a thousand words

Sunday, October 18, 2015

From Huxtables To Lyons: The Families of "Cosby" and "Empire."

Media is not a reflection of life or vice versa. The truth is much more complex and unsettling.

I saw the Ebony cover about The Cosby Show and I've read many damnations of the show Empire. This got me thinking about the undoubted connections between the two.

Bill Cosby's fall does not shatter the legacy of The Cosby Show; in a way, it fulfills it and for the people who say Empire is the regressive fall of Black people, well, you're just completely off base.

But there is a connection between the two. Cosby, like most good TV was in part, a fantasy show about what a minority of Black families were, and what the majority of Black families could possibly be one day. Anyone who thought it was a true and complete reflection of the Black family at the time, is just wrong and doesn't understand television which is always 10 years behind the times. I knew families like the Huxtables but they were not the norm in our nation. And while we all knew that, we nonetheless hailed The Cosby Show as a reality that had to be accepted for us all. And while we indulged in this sweet dream, many of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement evident in the show were wiped away in reality.

Empire is the defiant child of The Cosby Show. It has strong values even though the family is clearly dysfunctional. The Lyons were forged in the struggle for a better life and in that fight, their heads are bloodied but unbowed. Like Cosby, they have achieved wealth, but unlike Cosby they got it through struggle. Remember those beautifully perfect professional grandparents on Cosby? Cliff and Claire were beneficiaries of legacy.

Also, the Lyons built their empire on a crime, something that for some of us, white families are allowed to do, but not Black ones, because, well, we're Black and anything we touch is tainted because we see it through filters of self-loathing. A white man that steals is a mogul; the black one is a criminal. The Lyons are no dirtier than the families of Dallas, Dynasty or Knott's Landing with whom they also share some TV DNA.

Empire gets a bad rap because unfortunately we never get the balance. We get the one thing that the majority wants us to be at the time because we have little control in the business. So, at any given time, we have the faux world of unblackness or Niggas in Paris making it rain.

Empire has been accepted by Black and white audiences for many reasons but the main one is something that we process subconsciously. Those who like it say it's fun, the acting is good or it's entertaining. Critics say people watch it because it reinforces stereotypes that we are comfortable with. I offer a different idea. The Huxtables were successful but devoid of the heavy racial legacy of our people. The Huxtables were what non-Blacks wanted us to be and for Blacks, they were a false memory, another dream of being white on the inside, which causes no one notice how black you are on the outside. "Don't shoot me officer, I have a Ph.D. and I like lacrosse--- BLAM!

The Lyons are the Huxtables with the legacy intact, a conscious clan who has accumulated wealth but has not forgotten where they came from. They are niggas with money and that is the goal of many Black people, to have the American Dream on your own terms, without divorcing yourself from ethnicity and devotion to your people-- to be rich without selling out. And generally, we love anyone who seems to have achieved this because it is the Black American Dream to have the power of the majority but none of their guilt and the soul of ethnicity but none of its wretchedness.

Bill Cosby and Terrance Howard have both had their real-life troubles and juxtaposed to their fictional creations, we see something profound: Heathcliff, the good father is in real life, an alleged monster and it makes sense, because the man on TV was too good to be true. Lucious, the very flawed dad, is in real life just what you thought he was, flawed. Bill Cosby lied about who he was but Terrence Howard doesn't lie about anything. What you see is what you get. I think it was Mark Twain who said "Show me a perfect man and I'll show you a motherfucker with dead bitches in his trunk." Okay, maybe Richard Pryor said that.

Claire and Cookie offer an interesting comparison as well. Both women are gangsta when you think about it. We see that clearly in Cookie but Claire Huxtable was an undercover hood, a woman who always got what she wanted by hook, crook or sex and she did it all pulling six figures and never gaining a pound while having five kids, one of whom looked about her age. But if Claire was what Black women were supposed to be, Cookie is who they really are, women doing the best they know how for their families while also trying to keep what is rightfully theirs.

You  know, we talk a lot about these two shows but say precious little about the one which most accurately reflected Black life: The Jeffersons. They were a family who got their money by legal, hard work, capitalism, innovation and tireless devotion to upward mobility. George Jefferson would call Heathcliff Huxtable an Oreo, Lucious Lyon a punk and keep on steppin'. See, I think we don't revere The Jeffersons because it's too close to reality, a show that pushed neither the button that devoids blackness nor the one that perverts it.

What we see in the media has not been made by our actions or anything resembling reality. Entertainment is diversion but it is also propaganda and persuasion. We don't call it programming for nothing. Cosby begat Empire but not because of any real life evolution. They each were chosen for us by a business and sometimes I wonder if our reactions to them were chosen for us as well.

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