“Taking Back the House,” The Root, 17 September 2009.
The onscreen and real-life politics of Bill Cosby.
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 Dr. Alvin Poussaint, the Harvard psychiatrist, 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.
But in the aftermath of The Cosby Show, which ended in 1992, Bill Cosby’s politics moved from on-screen to real life.
“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.”
Since the speech, Cosby’s increasing engagement with black politics and public policy has taken him around the country, most recently back to Detroit, where he is working with the heavily black city’s Department of Education to meet with the families of children at risk of dropping out. In early September, his advice was characteristically blunt: “Not everybody in this room wants to be a doctor or a lawyer,” he said. “Have you ever thought about an electrician? Just a plain, old, raggedy $75-an-hour electrician? How much is eight times $75?”
This line somewhat undercuts the advice Cliff Huxtable gave his TV son—and may indicate a fall from The Cosby Show fantasia, and a pragmatic embrace of the realities of black social mobility. But Cosby doesn’t think of this message as being distinct from that of the sitcom. Of the truants and dropouts and pushers that comprise the saddest rung of black youth today, Cosby insists: “They need love. They need Huxtabling.”
Yet his many different types of public engagement leave his true political affiliations something of a mystery. Though today Cosby calls himself a “fan” of “The Obama Show,” he was initially lukewarm toward the president. He snapped at one reporter who sought his opinion on the then-primary candidate, calling Obama “a prize brown baby” about whom he would never be asked were it not for their shared skin color.
Is Cosby a conservative? Poussaint says absolutely not. “I would definitely consider him a progressive liberal,” he says. “He’s just always been demanding of people educationally.” The Atlantic’s Coates and Manhattan Institute scholar John McWhorter think otherwise. “Cosby’s rhetoric played well in black barbershops, churches and backyard barbecues, where a unique brand of conservatism still runs strong,” Coates wrote, adding recently “he’s much closer to the conservatism of black nationalism than to the conservatism of Shelby Steele.” Comparing Cosby’s feel-good brand of lecturing to the churchy hucksterism of Tyler Perry’s comedies and dramas, McWhorter wrote: “Cosby is too grouchy in his presentation to reach the unconverted; the message is more effective from a woman filtered through the warmth of the maternal rather than the admonishment of the paternal.” (Cosby has stated emphatically that he doesn’t watch Perry’s shows.)
But as The Cosby Show pilot illustrates, the “admonishment of the paternal” has been a hallmark of Cosby’s prolific career—soon to be honored by the Kennedy Center with a prestigious Mark Twain Prize. And perhaps fittingly, it has been a subtle element of Obama’s own messaging on fatherhood and black community uplift. On Father’s Day 2008, the 21st century’s Cliff Huxtable gave a speech declaring: “We need fathers to step up, to realize that their job does not end at conception; that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise one.” Obama may well have cribbed his rhetoric straight from Come on, People. In a chapter titled “Claim Your Children,” Cosby and Poussaint write: “You can run the biggest drug cartel in America or win the Super Bowl, but if you haven’t claimed your children, you are not a man.”
Cosby maintains that there was a certain consistency to his political ideology. “I’m steady with this, period,” he says. But over 40 years in public life, there have been many shifts in emphasis. Today, Cosby may well be a sort of libertarian nationalist—distrustful of government assistance and obsessed with racial hegemony (though not racism). And there is a strange kind of symmetry to his rationale for starting The Cosby Show and his reasons for getting into rough and tumble race politics: “I wanted to take the house back.”