When NBC debuted the Cosby Show in the fall of 1984, Bill Cosby single-handedly redrew the image of black patriarchy in American culture. For the first time, American patriarchy rested in the hands of someone with a black face. It was revolutionary. It rejuvenated NBC’s morbid ratings and brought them back from the brink of television extinction. Bill Cosby gave White America what it wanted: a chance to indulge their cultural voyeurism without the agonizing self imposed burden of white guilt. For 30 mins, if only on television, white society got a chance to see what it was really like to live in a post racial America.
In Black America, an interesting discussion developed. Echoing the class fissures of the 1960’s, many black people instantly began questioning the negritude of the Huxtables. This reality was echoed in a book by Eugene Robinson called Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America. Robinson argues that the Civil Rights Movement’s successes created deep class divisions within Black America that had dire implications for the collective welfare of the community. While the issue is a bit more nuanced that Robinson describes, his analysis of internecine class conflict is not entirely without some validity.
For example, if one examines the responses to the Cosby Show from many in Black America, Robinson’s point becomes even more poignant. Many black viewers felt alienated by the show due to the status of its protagonists. They stated that they could not relate to a family where the father was a Doctor and the Mother was an Attorney. This view is symptomatic of a deep spiritual malady metastazing within the collective black soul. For far too many of us, black means poor, struggling, fatherless and criminal. It is the resignation of hope and an unconditional acceptance of America’s low expectations for black life. In short, black means being born to lose. For all of their success and celebration of family, the Huxtables could never seem to escape the shadow of another black family 10 years its’ senior: The Evans Family.
James Evans is often seen as “realer” than Heathcliff Huxtable not because of his character, his intelligence or even his knuckle game. He is realer because he and his family live in Cabrini Green Projects. His authenticity is grounded in suffering. Although many ignore his determination, and his iron will to persevere, they cling doggeddly to his ability to suffer. They simply never stopped to think that what James and Florida wanted for The Evans Family was the same thing that Cliff and Clair achieved for the Huxtables. They simply conclude that because Cliff does not break out his belt to resolve every disciplinary problems, or failing that, speak to his children in hood vernacular, he is somehow the lesser version of true black masculinity. So let the tale of the tape tell the tale.
James Henry Evans Sr was born in 1932 in Cartersville, MS. He was the son of a share-cropper who subsequently left the family when he could not find work in Cartersville. Being the man of the house, James Evans dropped out of school in the 6th grade to take care of the family. He comes of age at the height of the Korean War for which he is drafted. At 20 years of age, he is honorably discharged and winds up in Chicago where he marries a young Florida and has 3 children: James Jr. (J.J.), Thelma Ann, & Michael.
In Chicago, James find himself confronted with the harsh realities of urban life for many black Americans who poured out of the South in the Great Exodus up North. Initially, while factory work sustained many black families in the North, redlining of communities, rampant housing discrimination, cyclical poverty, stagnant wages, and a declining manufacturing based economy, resigned many black Americans to ghettos all throughout the North. James’ problem is not that he is unemployed. It’s that he is underemployed because his wages are not enough to support a family in the economic black hole of Southside Chicago. His advanced age and his lack of a diploma exacerbates an already bleak circumstance.
Although he is overcome by the epic obstacles of being black in America, he does what fathers have done since time immemorial. He fights, he loses, he keeps fighting. While he is plagued with chronic underemployment, he does not succumb to the sweet temptations of street life. For James Evans Sr, the ghetto and all of its dysfunctions cease to exist at the door of his 17 story, 2 bedroom apartment in Cabrini Green. Despite the sobering casualties of lives in the hood, James ensures that his children do not become high school drop outs. His sons do not become cannon fodder for the prison industrial complex, or drug addicts. His only daughter does not become another teen pregnant statistic. And he endows his family with his indomitable hope of achieving a brighter tomorrow.
But just as James had found his salvation from the hellish machinations of an attrition based economy, fate conspired to rob him of the realization of all the dreams and aspirations he held for the Evans Family. Up until the day he passed, he never stopped fighting. He fought. He died. He died fighting.
By contrast, Heathcliff Huxtable was the son of baby boomers Russell and Anna Huxtable in 1937 in Philadelphia, PA. His father, a World War II Veteran, postal worker and club musician, Cliff grew up with a degree of comfort that was denied James. As such he was a bit mischievous in school. His high jinks were dampened when he lost his 7 yr old brother James Theodore to rheumatic fever. He later joined the Navy and got an honorable discharge. Unlike James, Cliff went to Hillman College (a fictional HBCU in the South). He graduated and went on to marry Clair Hanks and had five children: Sondra, Denise, Theodore (named after his deceased brother), Vanessa & Rudy. He subsequently became a OBGYN, while Clair became an attorney. Through networking, persistence and hardwork, Cliff and Clair become successful and obtain a suburban home in Brooklyn Heights, NY.
While Cliff is solidly middle class, his culture is as black as a cast iron skillet. He is an avid jazz fan. He just happens to rub noses with Mr. Hampton (Jazz Icon Dizzy Gillespie), Lena Horne, & Stevie Wonder. The irony here is that while he may not fall the under un-apologetically pro-black definitions of blackness, he and his family epitomizes the most profound expressions of blackness. His swag is one born of the Harlem Jazz Culture of the 1950’s and 60’s.
And while he seems to be just another unassuming colored guy, Clair is not. When she finds herself embroiled in a debate about the Great Depression with an acerbic white conservative and 2 condescending white liberals, she more than holds her own. In this episode, Bill Cosby subtly reveals the illusory differences between explicit conservative bigotry and enlightened liberal racism. The point? Clair and Cliff’s climb into the promise land of suburban America comes at a price. They must fight tooth and nail to maintain the comfort that they achieved because they are surrounded by a vast ocean of hostile bigots who would just assume see them living next door to James & Florida, instead of that big brownstone at 10 Stickwood Avenue in Brooklyn. Cliff and Clair understand that while the hate is covert, it is still real. Thus, like James, Cliff from the comfort of his brownstone must fight.
The idea that the Cosby Show is not a real representation of Black Life in America is utterly insipid. It is one born of the low expectations of bigotry and nourished by the impoverishment of the spirit. While Black Life may be uniform in terms of the concentration of wealth and power in American society, it is diverse in terms of its’ response to that exclusionary concentration. Therefore, though they reside on different sides of the track, they nevertheless converge at the most sacred point: the love and protection of their family. Thus, James is no more of a patriarch than Cliff. And Cliff is no less masculine than James. They are the hopes and aspirations of countless millions of Black men scattered throughout the diaspora.
TONY MACEO is a senior blogger at the Negromanosphere and the Chief Blogger at Power & Strategy.com. Like, share or subscribe to the website or You Tube Channel. Chess Players check out our online chess store or become a Patron @PowerofStrategies at Patreon. Till Next Time, I’ll holla!