Thursday, January 22, 2009

Politics: Cosby as the Role Model

TORONTO, ONTARIO - On inauguration day earlier this week, CBC Television's "The National" ran an interesting report by Leslie MacKinnon on how Hollywood had helped pave the way for Barack Obama, the first non-white person to be elected President of the United States. The report presented a variety of racial milestones from Jackie Robinson to an African-American president on 24. It did mention The Cosby Show, but I think it understated the influence of that sitcom and its role in making the election of Barack Obama possible.

Apparently The Jeffersons had been presenting a Black family on CBS since 1975, but I don't remember ever watching it, and its relatively anemic ratings probably mean I wasn't the only young person in that era that didn't. In contrast, in looking over the episode list in preparation for writing this entry, I must have seen almost all of the Cosby Shows. I distinctly remember that it was appointment television--if it was 8 pm on Thursday night, you tuned in NBC and you watched it. When upstart FOX placed "The Simpsons" against it for the 1990-1 season, there was some question, but Cosby generally won out across the country.

We didn't tune in because it the cast was made up entirely of Black people (in the days before African-American was the preferred term). As pointed out earlier this week, there simply weren't many Blacks in the community in which I was raised. We tuned in because it was funny. Bill Cosby and the rest of the cast were entertaining, and the scripts described family experiences that it seemed like anyone could have when children were growing up. There wasn't anything especially "Black" about it.

If anything, the presented fictional Huxtable family was higher class than most of the families that I was familiar with, being headed by doctor and clearly reasonably wealthy. That was the key to the impact of the Cosby Show. Where other portions of the media might have served to have whites feel in some way superior, the Cosby Show caused people like me to look up to Black people. Why wouldn't one want to raise children the way the Huxtables raised theirs? So, if one could view a Black people as role models for parenting or economic status, then why couldn't one view a Black person as a credible politician or world leader? The leap for a Cosby Show viewer was not that large.

That Bill Cosby and Barack Obama seem almost interchangeable in their commentaries about how to eliminate racial divides that exist in the United States is likely not a coincidence. The Cosby Show demonstrated how to live responsibly--in a way that no person would question--and Barack Obama's family has lived such a life for real. Do we not see Phylicia Rashād (Clair Huxtable) in Michelle Obama? Do we not see Keshia Knight Pulliam (Rudy) in Sasha Obama? One hopes that Malia will not behave like Tempestt Bledsoe (Vanessa) in the White House!

Barack Obama understood that he was elected on the shoulders of giants. It may not be fully appreciated that Bill Cosby is one of those giants.

No comments: