How 'The Cosby Show' Taught Me to Express My Cultural Identity


Next month's Ebony magazine cover has already become an iconic image. The cover story by Goldie Taylor is called "Can 'The Cosby Show' Survive? Should It?" The allegations of rape brought against Bill Cosby by more than 40 women have deeply tarnished the comedian's standing, to say the least. Taylor's Ebony article has only heightened the debate within the black community and the larger American community about Cosby as well as the show--one of the most popular in television history--that bears his name. It's clear now that, separate from its star, the seemingly unimpeachable cultural legacy of The Cosby Show is coming into question.

Seeing the shattered glass image on the Ebony cover shook me. I was 13 years old when The Cosby Show premiered. I loved it. I never missed a week, at least until I left for college five years later. It was the most entertaining show on television. The blackness of the cast was a non-factor for me, as I was rigidly, even obstinately 'color-blind.' I didn't see color or diversity. More accurately, I refused or maybe pretended not to see it. There were good intentions behind that misguided stance. After all, only by seeing color can one discriminate on the basis of color. My teenage assumption was that if one no longer saw color, discrimination would be impossible. There is an element of truth to this, but it's an incomplete truth at best.

What I realized later on--thanks in part to The Cosby Show--was where the rigidity of my colorblindness and almost viscerally negative reaction to expressions of diversity came from. Raised in the 1970s and 80s in a lily white town on Long Island (one of the most residentially segregated areas in the country), the largest minority group was--well, me. Jews. When The Cosby Show came on the air, there was one African American family on my block, a black kid in my school, a couple of Filipino Americans (not that I could have told you that they were Filipino then), and that was about it.

I don't know specifically where it came from, because I don't remember anyone teaching it to me, but I had learned that it was a very bad thing for me to show my Jewishness in what I considered a public way. I did have a traditional Bar Mitzvah in a synagogue, but somehow that was ok because it was in a Jewish context, in a Jewish environment. It was fine to be Jewish in the synagogue, but my thinking was that what happens there ought to stay there. The private--i.e., ethnic, cultural, and religious aspects of one's identity--should remain private. I remember, even as late as my first weeks at college, thinking about how and whether to let people know--or come out, if you will, as that's how it felt at the time--as a Jew. That was more about my own mishegas than anything else. Furthermore, it's important to note that the experience is different for those whose minority status is more clearly visible.

It's strange, because my parents definitely did not teach me to conceal my identity. My father was very proud of his Jewishness, so proud that--just before Yom Kippur began--he would turn the hi-fi speakers up to eleven and blast "Kol Nidre," sung beautifully by Johnny Mathis (talk about a particularly American version of cultural integration). I, on the other hand, would cringe--and cover my ears. It was a really powerful stereo system.

There had been one incident in elementary school where another kid had yanked off the chain that held my Jewish star. It didn't feel particularly traumatic at the time, but maybe it was, more than I let on either to myself or anyone else. In fact, I may not have told anyone at the time other than my parents. I did get the chain and star back, so nothing lost, right?

The point is that I wanted desperately to not be different. That was the central thrust of the melting pot, after all: To melt away all our differences and make us the same. That's how we would come together and treat each other equally and fairly, because if we couldn't see difference, we wouldn't see superiority and inferiority. That was the intellectual piece I added on, but really it was about my wanting to be accepted, to blend in, to not stand out.

Most of the time, The Cosby Show was just funny. But sometimes, in ways that seem quite mild now but which were groundbreaking then, the Huxtable family would express its cultural identity as African Americans. The one episode that stands out for me is "The Auction," broadcast in January 1986. I was 14. The show's matriarch, Clair Huxtable, sees a work of art in a catalogue and recognizes it as having been painted by her great uncle. Additionally, the work had hung on the wall in her grandmother's house when she was a child, but the family had to sell it to pay medical bills. Now financially secure, she commits to restoring the painting to where it belongs, on her family's wall. The audience sees the painting, which depicts a funeral procession (it is a real, and significant work of art called "Funeral Procession" by Ellis Wilson), a line of black people in mourning.

I was really thrown due to my own sheltered background, one that, admittedly, wasn't strong on art education to begin with. As I remember it, I thought to myself, "Why does the painting only have black people in it?" A stupid question, in practical terms, had I known anything about most funerals--which are of course attended largely by family members. As a 14-year -old, I don't think I'd ever attended a funeral. In any case, I didn't like the painting. Too black for me. Didn't the Huxtables know they were supposed to be colorblind, to keep their identities private, like I was doing? Yes, the painting was in their home, but I wasn't really talking about the Huxtables--who were fictional characters after all--but the show itself, watched by tens of millions.

These types of expressions--there were certainly others during the show's run--made me incredibly uncomfortable. "Why do they have to do that?" I would ask myself. Why do they have to talk about black history? Why aren't they trying to melt that away--like I do? I want them to be like me and me to be like them and all of us to be like everybody else. Mostly, though, I was upset because I was seeing people act in a way that conflicted with my chosen approach. I couldn't process that there could be another, better, healthier way, one that could embrace rather than deny one's ancestors and the culture in which they participated, one that didn't cut me (or the Huxtables) off from any past other than the common American one. I couldn't understand that one need not choose between being a Jew--or black, or Filipino--and being American. It shouldn't be either/or, but rather both/and.

Slowly, and it took years, I finally did begin to understand, and when I really got it, it felt terrific. The fact that Americanness--at least the way it is supposed to work--does not require homogenization, or a particular ancestry, meant that I could identify as a member of the Jewish people and the American people at the same time. Not half one and half the other, but 100 percent of both. Those two aspects of my identity complemented one another. Furthermore, the broader diversity of society I began to experience in college offered me more room--much more room than I felt in my 99 percent white hometown, in the early years of Reagan's America--to express the identity I'd wanted to feel, longed to feel really, ever since childhood, as I wrote in this 2013 post.

Bill Cosby is what he is, and he did what he did. I'm not here to comment on that. As for how his greatest creation is remembered, that's up to all of us collectively. What I'll say is that it had a tremendous effect on me, personally. It affected how I saw myself, my ancestral background, and my Americanness. It helped me overcome a real barrier, one I had somehow picked up from the larger culture of my childhood where the conformist, melting pot concept of assimilation still held, and where just about every TV show had a Christmas episode every year. The shift in that culture--spearheaded by The Cosby Show--helped bring me, and our country, to a greater acceptance of pluralism, of diversity within a broader unity. That's a legacy nothing can tarnish.