Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Funkified Standard Version of the American Dream: The Cosby Show

This is the fifth in a series of five posts dealing with the symbolic deployment of racial difference. The first was about Shakespeare’s Caliban; the second was about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; the third dealt with A Passage to India and Light in August; and the fourth was about Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Cross-posted at The Valve.

The works we've examined so far—Shakespeare's The Tempest, Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Forster's A Passage to India, Faulkner's Light in August, and Zemeckis's Who Framed Roger Rabbit—differ in many ways. What they share is a common division within their symbolic universe. In each case we have the world of white people, who dominate the action, and the world of some non-white Others, who play a critical role in the emotional lives of the dominant whites. This split is at the heart of the social interaction which has, in the United States, given us a twentieth century expressive culture which is, in music and other spheres, driven by the expressive achievements of African Americans. In the twentieth century, many white Americans have, with Eddie Valiant, decided to reclaim their projected desires by learning to act like those Others they had formerly despised.

I now want to consider the The Cosby Show, one of the most successful television shows in recent history. In this show the Others have moved front and center. This is their show, they are the characters we must identify with.

This program created by a stand-up comedian and actor, Bill Cosby, centered on a thoroughly middle class black family, the Huxtables. This family embodied widely shared values and aspirations which we might as well call The American Dream — interesting and remunerative careers for mother (lawyer) and father (physician), attractive children, familial harmony, an elegant home and nice clothes all around. Previous African-American families on prime-time television had been quite different. Fred Sanford (& Son) was a junkman living in the ghetto. George Jefferson (& family) was very successful, but also very insecure in the status attendant upon his material success. He was constantly on the lookout for racial slights. His insecurity may well be closer to reality than the Huxtables’ easy self-assurance, but, remember, TV is mythology, not sociology. The myth is that everyone has a right to what the Huxtables had. That, by the way, these particular people are black, simply puts African-Americans at the center of this myth.

As a statement of the situation of black America The Cosby Show was certainly inadequate, and was criticized on that account. But it is quite clear that Cosby never intended a full sociological treatment of contemporary African America. He was interested in mythologizing and, as mythologist, he was brilliant. As an example, consider the scene where, as a present to Cliff's (played by Cosby) parents on their forty-ninth anniversary, the whole family performs to a record of Ray Charles’ "Night Time is the Right Time."

Cliff and his son Theo mime along with Ray's voice. Nice enough, and, from Cosby, some brilliant comic understatement. But the real focus is on the women and girls, who take the roles of the Raelets. All of them, from mother Claire to young Rudy, swing their hips and sing. The song's statement is very simple and basic: The night time, is the right time, to be with the one you love. And the way those ladies move makes it quite clear just why the night time is so right.

The attitude, the ethos, thus being expressed is scandalous in the context of conventional middle-class values. That children and grandchildren should honor their elders, yes that is fine. But such a performance is hardly an honorable one. We should remember that, thirty years ago, when Elvis took his swinging pelvis to the Ed Sullivan show, his motions were censored. Now the same movements appear on a wholesome family TV show as a gift from granddaughters to admiring and loving grandparents. Such a thing would have been shocking on those stalwarts of fifties television, Father Knows Best or Ozzie and Harriet.

Such stylish and easy sensuality was central to The Cosby Show. It was most consistently present in the way Cosby moved and talked, but the other members of the family showed it in varying degrees. It was also present, of course, in the music, which included Stevie Wonder, Frank Foster and the Count Basie Orchestra, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane (Cliff and Claire end one episode slow-slow-dancing to a recording of Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood”), Joe Williams (jazz singer who played Claire's father), and Art Blakey. This style is, in the cultural psychodynamics we've been tracing, both a racist stereotype and a viable and vibrant cultural style. As stereotype it appeared in the various low-life characters — pimps, hookers, pushers, hustlers, thieves, and so forth — to which African-Americans had previously been relegated in movies and TV. Cosby’s genius is to move this style into the middle-class, away from stereotypical low-life characters. Not only is he saying “African-Americans can be middle-class” he is also saying that “The middle-class can be sexy.”

The Cosby Show's popularity indicated that mainstream America, black, white, and any other color you which to invoke, was now willing to embrace images which would have met with disapproval thirty years ago. Whatever black represents, in this show it no longer represents it by virtue of its contrast with white, for white people played only peripheral roles in this show. There is a shift in the symbolic infrastructure of American consciousness. Something has changed and it is hard not to think that a century's worth of black music and comedy didn't have something to do with that change. The fact that The Cosby Show is not high art like Light in August is not irrelevant, for the tangled psychological miasma of that book still has a claim on the American psyche. But it would be unwise simply to reject The Cosby Show, and what it implies, out of hand.

The Cosby Show depicts black lives, not black stereotypes. This depiction indicates that, not only are more and more white folks rethinking their attitude toward black folks, but that they are rethinking their attitude toward themselves.

* * * * *

Coda: Let me add a passage from the final chapter of my book about music, Beethoven’s Anvil (pp. 266-267) :
Consider two versions of a child’s song recorded by Leah Yoffie in St. Louis in 1944. This is the version white children sang and danced:
Little Sally Water,
Sitting in a Saucer,
Weeping and crying for some one to love her.
Rise, Sally, rise,
Wipe off your eyes;
Turn to the east,
Turn to the west,
Turn to the one that you love the best.
Here is the version performed by black children:
Little Sally Walker,
Sitting in a Saucer,
Weeping and crying for a nice young man.
Rise, Sally, rise,
Wipe your weeping eyes;
Put your hand on your hip,
Let your backbone slip
Shake it to the east, O baby;
Shake it to the west,
Shake it to the one that you love the best.
The lines “Wipe your weeping eyes;/ Put your hand on your hip” and the phrase “O baby” jazz the rhythmic flow. But it is the physical gestures, “Let your backbone slip” and “Shake it to the ...” that convey the deepest difference from European-derived culture. The mobile pelvis is a feature of African dance, but until the 20th century it has been rare in Western dance.

In those two versions of that children’s song lies the expressive difference between the European-dominated cultures of the United States and those African-American cultures still feeling the sway of their African ancestors.
What Cosby did, in effect, was to put the second version on TV as the normative version. That’s the cultural standard to which we are all to aspire.

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