Let’s talk the Black family. And not that “ooh, my Granny makes the best sweet potato pie,” or “What city are we hosting the family reunion?” “Or who is Daddy’s favorite?” kind of talk.
Uhn uhn. Time for real talk. Time to go deeper and have those conversations that force us to tend to our wounds and start healing.
When it chose a shattered portrait of the iconic Cosby Show for its November cover, Ebony magazine was simply heeding the call to “break glass in case of emergency.” Now the alarm is ringing, we must run and see what’s the matter.
Personally, I did not take the Ebony cover literally, as if there is some fracture in the Cosby Show, its image or its influence on American pop culture – and more pointedly… the Black American experience.
Let’s state facts: Heathcliff is not Bill Cosby. Claire most certainly is not Phylicia Rashad nor Camille Cosby… ‘cause we all know after Claire had gotten wind of the allegations surrounding her husband, there would be no defense, no victim-blaming. Nope. Our Claire would have delivered her death stare, read Heathcliff for shame, left him for her old Hillman flame, and then represented the women in court. Then there is fine Theo. Down-for-my-people-speak truth to power-working-at-the-community-center- righteous-Theo. He would never sacrifice truth for Malcolm Jamal Warner’s misdirected disappointment.
Well, of course that is my imagination talking. What my imagination hopes would have transpired on our beloved, yet fictive television show.
Yet, here’s the thing about fiction and made up things: It must have some semblance of believability. The Cosby Show, for all its new millennial criticisms, may not have been a reality for the majority of its faithful viewers, but it was believable enough to offer a new hope. Some inspiration. And while it may not fully connect with the new lens from today’s proliferation of cultural critics, it was a welcome escape in its time as the number one watched network sitcom; a hope for what the institution of family could be. An inspiration for our individual and collective aspirations. It certainly was an influence on the many throes of Black folk heading to HBCU’s and college campuses in record numbers, producing many first generation college attendees in the 90s. It was a space for us to escape our world, to exchange our real families for the one on TV.
The Real Talk we need to have…
For all the reasons I mentioned above, we can certainly say that art inspires life. But there are many instances where it does not imitate it. Exhibit A: the Cosby Show itself is still intact. Claire can still be seen in all her glory, Cliff stays doling out his fatherly nuggets, and we can enjoy wholesome family jam sessions to our heart’s syndicated delight.
So, I find it quite ironic, yet Divinely aligned, that the Ebony cover served as “The Family Issue” in the month of November: the start to a season where for good or bad, people are forced to consider their families. A season connected with holiday gatherings, where many are obligated to sit across the table from their childhood sexual predator, aka Uncle Leroy.
It’s the season where many contemplate suicide rather than sit in silence as their family members berate and spew hateful, homophobic rhetoric at them across the turkey as their true identities cower under a protective mask. So many will up their anxiety meds in fear of the triggers that threaten to undermine the strides made in their therapy sessions.
Let us not forget those who are pushed back into the ugliness of childhood, where Aunt Sheila beat, cursed children and directed such derogatory language to shame them, that it would embarrass a drunken soldier. And surely we could dig further and take a look at all the grandparents and relatives who choose to ignore the fact that Troy has brought yet another pregnant girlfriend to dinner, yet has not been in touch with his first 4 children since they were in the wombs of all the other pregnant girlfriends from holidays past. And everyone will ignore that Aunt Pat, with the cast on her broken arm, seems more skittish every time Uncle Kenny gives her his ice cold stare…the same Uncle who is also known to verbally beat up on all the women in the family.
Dressing will be passed ten times before anyone addresses why Lil Mike keeps jumping up from the table, peeping out the windows and clutching his waistband. Then when Loretta has a breakdown, again, and becomes violent, nobody will finally address the mental health issues several family members are self medicating or criminalized for. And who will stay to resolve the final balance on Big Mama’s funeral arrangements or discuss how folks skipped out on that responsibility?
Everyone will just slice their homemade version of Patti Pie and sip tea as they all boisterously share their opinion about the Cosby Show and whether or not “Cliff” “really” “raped” “those women.” air quote air quote air quote.
And now that Bill Cosby has moved to file lawsuits against a number of his accusers for defamation, this family focused holiday season will be just like old times. The Cosby Show escape from their real family problems.
Still the opportunity is here. Ebony pushed us to the line. And it’s high time we all step up, that means Ebony too, with its new generation of editors and staff writers who may not be familiar with the “culture” that was nurtured for years in the iconic red carpeted halls of their Michigan Avenue offices. But just as they arrogantly task the Cosby Show cast as collectively inheriting the sins of its father, it may want to look in the mirror. Ask around about the dysfunction, sexism, and adult indiscretions that were embedded within the work culture. Any employee or associate intimately familiar with practices at Johnson Publishing Company from back in the day can speak to what built the figurative house they live in, even though it currently boasts a newly renovated version.
So, yes, we have to fully consider and examine how the Bill Cosby rape allegations (can we point out the deposition confessions while we’re at it) impact the Cosby Show family as a business and cultural icon. But while we’re looking over there, we’d all better be looking right at home tending to our own family business.