Tough Love from 'America's Dad'

The World and I, August 2004 | Go to article overview

Tough Love from 'America's Dad'


Bill Cosby wants some low-income blacks to take responsibility for their lives and their futures and seize opportunities generations of African Americans fought, sacrificed, and sometimes died for to achieve. Call it tough love, a shout, a plea, an exhortation, a wake-up call to a hip-hop generation, a "keepin' it real" trip to the woodshed by a beloved father figure for millions who enjoyed The Cosby Show in the 1980s.

The landmark situation comedy was criticized as elitist because it portrayed the lives of a well-to-do minority family. Dr. Heathcliff "Cliff" Huxtable was a successful obstetrician, his wife a prominent lawyer, and all five children were intelligent, beautiful, privileged, and funny. Not your average middle-class family--black or white.

Less-affluent kids said the Huxtables lived in a "cranapple house"--a warm, comfortable, nurturing "family values" kind of place where there was always plenty of "100-percent pure fruit juice" for the neighborhood children, even those likely to get only sugary Kool-Aid at their homes.

To its credit, The Cosby Show was not a blackened version of Leave it to Beaver, set in an idyllic 1950s television fantasy land, although the Huxtables left the front door unlocked far too often for New York City reality.

Cosby was working-class retiree Hinton Lucas in his next comedy series, which lasted three seasons. In the earlier The Bill Cosby Show, he played high school gym teacher Chet Kincaid.

Many forget he won the first Emmys by a black performer (in 1966, '67, and '68) playing Alexander Scott, the Rhodes scholar spy-trainer sidekick to Kelly Robinson, a tennis star/secret agent played by Robert Culp in I Spy.

Cosby's breakthrough character was the first starring role for an African American on a predominantly white television show. I Spy fans hailed Cosby as "the Jackie Robinson of Television."

William Henry Cosby Jr. earned a Ph.D. in education at the University of Massachusetts, and his wife Camille O. Cosby also is an educator.

Camille Cosby and Emmy Award-winning journalist Renee Poussaint founded the National Visionary Leadership Project, which interviewed 49 prominent African-American elders to record their life journeys for the book A Wealth of Wisdom.

Bill Cosby said it hurts him that so many African-American youth have lost their way because they don't know the history of their race or have an appreciation of the struggles of ancestors from slavery to freedom. A defeatist subculture of crime, glorified violence, conspicuous consumption, and drugs has warped the values of many kids, and sometimes they don't even know it. Cosby says you don't have to sell out and become a controlled, homogenized image of white America to live a better life. He couldn't care less if a pharmacist uses street slang--so long as he understands Latin and has mastered chemistry.

Cosby was unrepentant about the off-the-cuff remarks he made May 17 at an NAACP forum on the fiftieth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that ended legal school segregation, chiding neglectful parents, illiterate children, and criminals who "are not holding up their end of this deal."

"It was about our minds, the use of our brains. It was about education," he told the thirty-third annual Rainbow/PUSH Coalition conference. "Fifty percent of African-American males in the lower-income group drop out of school.

"I had a speech, but I kept seeing people in their 80s who had contributed to his decision in the balcony. These people certainly didn't have this in mind. There is a time when we have to turn the mirror around."

Cosby said being poor did not break the spirit in black families of the past. "The housing project was set up for you to move in, move up, and move out," he said. He urged black parents to invest in their children and not let them get their values from pop culture, music, movies, and television. …

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