Separating Bill and Cliff: Black and White Americas Dilemma

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To white America, Cliff Huxtable expounded all the ideals of American accomplishment.

America’s obsession with Bill Cosby/Cliff Huxtable, the late 80’s and early 90’s ideal Black father, is not coincidental. In multi-cinematic media, images are the valuable commodity, allowing viewers (consumers) to buy, or in this case believe in, the reality of the icon within the sitcom, movie, or commercial. This isn’t the first nor will it be the last attempt by film production companies, broadcast stations, and communication oligarchs to create an icon that appeal to Black folks in this nature. Rather, our concern should be whether or not we allow ourselves to buy-in to the product. Further, a more important question will be: how do we maintain a healthy distance between the image and the actual person role-playing the icon? Bill Cosby was Cliff Huxtable, yet it wasn’t Black America who promoted this correlation, it was NBC, more specifically two newly independent white screen writers, Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner.

He exemplified the rugged individualism which is the hallmark to acceptable American success.

Cliff Huxtable was the quintessential icon that Black America, all America, fell in love with during this decade. To white America, Cliff Huxtable expounded all the ideals of American accomplishment. As an image, Cliff Huxtable confirmed to white America the exceptional achievable Black that can attain wealth and security through hard work, good education, and the proper outlook. He exemplified the rugged individualism which is the hallmark to acceptable American success. Cliff Huxtable was white America’s marker, a standardize ideal to measure Black men’s acceptability and values inventory.

On the opposite side of the track, Cliff Huxtable was intended to be something altogether different.  Black people were cognizant of Bill Cosby’s stand-up comedy and cameo of the 60’s, his movie roles as a thief, teacher, and hustler in the 70’s, and more importantly his Fat Albert project which casted him as narrative mentor to the cartoon characters. Before the Cosby show, Bill was one of many various imperfect Black actors, appreciated or not, that was not viscerally attached to any particular character. It wasn’t until Carsey and Werner, set off on their independent distribution venture, begin to consult with Cosby about a new sitcom.
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On the social scheme, Huxtable was to represent the apolitical non-controversial Black male image that would challenge figures like Jesse Jackson who was candidate for democratic presidential nomination in 1984.

After the pilot show in May of 1984, Carsey and Werner began to fashion Cliff Huxtable to be a Black upper-middle class patriot who resounded good American values and family orientation. Sounds conservative right? The goal of Cliff Huxtable was to counter images such as George Jefferson and James Evans, who in various ways dealt with hard issues of oppression, racism, and poverty. Cliff was to introduce a Black fatherhood image that would challenge white liberal icons of Phillip Drummond (Different Strokes, 1978) and George Papadopoulus (Webster, 1983) that stated white men can better care for Black children. On the social scheme, Huxtable was to represent the apolitical non-controversial Black male image that would challenge figures like Jesse Jackson who was candidate for democratic presidential nomination in 1984. (This same theme would follow in their later sitcoms of 227, Amen, and Fresh Prince of Bel Ail.) Further, Cosby’s contribution to the character was comedic influence and design based on his stand-up performance. With this background, it’s not surprising that Cliff never discussed police brutality or criminalization of Black males to Theo. It is not a coincidence that he’s never discussed with Vanessa, Rudy, Denise, or Sondra the gender inequities embedded in this country. Even with a “theme” of Civil Rights backdrop and Black cultural expressions making appearances, the design of Cliff Huxtable wasn’t meant to deal with the everyday experience of Black male/fatherhood life. So what was Cliff Huxtable? It can be said that Black America had a force fed paternalistic relationship with Cliff Huxtable. He was a concocted Black father image, strategically market, to convey a set of idealistic standards and values toward Black America. He was an icon that sold the American story, “if you go to school, get a good job, pay taxes, and raise your kids in this manner, life will look like this.”

Honestly….we bought it!

Black America developed infinity for Cliff Huxtable the ideal, not Bill Cosby the human, although we couldn’t separate the two.

It gets more complicated. Carsey and Werner Distribution Company were well aware of the rumors surrounding Bill Cosby, although they claim they weren’t. Outside of a few PBS specials and the Fat Albert project, from 80 to 84 Cosby’s career was on the decline because of the under the table deals to hush a few sexual assault allegations from going public. Despite this, the Cosby show went ahead as planned. Bill Cosby became Cliff Huxtable over 8 years. Throughout the eight seasons, various incidents happened off camera and beyond the set. He successfully toggled between his onscreen personality and his everyday life. With this duality, however, only one image can actually triumph given a successful NBC marketing, endorsement from the Jello Company, and various appearances as the nation’s number one dad. Black America developed infinity for Cliff Huxtable the ideal, not Bill Cosby the human, although we couldn’t separate the two. We bought, consumed, and accepted Carsey and Werner’s and NBC product of Black fatherhood in the form of Cliff Huxtable and the synonymous Bill Cosby. Again, after eight seasons, Bill Cosby equaled Cliff Huxtable and Cliff equaled Bill. This explains why so many of us are appalled and split over Bill’s 21st century demeanor. I’ve read numerous blogs and articles responding to Cosby’s over indulging rant and criticism on poorer Blacks in particular, mothers and youth. The recent allegations of sexual assault and rape have completely taken Black America by storm. Only a few among us were able to remain sober of Bill Cosby’s Huxtable cloak and his shedding over the years. Nikki Giovanni blasted Cosby in 2006 criticizing his positions and while subtlety revealing awareness of his sexual promiscuity. However, if you are of the previous two generations, the overwhelming Black population that was able to view, enjoy, and believe in the Cliff/Bill ideal is in recovery at the moment from the devastating shock. Black folks are both denying and defending Bill or have completely denounced him, with a small margin in the middle.

All this to say is like most of Black America, I don’t know Bill Cosby and was very much associating Cliff Huxtable to his persona.

Here is my subjective position. I was one who really appreciated the Cosby show, albeit it never aligned with my current reality. But that’s just it, because it created a fictitious reality of middle-class Black family life, I bought into the surreal nature of the show. I never accepted Bill Cosby as an admired Black father like image. Maybe it’s because I was raised (only) by my father and never thought of anything beyond him. Yet, Bill Cosby in mind did become more acquainted with the good Black man image that “loves the kids.” Part of this is founded upon one of my childhood shows being Fat Albert. Throughout my life, Bill Cosby was that happy kid loving Black guy that offered guidance. It wasn’t until I was in my later twenties Bill Cosby Philanthropy-2when I was exposed to Cosby as the ‘goatee’ sporting, hustler in “Let’s Do It Again” or the thief master in “A Piece of the Action.” All this to say is like most of Black America, I don’t know Bill Cosby and was very much associating Cliff Huxtable to his persona. Yet, his promotion and support of Black educational institution, funding of private literature projects, media projects, and his advocacy for children’s educational rights cannot be ignored.  I learned of these things and became more inspired by his ‘public work’.

My hopes is that while Black America is quickly looking for their Bill Cosby/Cliff Huxtable receipt to return their product, we can use this as a healthy learning lesson.

I cannot and will not hold Bill Cosby up in his wrong. I criticized his position on the Black community in an article earlier this year. With all the allegations surfacing, I can’t say how true or off the claims are. However, more evidence suggests that there is something lurking in the Cosby closet. His wife, along with Phylicia Rashaud, Malcolm Jamal Warner, Keshia McKnight Pullman and a host of other previous show colleagues have spoken in support of Bill to cast a different light to his professional and personal life.  There are quite of few who have chosen to remain silent on the issue. Either it is a massive conspiracy to dethrone the man’s legacy of educational, entrepreneurial, and kid inspiring endeavors or his sexually aggressive womanizing actions have finally bared fruit. I really don’t know. My hopes is that while Black America is quickly looking for their Bill Cosby/Cliff Huxtable receipt to return their product, we can use this as a healthy learning lesson.

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