Quick! Can you name that black kid from that sitcom around the 70’s and 80’s? No, not the tall skinny ghetto kid who went, “Dy-no-miiiite!” No, not the short, black kid adopted by the rich white family, who always said, “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” No, not the other short, black kid adopted by a white family, either. Come on – who was the good-looking black teen boy from the nice, intact family who lived in an affluent neighborhood? Still don’t know?
It is far easier to name white, affluent teens from the same era of television: Mike Seaver, from Growing Pains; Alex Keaton from Family Ties; Ricky Stratton from Silver Spoons; and, of course, all six Brady kids. Like many black kids across the USA, I grew up watching shows such as these, starring these happy, smiling white families with clean, sparkly homes. Their almost-perfect lives were only occasionally marred by white people problems such as teen pimples, first boyfriends, and naughty little sisters who steal your favorite sweater. By the end of each episode, their problems were wrapped up in some simple, cheesy, happily-ever-after way.
In contrast, most of the kids in the predominantly Black television shows lived in run-down homes in the ghetto. Well, with the exception of Webster, and Willis and Arnold, who were rescued from ghetto life by kind, wealthy white folks (Whatcu talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?). Black kids from these shows didn’t care about pimples – they were often too busy trying to help their parents find a way to make the rent that month. The themes were heavy by comparison, as black characters dealt with topics such as venereal diseases, sexual abuse, and wrongful accusations of shoplifting. By the end of each episode, these problems were both solved and unsolved, often leaving deep questions hanging in the air for the viewer to ponder.
And I don’t know – maybe I even learned something about social justice and black culture by watching those predominantly black shows. But mostly, I remember feeling a sense of shame, even at a very young age, that the people on the screen who looked the most like me came from such dreadful circumstances. Where was the Black Brady Bunch, with happy smiling kids and nice, educated parents who helped them solve their problems?
Well thank goodness, when I was nine years old, Bill Cosby changed America’s perception of the Black TV sitcom family. At last, we had a family to represent us on-screen who neither lived in the ghetto, nor was “movin’ on up” out of a ghetto. The Huxtables were a respectable and affluent black family with five children. The mother, Clair, was a hard-working and successful lawyer, while the father, Cliff, was an obstetrician with his own private practice. The Cosby Show dealt with both the lighthearted and the more serious issues of family life with intelligence, sensitivity, and humor. Not only Black families crowded around their televisions to tune in, as it quickly became the most successful television sitcom of the 1980’s.
The Cosby Show signified a change in American family sitcoms. Not only was there a wider variety of shows featuring black families, but there was also an increase in the number of blue-collar, not-so-sparkly white family shows, such as Roseanne, which became the number one sitcom in the country from 1989 to 1990, and dealt with heavier topics than most white family sitcoms had tackled in the past. Just as many Black families cheered with the arrival of the The Cosby Show, many white families also cheered at the arrival of a family who perhaps better represented them, too. At last, American television was veering away from the archetypes that had ruled the airwaves for so many years, and opening the door to diverse families and new ideas. And to that, I just have say, “Dy-no-miiite!”
(How’s that for a cheesy ending?)