Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Cosby Show and the Racial Mountain

Last night I read Langston Hughes's seminal essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (1926), which begins with Hughes recounting an exchange he had with a promising young black poet.

One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, "I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet," meaning, I believe, "I want to write like a white poet"; meaning subconsciously, "I would like to be a white poet"; meaning behind that, "I would like to be white." And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet.

Hughes then speculates that this young poet seeks to flee his race because of his upbringing, in a family "of what I suppose one would call the Negro middle class: people who are by no means rich yet never uncomfortable nor hungry—smug, contented, respectable folk." Such families, Hughes asserts, tend to have an undue admiration for the white world and a concomitant disregard for people of their own race:

The whisper of "I want to be white" runs silently through their minds. This young poet's home, is, I believe, a fairly typical home of the colored middle class. One sees immediately how difficult it would be for an artist born in such a home to interest himself in interpreting the beauty of his own people. He is never taught to see that beauty. He is taught rather not to see it, or if he does, to be ashamed of it when it is not according to Caucasian patterns.

And wealthier black families are usually no better, according to Hughes:

For racial culture the home of a self-styled "high-class" Negro has nothing better to offer. Instead there will perhaps be more aping of things white than in a less cultured or less wealthy home.

I thought of The Cosby Show as I read this essay, a show that seems designed in response to Hughes's essay. Although the Huxtables are clearly upper-class (the father is a doctor, the mother a lawyer, the kids well-clothed and well-fed in a beautifully appointed brownstone), in explicit ways they are shown not to ape things white.

They have paintings by black artists hanging on their walls. Theo has a Wynton Marsalis poster hanging in his bedroom (as well as an anti-apartheid poster). Cliff is a huge jazz fan. The family, on occasion, choreographs lip-synched routines to tunes by Ray Charles and James Brown. Both parents attended a historically black college (and the show spends numerous episodes highlighting it, even creating a spinoff set there). The family lives in Brooklyn in the 1980s, not a predominantly white neighborhood. They send their kids to public schools, not mostly white private schools. On occasion, the grandparents come around and reminisce about getting on buses to participate in the Freedom Rides of the Civil Rights Movement. The grandchildren are named Winnie and Nelson. The show itself highlights black cultural figures with cameos by Sammy Davis, Jr., Lena Horne, Dizzy Gillespie, and B.B. King. Although both the adults and the children have white friends as well as black ones, the kids date and marry within their own race. When Claire appears on a local political roundtable TV show, she holds her ground against patronizing white panelists.

I'm not necessarily defending the show against all criticisms that might be made of it (although I did love the show as a kid and still remember it fondly). It just struck me, reading Hughes's essay, that certain aspects of the show seem designed in response to its critique of the black bourgeoisie.

1 comment:

Reginald said...

As a young black student of English at a fairly prestigious liberal-arts college here in Memphis, I've struggled with the frankly disturbing possibility that I could be a part of Hughes' black bourgeoisie. In all my soul-searching I had never considered The Cosby Show to be a place to turn, but I think you hit the nail on the head. In fact, what you have said here has I think finally begun to open my eyes to the historical import of the show; the notion that it was culturally significant in that way was a sentiment that, try as I may, I just could not understand.