The Cosby Show, starring Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad as Cliff and Clair Huxtable, had a five-year run as America’s top sitcom during the second half the 1980s. It was the first television show with an African-American cast to top the ratings. Considering it certainly wasn’t among the first or funniest shows to depict African-Americans, e.g. The Jefferson’s and Sanford & Son, maybe the Huxtables found their way into America’s non-black households for other reasons.
Ethnic and entertainment critics have theorized long and hard over the many reasons The Cosby Show became such a staple on American televisions, but the simple reality may have a lot to do with the jobs Cliff and Clair held, as a doctor and attorney, respectively. In fact, by portraying its stars in such respectable and admirable professions, The Cosby Show set a trend for success for other shows starring African-Americans. Family Matters featured Carl Winslow, a police officer; The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air welcomed Phillip Banks as a judge; and other shows like ER and NYPD Blue had African-American actors and actresses in roles as doctors, detectives and other public service-oriented jobs.
It seems television shows, especially during primetime hours, are only willing to show the lives and careers of African-Americans if they assured audiences that “these are good-natured, hard-working black people”. Even hit movies in the ‘80s and ‘90s perpetuated these roles with Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop character Alex Foley being a detective, the Will Smith/Martin Lawrence cop flick Bad Boys, and the classic Philadelphia featured Denzel Washington as an attorney. Meanwhile, hit shows like Friends, Seinfeld, Sex and the City and Cheers depict their stars as jobless, creative (i.e. comedians, public relations gurus and writers) or otherwise employed-without-significance, e.g. Seinfeld’s George Costanza.
Similar to real life, characters like Costanza and Friends character Rachel Green, played by Jennifer Aniston, can be jobless or make bad career choices without widespread damage to their ethnicity. On the other hand, both television shows and nightly news program regularly hold up African-Americans, both real and fictionalized, as representations of the entire race. High-speed car chases, post-game press conferences and music videos are just a few examples of places where African-Americans are identified as portrayals of a race encompassing more than 35 million people in this country.
Meanwhile, other “black people” movies and television shows of recent years, Brown Sugar, Waiting to Exhale, Love & Basketball, Love Jones and BET’s Girlfriends, which portray African-American as advertising executives, writers, music producers and photographers have had only mild success compared to their more formulaic television predecessors. These professions, which require varying levels of creativity, education and talent, are held by real-life African-Americans all over the country. Unfortunately, their stories are often overlooked and untold by mainstream media, especially network television shows and nightly news programs.
What does it say about America’s popular culture and the status of African-Americans in it if we are identified as cops or robbers, doctors or patients, judges or those to be imprisoned? More importantly, what does this demonstrate to young African-Americans, our children, when they seldom see their elders in positions of leadership, success and opportunity outside of a few career fields hand-picked by studio executives and screen writers?
Michael Jordan and Deion Sanders, Will Smith and Dave Chappelle, Oprah Winfrey and Tyra Banks, Sean “Diddy” Combs and Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter. These accomplished athletes, actors, comedians, talk-show hosts, and music moguls are far more likely to be idolized by African-American youths than the African-American men and women who lead the companies they purchase from, teach at the schools they attended or start the nonprofit organizations they donate to.
Must African-Americans choose between careers in entertainment and public service or lives in crime and prisons? I do not believe so. I have heard of and met several African-Americans whom have illustrious careers as political consultants, communications experts, university administrators, Fortune executives and journalists. African-American youth, the children we must inspire and educate, need to know the stories of these individuals just as much as the oft-told “rags-to-riches” stories of the actors, athletes and characters they see on TV.
Real Role Models is intended not only as a look into the various professions African-Americans can and have succeeded in, but also as a collection of introspective, insightful and inspiring tales of drive, hard work, luck, perseverance, and pride.
Included in these pages will be the untold stories of the real Huxtables and Winslow’s, that is to be certain we share the true-life examples of African-American doctors and police officers, along with those of people like Texas women's track coach Bev Kearny, former State Department official Dr. Eric Motley, and other African-American leaders in this “land of opportunity”. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned a nation without inequality. I envision a nation where we honor and embrace those overlooked contributors to Dr. King’s mission.
by Joah Spearman (January 15, 2007)