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.
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.