The Obamas as The New Huxtables.


We’ve touched on the idea (and the holes in it) before, but the meme — the Obamas as an aspirational model for black families — has really started gaining steam.

America has often viewed the black family through the prism of its pathologies: single-family homes, absentee fathers, out of wedlock children, they say. Or they’ve turned to the black family for comic relief in television shows such as “Good Times” in the ’70s or today’s “House of Payne.”

But a black first family changes that script, some say. A global audience will now be fed images of a highly educated, loving and photogenic black family living in the White House for the next four years — and it can’t go off the air like “The Cosby Show.”

“The last time we had an image of a black family that was this positive it was “The Cosby Show,” but this is the Real McCoy,” says Jacqueline Moore Bowles, national president of Jack and Jill of America Inc., a predominantly black organization for youths.

There are a lot of problems with the piece, but the biggest one is that its underlying premise is pretty shaky. “The Cosby Show” (which seems to be prominently mentioned in every article like this; there’s a similar, equally egregious article here)  was supposed to have been corrective to the way black families were viewed by the wider world. But here’s the problem with trying to combat stereotypes: a person who wants to believe in black pathology, be they white or bourgie or whatever, is perfectly capable of respecting ‘the Obamas or the Huxtables’ and thinking them separate and apart from “pathological Negroes.”   You know, you’re not like the rest of them.*

The Cosby Show’s effect on black people’s family lives is also wildly overblown; it did not lead to in any measurable uptick in the rate of black marriages or a reduction in out-of-wedlock births. The same will almost certainly hold true for the Obama family.** These arguments suggest that media imagery is more powerful than economic and social forces, that these issues are  the result of some widespread lack of imagination on the part of lower-class Negroes, and all that’s needed to offset those things is a  steady diet of high-profile black “wholesomeness.”

Aside: Something that’s (perhaps inadvertently) telling is who gets to be the arbiter of ‘positive’ portrayals of black life. (In real life, there’s a good chance that Theo, Denise et. al would have been Jack and Jillers, so it’s not surprising that Moore Bowles approves of them.)  I personally think both “House of Payne” and “Good Times” are  toweringly unfunny shows, but it’s obvious that a major reason those shows wouldn’t be considered “affirmative” portrayals of black life has a lot to do with the social class of the characters they portray.

*See Chris Rock’s oft-cited Niggas vs. Black People dichotomy.

** Though it’s possible that policy decisions during the Obama administration could nudge those numbers in one direction or another.

UPDATE: A question:

“They are not here to entertain us,” says Young, a New York Press columnist. “Michelle Obama is not sitting around with her girlfriends saying, ‘My man ain’t no good.’ You’re not seeing this over -sexualized, crazy black family that, every time a Marvin Gaye song comes on, someone stands up and says, ‘Oh girl, that’s my jam.’ “

Um, WTF show is this cat referring to?



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • Aisha

    But GD if black people just listened to positive hip hop then we would all be better off. So you are telling me converse isn’t true? (tongue firmly implanted in cheek)

  • But the so-called importance of positive (read upper class Blacks) images of Blacks isn’t that they will inspire other Blacks to do better.

    These high profile images are important because traditionally upper class Blacks were always sensitive to how they were perceived to whites, and other races. The Obamas are meant to be a case to prove, once and for all (HAH!), “we are not all like that!”

    Sometimes I feel very sorry that the Obama girls will have to grow up in this under this level of scrutiny.

  • geo

    basically, kjen. these “positive” images are more about mollifying the feelings of white folks than “improving” the collective self-esteem of black folks.

    i wish we could show our imperfections along with our strengths without worrying about our perception. this sort of pressure on the obamas is unrealistic and causes people to view them as objects, instead of humans who make mistakes like everyone else.

  • @geo – you said exactly what I was thinking: “i wish we could show our imperfections along with our strengths without worrying about our perception.” The pressure is enormous, as anyone who has ever been “the first” or “the only” or “the token” knows… I wish them the best of luck and I can only hope this scrutiny becomes less intense over time.

    BTW – I think the show that Young is referring to in that last quote isn’t a TV show at all, but an allusion maybe to early Spike Lee films (esp. Jungle Fever, maybe?) and “Soul Food” type movies in which we all are supposed to spontaneously start dancing whenever Earth, Wind, & Fire is on the radio. (I mean, I actually do start to dance a little bit when “September” starts to play…but still.)

  • Grump

    Good Times was a good show…until they killed the father and gave more shine to JJ

  • kjen: you’re absolutely right. It’s a conversation about class and legitimacy dressed up a a conversation about uplift.

  • ladyfresshh

    This whole thing is uncomfortable.

    The underlying premising being ‘what’s wrong with the rest of you’ and ‘why can’t you get it together’

    Instead of addressing the environments that foster ‘undesirable’ outcomes it becomes
    look at that outcome, now go do that

    Lord help us if they do something perceived as wrong.

  • young_

    Great post GD. I mostly agree with GD’s comment and Kjen’s second paragraph especially– this is something you can trace back over a hundred years to DuBois’s early writings. Upper-status black folks have always been concerned about the “indecent” and “undignified” public behaviors and styles of less affluent blacks shaping and reinforcing the white stereotypes about the inherent tendencies of all blacks.

    But I also think there are many, many people (including many of my bougie friends) who really seem to think that poor black people just need the right values to succeed and that they’d be ok if we could just save them from negative media and pop culture images (that the rest of us consume with impunity).

  • The irony of the Cosby Show to me has always been that with the exception of Phylicia Allen-Rashad-Whatever her last name is now (I don’t know much about the Lebouef woman who played Sondra, so I’ll leave her out for now) practically the entire cast, including Bill himself, lived their early lives far removed from the lifestyle they portrayed on the show.

    The reality is, middle class and upper middle class people rarely encourage their children to be actors or performers.

    That was my own inside joke as I watched the show.