves that our people are not perfect. Dislike me for whatever harshness. But I want people to take note. Somebody’s gotta say, ‘Don’t go there.’ When you say it nicely—they keep going there.
Read Part I of Cosby’s exclusive interview with The Root.
Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.