How important is a symbol? For those who continue to defend Bill Cosby amidst accusations of rape from over 50 women, what matters most is not the dignity of those women and them rightfully seeking retribution, but the symbolism behind Cosby’s greatest success. Sadly, they have now been emboldened in their shortsighted stance by one of the cast members ofThe Cosby Show. In an interview with HuffPost Live, Malcolm-Jamal Warner employed the “bigger picture” defense in his condemnation of Ebony magazine’s latest cover.
"[The cover is] contributing to the stereotypical image that society has of the broken black family and the shattered black family," Warner explained to host Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani. "And to take something that… for 20 [or] 30 years has been what we have held up as the black family that we all want to aspire to, in terms of the love that we don't see when we see black families in the media—to take that image and to shatter it, it's disappointing to a lot of us."
Cosby may have only been Warner’s dad while in character, but he certainly passed along some delusions of grandeur. Nonetheless, it’s a point of view expressed by many, though it feels flawed for numerous reasons. Not to take away what the Huxtables meant to some people, but I never felt comfortable with the idea that in order for non-black people to see black folks beyond trite tropes, they had to see them within the constrains of an upper middle class nuclear family. The same goes for that family being the one “we all want to aspire to.”
Even if that were actually the case, in 2015, we have President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and their two children, Sasha and Malia Obama. Likewise, we have Beyoncé, Jay Z, and their daughter Blue Ivy Carter. For those who need to see an image of black families depicting what is perceived to be “traditional,” and thus, a model worth aspiring to, there are other options.
Meanwhile, a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center shows that the majority of American kids under 18 are not being raised in a “traditional” family—defined as two parents in their first marriage. Only 46 percent of children now live in such a lifestyle. The rest are raised by single parents, parents who cohabitate, stepparents, and grandparents. Moreover, there are gay parents; and according to a new study by the Population Research Center at the University of Texas, same-sex parents spend significantly more time with their children than their heterosexual counterparts.
This shift reminds me of something not enough people acknowledge about black television: We’ve long had varied depictions of what a black family can look like.
Thea chronicled a widowed mother of four who works in a Houston, Texas supermarket by day and runs a 1-chair beauty salon on the corner of her porch at night.
Roc followed the lives of a working class family of various generations existing together in Baltimore.
Even if the premise is a wee bit unrealistic, Sister, Sister highlighted the lives of adopted Black children and their families.
There were also shows such as Living Single and Martin, which were not about families per se, but as many of us learn in our adult lives, families are often a feeling we create.
I don’t particularly like the idea of dissecting the black family majorly through a pop culture lens because regardless of what’s on TV, there are plenty of functional black families out there. There are many different types of families, and I don’t believe in placing one above another.
I will never be Heathcliff Huxtable. As a gay man, I’m looking more so for a Drake than a Claire. Placing one kind of a family on a pedestal is reductive and wrong.
Based on some of the more visceral reactions to the cover of the November issue of Ebony magazine (as seen in this report from The Washington Post, it's been called "rude" and "in poor taste"), you would think Bill Cosby was Jesus and The Cosby Show the Bible. If some choose to continue to make Heathcliff Huxtable their TV Santa, so be it, but be very clear that Ebony is not perpetuating the image of the broken black family; they are simply holding a mirror up to the man who fancied himself as a moralizer in his public life but is now being haunted by alleged transgressions from his personal life.
And let's not forget: A decade ago, this man used the fame and fortune generated from that purported pristine image of the black family to condemn his poorer black brethren.
Why not understand that Bill Cosby’s fictitious family might be shattered, but we have others to look to? More importantly, why not take comfort in the reality that no matter what’s going on with Cosby’s fake black family, the ones many of us love remain intact?
Michael Arceneaux is a Houston-bred, Howard University educated writer who wants a show that'll allow him to recite UGK lyrics with Beyoncé. He's working on his first book, I Can't Date Jesus, for Atria Books.