Obama Family Obsession, The Huxtable Effect, and the Black Image on the Screen

BlogHer Original Post

A post, "The Interview Obama Regrets, But We Love," has hundreds of hits from CNN and Google, telling of the nation's obsession with the Obamas, the nation's next First Family. Some surfers are especially fascinated with President-elect Barack Obama and Michelle Obama's daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7.

obamas first familPeople want to know where will the girls go to school in Washington, D.C.? What kind of puppy will they bring to the White House? How is Michelle Obama preparing her daughters for the move? How will Malia decorate her room? The Obama children will be the youngest children to live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue since the Kennedy children and President Jimmy Carter's daughter, Amy.

That "Obama regrets" post and other Obama family posts at WSATA also get visits through BlackPlanet.com mostly from an Oct. 31 exclusive interview with Michelle Obama by Alyson Mance in which the future First Lady answers multiple questions, one of which queries how Michelle Obama feels about being compared to Claire Huxtable (Phylicia Rashad), a fictional character and the mother on The Cosby Show:

Do you feel a new-found responsibility as a black beauty/family icon? You’ve been compared to Claire Huxtable so many times!
You know, being compared to American icons like Claire Huxtable is flattering of course, but let me tell you, this whole experience is a whirlwind. Barack and I both come from normal, very ordinary circumstances. Of course, we’re also incredibly blessed. Our families were very close and loving, with strong values.

And today, Barack and I work each day to pass those values along to our daughters. So really, we are your typical American family. And that’s something that I think really comes through when you learn about Barack, and when you hear his message. He and I both know what it’s like to struggle. We both came from families who worked incredibly hard to give us opportunities, and always pushed us to work hard so that we could give back to the communities that need our help the most. And I think that’s one of the reasons that so many people from all walks of life have been inspired by Barack’s message of change. Because his story… and my story … really are the American dream. And we want to make sure every person gets their chance at that dream. ("Michelle Obama Said What?" at BlackPlanet.com)

In the pre-election interview, Mrs. Obama also said that if she were to become First Lady her daughters would be her priority. However, once assured their needs had been met, she "would keep working on finding ways to support working women and families" as her First Lady cause. That answer is in keeping with what the Mrs. Obama blogged at BlogHer during the campaign.

Conjecture that the Obamas are like the Huxtables and so The Cosby Show helped to open the door for a black family to live in The White House has popped up around the Net and in the mainstream press. My daughter and I had discussed the Huxtable connection privately, and I reminded her, because she was so young during The Cosby Show's TV reign, that the Huxtables were not everyone's favorite. Some African-Americans complained that The Cosby Show did not reflect the majority of African-Americans because the Huxtable family was upper-middle class.

I was a fan of the show because besides it being funny and a positive African-American image, The Cosby Show reflected my upbringing and values more closely than other black family comedies such as The Jeffersons and Good Times. However, my family was a middle class family, not upper-middle. I am the daughter of a postal worker and a school teacher, not a lawyer and doctor, but my extended family includes doctors, both PhD. and MD, academic administrators, and between my parents, aunts, and uncles, I experienced steady promotion of African-American pride and an appreciation of our heritage that viewers saw on The Cosby Show.

As I watched the parade of sweatshirts on the the show from historically black colleges, observed Cliff and Claire's expectation that the children will succeed academically, and chuckled at parents grilling children about potential dates, I was especially fond of this gem:

It's the scene in which the Huxtables performed for the children's grandparents' anniversary, singing "Night and Day." The clip still makes me laugh, and it reminds me of the summers when my cousins came in from California and Tennessee, and we got together at some point and put on a show for the elders at my grandmother's home. We thought we were Motown material, I suppose in the same way Michelle Obama has said her daughters think they're Disney material. But like my parents, she keeps Malia and Sasha focused on education first.

Yes, many Americans enjoyed the The Cosby Show and many African-Americans wished they were the Huxtables, but speculation about whether or not the Huxtable family influenced America's love affair with the Obama family, seems to focus more on white acceptance of the Obamas and the belief that the Obamas and the Huxtables are post-racial or universal.

The New York Times ran a story earlier this month entitled "Before Barack Obama's Victory There Was Bill Cosby's Show." Here's an excerpt from that:

Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, a psychiatrist at the Jude Baker Children’s Center in Boston and a professor at Harvard Medical School who was a script consultant on “The Cosby Show,” said in an interview that “there were a lot of young people who were watching that show who are now of voting age.”

Dr. Poussaint added: “When ‘The Cosby Show’ first came on, it was a professional, middle-class family. And they said, ‘That’s not a black family.’ We heard it from blacks and whites. I think that’s why Karl Rove calls it postracial, because it was universal.”

In an interview on Thursday Mr. Cosby praised Mr. Obama and his campaign operation as “the architects of the almost perfect run for, and winning of, the office.” He added, “This isn’t something that happened just because of a TV show.”

But Mr. Cosby strongly suggested that his series, which ended in 1992, had a lasting effect on America’s racial views. Its legacy, he said, might have played a role in the country’s embrace of Mr. Obama and his family. (NYT)

Bill Cosby is right. The Obama win didn't happen just because of a TV show, but it's possible America's acceptance of the Obama family and an African American as President of the United States may be correlated to the image of African Americans changing in fictional media. Our images shifted from slave, mammy, maid, butler, cook, clown, thug, drug-addict, pimp, hooker, rapist, drug dealer, and parasite on both the small and big screen to teacher, police officer, military leader, lawyer, doctor, judge, patriot, hero, and President of the United States.

Our transformation from more negative images to more positive images did not happen accidentally. African-American actors, directors, producers, and professors with the help of sympathetic white professionals in the entertainment industry worked hard to get positive images of African-Americans on the screen, and frequently attempts to present a better image met opposition. You may read about the evolution of blacks in the movies at this Long Island University link, and during black history month about two years back, Turner Classic Movies presented a series, The Black Experience in Cinema.

Acknowledging the progress of presenting positive images does not affirm that all images of black people on the TV and silver screen are positive today. Courtesy of gangster rap and related music videos, African-Americans still battle negative stereotypes, often ones we've created ourselves. As experts consider that young people today grew up watching the Huxtables and so may have been more willing to believe in the Obama family, I wonder what will the next generation that has been raised with images of gangster rappers flanked by half-naked, wiggling young girls think of us.

I anticipate that an African-American family loving each other in the White House, and a successful, effective African-American President of the United States will balance the negative. I hope that blacks will become simply human and not grotesque caricatures in the eyes of some Americans who've focused on the worst images from "black" America.

Look! Look! Black People are on TV

When I was a child, whenever an African-American entertainer would appear on the TV such as on the The Ed Sullivan Show, the phone in my parents' house would ring repeatedly with friends and family shouting, "The Supremes are on!" or "Girl, Lola Falana is on!" After a while, we adjusted to the seeing "us" on TV with the broadcasting of shows such as Julia, about a single black mother who was a professional, a nurse, caring for her young son. It starred the gorgeous Diahann Carroll, who you has an interview at YouTube about the show and in it discusses the struggle to get the show on the air and the absence of the black male.

Julia, a half-hour comedy premiering on NBC in September 1968, was an example of American network television's attempt to address race issues during a period of heightened activism and turmoil over the position of African-Americans in U.S. society. The series was the first to star a black performer in the leading role since Beulah, Amos 'n' Andy, and The Nat "King" Cole Show all left the air in the early and mid-1950s. By the mid-1960s, a number of prime-time series began featuring blacks in supporting roles, but industry fears of mostly southern racial sensibilities discouraged any bold action by the networks to more fully represent African-Americans in entertainment television. (from The Julia Show at TV Museum)

And we also watched Room 222, starring the handsome Lloyd Haynes, an African-American man in the lead role of an affable history teacher at Walt Whitman High, an integrated school. Denise Nicholas, also black, played the guidance counselor.

Images of African-American Males in Authority

In the last two decades, America has seen more African-Americans on TV and at the movies in the roles of authority figures. Denzel Washington tends to play good guy, protector roles. Morgan Freeman is a popular actor who we see as dignified, wearing a mantle of integrity, and that's largely based on our feelings about the characters he's played in movies. And Freeman played the role of President of The United States in Deep Impact, a movie comets colliding with the Earth, ending the world. One joke about Deep Impact was that of course, that is when a black man would be president, at the end of the world.

And let us not forget, as the following NPR story reminded me, that Morgan Freeman has also played God. ;-)

Black Presidents Elected Regularly on TV, in Movies is a Jan. 2007 NPR piece that uses an audio clip from the Fox network's 24, which has had two black presidents, David Palmer (the confident Dennis Haybert, currently in The Unit and also on TV as the Allstate spokesman) and Wayne Palmer (the yummy D.B. Woodside). Perhaps a taste of the future, this year's season of 24 will have its first female president played by Cherry Jones.

NPR revisited the idea that movies may have influenced a willingness to accept a black president one year later, Jan. 2008, in the story Has Hollywood Helped Pave Way for Obama?. At that time Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, said the following:

"I'm a bit hesitant to say that because James Earl Jones or Morgan Freeman or Dennis Haysbert played a president on a TV show or in a movie, it means Barack Obama can be president," Boyd says. "I think that's a bit of a stretch."

Boyd goes on, though, to tell NPR's Michele Norris that such representations — especially those like 24's, beamed weekly into American living rooms — "may have unconsciously made some things in society seem less troubling" than if there'd been no pop-culture pictures of a black president. (NPR's All Things Considered)

Additionally, Slate has an informative article, Black Presidents: A Pop Cultural Survey, about the reign of the Palmers and other black presidents, most notably James Earl Jones in The Man.

The first movie to imagine a black president of the United States at any length was Joseph Sargent's satirical drama The Man in 1972. There, Douglass Dilman, president pro tempore of the Senate, happens into the Oval Office after the president and the speaker of the House die in a ceiling collapse. Unavailable on DVD, The Man is now a rarity, and yet it clearly forecasts the screen existences of subsequent black presidents. (Troy Patterson at Slate)

The following clip from that movie uses the "n" word, a warning to those who may be offended.

How can I write about positive images of people of African descent in fictional media and not mention Sidney Poitier, who has not played the role of president in movies, but certainly was the epitome of the strong black male during the 60s and early 70s. I've considered Poitier's contributions before while discussing Barack Obama's coolness factor.

Poitier was the first black man I saw in a movie who did not let anyone push him around, specifically as Det. Virgil Tibbs, his role in In the Heat of the Night. I wish when I had written the Obama black cool post that references Poitier and in which I also said being cool sometimes is associated with being a rebel, that I had known the Secret Service's code name for Barack Obama was "Renegade")

While I have spent most of this post considering conjecture about The Huxtable Effect, the image of African-Americans in the make-believe worlds of TV and movies, I think that what has most influenced America's willingness to accept an African-American president and a black family in the White House is real-world integration. Black, white, and brown have mingled and so we know each other better. Some of us respect one another more, have friends from multiple ethnic groups, and even marry each other. Critics of integration have called it a failed experiment, but given the history we all made November 4, 2008, I say the critics are wrong.

Nevertheless, we must not underestimate the power of mass media images and how they influence our feelings and beliefs.

Scholars have demonstrated the mass media's impact on perceptions of ethnic groups, for better and for worse. For example, one pioneering study of the 1930s found that the derogatory depiction of blacks in the classic silent film, The Birth of a Nation, increased the prejudice of young children toward black Americans.

A later study looked at the effects of the film, Gentleman's Agreement, which criticized anti-Semitism, on college students. The result was improved attitudes toward Jews, even though most of the students stated that the film had not changed their attitudes!

A more recent study found that white children felt that TV comedies like The Jeffersons accurately portrayed black family life. Yet many of these same children admitted that the blacks they knew were different from these TV shows. They concluded that the blacks they knew were the exceptions. TV was the reality. (Media Literacy)

Children may have trouble separating fantasy from reality at times, but adults voted Barack Obama into office. Yet we were all at some point children, perhaps kids who spent time at the movies and watching TV, including Sesame Street, a show that has always practiced ethnic inclusion.

Finally, as we reflect on America's fascination with its new First Family and President-elect Obama's transition to the White House, we should weigh what some readers have said and be careful not to trivialize the Obamas, no matter how popular they become, and equate them with entertainers. President-elect Barack Obama and his family's achievement far exceeds that of rock star or actors. One reader in particular lamented that in Ebony's black cool issue, Barack Obama appeared surrounded by entertainers and few black leaders. Still, we see that the creative artists' work, such as the music of the 60s, should not be dismissed and may move us to embrace something good that we have rejected before.

The beauty of today is that we have the opportunity to take the dreams of our nobler selves and bear sweeter fruit, to touch each other finger-to-finger, and to gaze at each other eye-to-eye in the flesh. We can hope and believe in ourselves united.

BLOGGER NOTE: This post partially focuses on images of the black family and black men in fictional media, and that's why the possible influence of high-profile, successful African Americans such as Oprah Winfrey are not discussed.

Photo credit: People Magazine, August 2008.

Nordette is a BlogHer.com contributing editor whose personal blog is WSATA to which she recently added the post First Grandma Goes to Washington

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