The Good Times versus The Cosby Show is an excellent illustration of the debate over representations of authentic Black life. Black people diverge on their opinions of how authentic each representation is. No one can argue that Good Times presented an obvious reality that Black people experience; however, there are a surprisingly large number of Black people who are skeptical about The Cosby Show‘s representation.
I have been in debates over these shows, I have heard people criticize and critique both shows in the positive and the negative. The only solid conclusion that I have surmised from these conversations is that there is a general misunderstanding about representations and reality.
When Black people are portrayed in films and television, the Black community is usually very vocal about their ideas about these images. Most times it comes down to authenticity and keeping it real. The Black community tends to resist those images that we view as misconstruing Black life. However, we often neglect the fact that Black life is just as multifaceted as that of any other culture. Black lives, like everyone else’s, is affected by socioeconomic status, regional geography, ascribed ideologies, and subjective family upbringing. For instance, I have friends from Black families that always sat down for dinner; I have those who will say that their family ate dinner in front of the television; and I have those who say that everyone in their family ate at different times and places. So which would be the authentic reality to be used to represent Black family life on television or in the movies? Both.
Good Times is about a poor Black family living in the projects. The subject matter of the show included gangs, venereal diseases, Black Jesus, and school integration. The Cosby Show is about a Black family living in the suburbs. The subject matter of the show included learning disabilities, HBCUs, and Black history topics. One of the most interesting things about both of these shows is how socioeconomic status is used as a backdrop for the true substance of the show which is the Black family being portrayed.
Good Times aired in 1974 which was just after the creation of Section 8 programs for subsidized housing. The Evans family lived in a housing project (implied through the visuals of the shows opening as Cabrini-Green projects in Chicago). Therefore, it is clear that the socioeconomic backdrop for the Evans family in Good Times that of a lower economic status. Much of the humor of the shows makes fun of the commonalities of being poor. However, both Florida and James Evans are hard working, loving partners and parents to their children. Despite their economic status they demand respect, hard work, and responsibility from their children. This family dynamic is the heart of Good Times; poverty is simply the backdrop.
The Cosby Show‘s backdrop is at the other end of the spectrum from Good Times. The Huxtables live in Brooklyn Heights, New York, a noted upper middle class area. Cliff is a physician and Claire is an attorney. While their upper middle class lifestyle takes away the struggle of just trying to make ends meet, the most humorous episodes surround the struggles of parenting. Cliff and Claire are loving partners and parents to their children. They demand respect, hard work, and responsibility from their children. This family dynamic is the heart of The Cosby Show; being upper middle class is simply the backdrop.
Most of the debates I have heard regarding Good Times and The Cosby Show neglect to mention that the most substantive part of both shows (which makes them more in common than not) is the struggles and triumphs of two Black people raising children and maintaining a family and that is deeper and more important than socioeconomics on any day.
At the forefront of these shows is that the most important representations that they set forth are exactly the same and have become almost obsolete in many television representations of Black people: loving sustained commitment.
The heart of both of these shows was the loving relationship between the parents and how they together conspired to raise a family. The evidence of this is scene in the quick decline of Good Times when the show’s producers decided to kill James off and sent Florida away with a new lover. Contrary to the producers believing J.J. as the ratings draw, without the parents as the center of the show’s storyline the ratings plummeted. That is because the show that had appealed to so many wasn’t just about the laughs and the poverty, it was about a loving Black couple raising a family. I would also guess this to be the reason why The Cosby Show lasted so long despite the children growing up and leaving home. So what we, in the Black community, often miss is that reality is not rooted in our financial circumstances but in our relationships.
Good Times was the first show featuring a Black family to become popular in the mainstream while The Cosby Show was the first show featuring a Black family that was not entrenched in poverty to become popular in the mainstream. The two shows have little relevance for a comparison as they both are equally as important in the history of Black media. It is what takes place after the advent of these two shows that is what is the chief concern because after these shows and others proved that Black people could be the stars of a show and gain the interest of the entire American populace, something began to consciously happen to the images of Black people in the media.
Because of our obsession with authenticity and the fact that our reality is almost always depicted in our struggles, the media gave us what we wanted. However, the issue is not whether the representations are authentic or illustrate some objective fact about Black life. The issue comes down to the answers to specific questions about each representation: why certain representations are chosen?; why certain representations are shown more than others?; and who chose the images being represented? We have to acknowledge that representations are constructed consciously due to the fact that media images are meant to cause certain reactions in the viewers.
Authenticity is not the central issue of Black representations. The central issue is consciousness behind the representations and the affects that those representations will have on the Black community. Both Good Times and The Cosby Show depict conscious efforts to portray Black life through different backdrops with the same motive: to display love between Black people in contrast to the “reality” that is fed to us by the news and the media images that use these depictions as a definition of our reality. Poverty is a part of many Black people’s realities just as education and material success is a part of many Black people’s realities. The fact that we had the opportunity to portray these images to the world while maintaining a context of love, respect, encouragement, and hope (which are a part of every Black person’s lives) is what matters most and it also what we need most. We have entered a loveless age that is hellbent on depicting Black people as incapable of love, but the reality is that we have always been and will always be a people who have survived because of love. That is a reality that needs to always be represented.
I’m not sayin: I’m just sayin,
An Angry Black Man