Op-Ed: 'Cosby Show' Redefined The Black Family The Cosby Show celebrates its 25th anniversary this week. In her article for The Root, senior culture writer Teresa Wiltz writes that Bill Cosby and the Huxtable family normalized "black excellence and black achievement."
NPR logo

Op-Ed: 'Cosby Show' Redefined The Black Family

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/113032673/113032666" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Op-Ed: 'Cosby Show' Redefined The Black Family

Op-Ed: 'Cosby Show' Redefined The Black Family

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/113032673/113032666" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


But now, to the Opinion Page.

Twenty-five years ago this week, NBC introduced us to the Huxtables on primetime TV. They were educated, professional, upper middle-class and black.

For Teresa Wiltz, the "Cosby Show" was mainstream America's first successful introduction to an upper-class black family. And that alone was revolutionary. But along with folksy humor and colorful sweaters, the show was a platform for Bill Cosby's particular brand of activism. Take the scene in the show's first season, when Theo brought home a slate of Ds on his report card.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Cosby Show")

Mr. MALCOLM-JAMAL WARNER (Actor): (As Theo) You're a doctor and mom's a lawyer. And you're both successful in everything and that's great. But maybe I was born to be a regular person and have a regular life. And so instead of acting disappointed because I'm not like you, maybe you can just accept who I am and love me anyway because I'm your son.

Mr. BILL COSBY (Actor): (As Dr. Heathcliff "Cliff" Huxtable) Theo, that's the dumbest thing I've ever heard in my life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COSBY: (As Dr. Heathcliff "Cliff" Huxtable) Now, you are afraid to try because you're afraid that your brain is going to explode and is going to ooze out of your ear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: That's classic Bill Cosby from the first season of "The Cosby Show."

How about you? Did "The Cosby Show" change how you saw America or American television? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Teresa Wiltz joins me now in Studio 3A. She's a senior culture writer for the TheRoot.com. Thanks so much for being here.

Ms. TERESA WILTZ (Writer, The Root): Thanks for having me.

ROBERTS: You write that the heart of a propaganda is to beat underneath all the fun of "The Cosby Show," and that it was activist television disguised as a sitcom. You point to actually the clip we just heard as an example.

Ms. WILTZ: Right.

ROBERTS: Can you elaborate?

Ms. WILTZ: Yeah. I mean, well, obviously in the past few years we've certainly seen that - a different side of Billy Cosby, an angrier side who has a lot to say about the state of the black community. And so, you know, that's a side we weren't privy to back in the early days of "The Cosby Show" when it was just Cos and Jell-O, and, you know, that kind of thing who is this very genial, grumpy dad, but he was very focused about the image of a black family that he wanted to present.

Originally, it was going to be a working class black family. He was going to be a chauffeur, Phylicia Rashad was going to be a Dominican plumber. But he decided that he wanted to present an upper class black family. And so, that's what he did. And he had Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint, who was a consultant on each and every script. And they parsed them in a very, kind of exacting way.

One of our reporters, Dayo Olopade, reports that originally there was going to be a scene early on in the show when Rudy was getting her hair combed. And she was screaming hysterically and getting louder and louder and louder which was funny stuff, but neither Poussaint nor Cosby wanted to reinforce a negative image that black hair is something difficult to manage and that's highly problematic. So they got into a bit of a tussle with some of the white producers, but they took the scene out.

ROBERTS: Well, that reinforces your point that "The Cosby Show" was about showing you black achievement, not necessarily explaining it or talking about it, but just holding itself up as an example.

Ms. WILTZ: Right. Right. And, you know, it's a very matter of fact about. And the thing, I mean, it was a sitcom, so it had to succeed as entertainment. It had to succeed as comedy. And so often in sitcoms, I think of like Roseanne Barr and shows like that when they would have like a message and then - so they'd be laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh. Stop. Meaningful moment. Teaching moment. Pause. Laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh.

And so, you know, that - and usually it doesn't work in a sitcom. It's very clunky. So instead what you saw was just, you know, a very loving, extremely successful black couple who had to kind of raise these recalcitrant kids who might not - who might bring home Ds or whatever on their report card. And just by their example and their expectations you saw, you know, a normal family. Then that ran very countered a lot of the images that we had on television of, you know, blacks as, what, cops, you know, robbers and that kind of thing.

ROBERTS: On the other hand, the show has been criticized for not being a normal family, that a doctor and a lawyer - that the affluence that the Huxtables enjoyed did not reflect average black America. The show has taken that criticism for being too other worldly.

Ms. WILTZ: Well, and I would say what's average black America, you know? I mean, I grew up. I went to prep schools. My dad was a surgeon and we were an average black family as well. So, you know, we're not a monolith. There's no one way to be a black family. There's no one way to be a black person in America. So - you know, and there's - and the other issue is that because there's only one show, there's so much pressure for it to be everything rather than just one representation of black life. And I think that's what he did and I think they did it well.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Susan(ph) in New York City. Susan, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

SUSAN (Caller): Hello.

ROBERTS: Hi, Susan. You're on the air.

SUSAN: Okay. Well, I just listened - I'm listening to your show and I heard your opening example of the conversation between Bill Cosby and his son in that show. And what I think - the reason I think that "The Cosby Show" was so successful was because it cut across race or ethnicity. It found a common bond between families - allowed families who had TVs all over the country to look in on another family that maybe didn't look like theirs exactly or even act like theirs exactly, but really did show a lot of common conversations in their home, things that were happening in their homes. I mean, that conversation was the classic conversation in most American families who would actually have talks with their kids about what their aspirations were for their children and their expectations.

And that had nothing to do with race or profession. That has something to do with the American family as a whole. And it just so happened that the family we were watching in our - let's say from a suburban New York home was a black family or a family who might be from the Bronx or somewhere else who's - maybe their parents weren't doctors or lawyers or they might have been something else.

But those classic common conversations were definitely something that resounded like, hey, you know, look, that father is still ranting at his kid just like my father is ranting at me. He may not look like me, but that was the activism there. That - in those days when that show started it, cut across the lines of race and sought common bonds amongst the American people that could be seen in the TV set. And it was very heartening to see that.

ROBERTS: Susan, thank you so much for your call. Teresa Wiltz?

Ms. WILTZ: I agree. I mean, I think what he did was he normalized black families in pop culture and just showed - I mean, that was what was revolutionary, was that he showed a regular family that a lot of people could identify with it. I think the caller is absolutely right about that.

ROBERTS: You mentioned Bill Cosby's collaboration with Alvin Poussaint - what do you think that collaboration actually contributed to the show's message?

Ms. WILTZ: Well, I think, you know, Poussaint is a childhood and parenting expert, so I think there was some very clear messages that they wanted to present about parenting. And so, you know, one thing that you saw with "The Cosby Show" is just a very strong parenting situation where both parents were on the same page and there was this kind of tough love, education, education, education being stressed all the time.

ROBERTS: There's an interesting email here from Todd(ph) who says, as somebody who already knew upper middle-class African-American folks, the first thing that was distinctive about "The Cosby Show" was that it was initially about parents who didn't make their kids the whole center of their lives, who might actually let their kids know they had lives aside from being their parents.

Ms. WILTZ: Exactly. They had - you know, they were romantic with each other. They, you know, looked forward to the day when the kids were all out the house. And they made it very clear that, you know, you can't - comes, like, the whole scene with Theo. The other thing is you won't be living with me, so what are you going to do to pay your rent?

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Zoe(ph) in Defiance, Ohio. Welcome to the program.

ZOE (Caller): Yes. How are you doing?


Ms. WILTZ: Hi.

ZOE: Yeah. I just wanted to say that the show to me definitely broke the barriers as far as race. I remember as a kid growing up in a small, rural town in Ohio, being Hispanic, actually watching and definitely having that sense of hope, if you will. Just watching the family interact, the comedy, definitely really, I believe, made a great impact. Even Hispanic families, you know, we were able to see that we're all the same. It's very relatable. Many of the skits definitely hit home even in Hispanic families. And yeah, that's basically what I wanted to say.

ROBERTS: Thanks for your call. We have a similar email from Vivian(ph) in Shaker Heights, Ohio. She says, she was born in Hungary and grew up in Germany and watched "The Cosby Show" all the time. She says: I have an older brother. My father was a cardiologist. My mother was a teacher, normal family. It was one of the greatest shows to watch and it influenced me to come to the USA as an exchange student in my later teens and also moved here for good in my mid 20's. I never really saw them as a black family just as a great family.

Ms. WILTZ: And that's - I got one of the comments posted on theroot.com today. One response to my piece was from someone from South Africa, a South African colored or - as they call themselves the mixed-race people in South Africa. And she was saying how much it helped her because there were no representations of people of color in television in South Africa, so all of her friends watched it and bought the DVD and…

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Joe(ph) in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Joe, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JOE (Caller): Thank you. Yeah, I was just going to comment that as a kid growing up, you know, I was watching Archie Bunker and that sort of stuff, and I grew up kind of a lower middle class to lower class. And as a poor white kid, after watching the Huxtables, I thought, maybe I should grow up to be black. And it was my first real shot at seeing African Americans portrayed in that sort of light and it - and for all of our years growing up, we heard about oppression and it just - it really flipped everything on its ear for me and changed the way I looked at color and race.

ROBERTS: Joe, thanks for your call. It's an interesting perspective.

We are talking with Teresa Wiltz. Her editorial on theroot.com is called "The Huxtables Changed Not Television or Politics—But the Idea of Black Family," and you can read it at npr.org. You can click on TALK OF THE NATION. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

How do you feel "The Cosby Show" would hold up today?

Ms. WILTZ: I think it would hold up today. I mean - and the thing that's sad is that there really - with the exception of, I think, "House of Payne," Tyler Perry's "House of Payne" on TBS, we don't - there really are no black families on television right now. "Everybody Hates Chris," Chris Rock's show was cancelled, as well as another one the name is escaping me at the moment.

So, I mean, I think there's a void and that it would be welcomed. And I mean, I think we certainly look at Bill Cosby a little differently these days. But it -when I watch it on YouTube, it holds up today. It still makes me laugh and…

ROBERTS: Does it still seem revolutionary?

Ms. WILTZ: Not as, but yeah. There still is that element. I think that, clearly, there's, you know, with some segments of the population and with, you know, town hall people and protestors showing up with signs, you know, depicting Barack Obama's, you know, witch doctor and every other kind of thing in between, there still are some people who harbor a lot of, you know, negative, racist views of black Americans. And that is their pervasive thoughts. So I think that anything that counters that kind of image is helpful.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Cesley(ph) in Flagstaff, Arizona. Cesley, welcome to the program.

CESLEY (Caller): Hi. Thank you.


CESLEY: Oh, I was just calling to say I was hearing about the change of image of black America. I was just saying how "The Cosby Show" always represented normal family to me. I'm a 30-year-old African American and both of my parents have large families. They are both very - they were educated. They were not divorced families. It just seemed what was normal. And it wasn't until I became a bit older that I was able to, like, contrast stereotypical black what they, you know, stereotypical images of black families in "The Cosby Show" that I was able to see that there was a difference. And so I just wanted to say that the Cosbys represented normal black family to me growing up. And I loved the show and everything it represented.

ROBERTS: Thanks, Cesley. Well, that's similar to your experience, Teresa, that it actually reflected your family in a very real way.

Ms. WILTZ: Yeah. But I do remember in the '80s when I was right out of college and, you know, being at a party at a brownstone in Manhattan, very - in Harlem, very similar to the same brownstone that the Huxtables live in, and getting -at a cocktail party, getting into an argument with someone who is like, oh, that has nothing to do with reality. That doesn't reflect black lives at all. And this was someone who was black and it was just like, you know, the irony of it was pretty funny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Let's see, we'll take one more call. This is Richard(ph) in Wichita, Kansas. Richard, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

RICHARD (Caller): Hi. Yeah. I think one of the important things to remember about "The Cosby Show" is what it did for black television and what - how it made it possible - legitimized the notion that black families could be as civilized as white families who were being portrayed in sitcoms at the time. And it created a kind of complete reversal of the relationship between black and white sitcoms.

We now have, you know, white sitcoms in which the families are really too often cynical, crude and vulgarly. You've got, you know, "Married with Children," "The Simpsons," "Family Guy," "South Park" and all this sort of stuff that is really - almost celebrates the crudity in family life. And whereas if you take a good look at the black sitcoms that have come out since "Cosby," they've taken a break with the stuff that was before "Cosby," which was largely blaxploitation stuff. I mean, "Superfly" and "Shaft" was kind of the underlying theme of an awful lot of the black television before then. But after "Cosby," you start to see the influences of people, like (unintelligible), give you things like "The Wayans Bros." show, "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," "The Steve Harvey Show," "My Wife and Kids," my personal favorite, "The Bernie Mac Show," which are all about - they start off kind of rough and raw so they have meaning to the black community. But they all have the underlying theme of here's how we become better parents, here's how we become better citizens. And it's amazing that the moral quality that you see in these shows that is very much like what we used to see in white sitcoms.

ROBERTS: Richard, thanks for your call. Do you watch a lot of sitcoms these days?

Mr. WILTZ: I have to say I don't. That's not my - and I didn't in the '80s, but it was just "The Cosby Show." There was something about "The Cosby Show" that made me sit down and want to watch. But generally, I've never been a sitcom watcher. I've never been a fan of the - everything is solved and tied up in a neat little bow at the end…

ROBERTS: In 23 minute (Unintelligible).

Mr. WILTZ: Yeah. Exactly.

ROBERTS: We have email from Roxanne(ph) who says I was 10 years old when "The Cosby Show" premiered. I used to wish I was a fraction as fashionable as Denise. I still get a genuine laugh whenever I watch a rerun and admire the efforts the show made to provide children with positive role models. I can't believe it's been 25 years.

Mr. WILTZ: I can't believe it either.


(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: It makes us all feel pretty old. Teresa Wiltz is senior culture writer for theroot.com. You can read her latest piece, "The Huxtables Changed Not Television or Politics—But the Idea of Black Family," both on theroot.com and npr.org. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. WILTZ: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Tomorrow, blogging while in uniform. Is there room for social networks like Facebook and Twitter in the military? We'll talk with the Pentagon's social media guru.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington.

(Soundbite of music, "The Cosby Show Theme")

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.