As a kid, I booked a date with NBC each Thursday night, like millions of other African Americans, to watch “The Cosby Show.”
In my house, watching the show with my mother and brother was a family event all its own. At about five minutes to 8 p.m., my mother would yell "Cosby Show!" and my brother and I would abandon our homework, Barbie dolls and GI Joes to catch the opening of the show and scat the jazz theme song. Our eyes would light up to see such beautiful, accomplished brown people dancing tastefully, giving loving glances at each other and smiling contentedly.
I was reminded of this family ritual when I read Reniqua Allen's July 13 Outlook article “Why isn't the Cosby Show for a new generation on network TV?” She argues for network TV — not cable — to bring forth a show that portrays the joys and annoyances of black family life in the new millenium. I second her suggestion.
Being a child of the ‘80s, I had no idea how major it was to be able to see people who resembled my parents on prime time TV each week. Though my mother and father were not doctors or lawyers, they had achieved a degree of success — my dad was a brilliant engineer, and my mother a business analyst for the government. Oh, and both of my parents — like Bill Cosby and his Heathcliff Huxtable character — loved jazz.
But aside from the “Cosby Show” and its HBCU-centered offshoot "A Different World," most of the television that I consumed was mostly populated by non-brown people. My one magazine subscription — Seventeen — was also overrun with girls who looked nothing like me. I remember thinking as early as age 11 how odd that was.
Fast forward 20 years and I find myself the mother of two smart brown boys who, like their mother before them, dine on a steady diet of images that overwhelmingly do not resemble them. Instinctively, when my kids were brand new, I would search the Disney Channel, Nick, Jr. and Sprout for cartoons that showcased people of color because I know how critical it is to see yourself reflected in the media that you consume. My husband and I were absolutely excited when we came across a cartoon show called "Little Bill". Created by none other than Bill Cosby, I thought, "This is what my little boys need to see — a black family living together, working together and loving each other."
The show was beautifully done, scored with original jazz and brought to life by gorgeous full-color animation. But there was just one problem. Whenever I saw Little Bill was coming on, I would get excited but the kids wouldn't. To my dismay, they, to put it honestly, just weren't feeling Little Bill. They preferred “Go Diego Go.” My husband and I decided that it wasn't because Bill was black, but more because he was so pitiful — always getting defeated and feeling sorry for himself. In short, Little Bill was a victim. My kids preferred the take-charge nature of Diego, the adventurous little Hispanic animal rescuer, or his cousin Dora the Explorer.
The search for positive and affirming media images continues.
While I am not holding my breath for another Cosby Show, I am making sure that my kids see real-life examples of positive African-Americans in the other media they consume. I search for coloring books that feature black characters (which are impossible to find). I routinely seek out children's books that feature black characters. One of my early standards was the classic “The Snowy Day” by Ezra Jack Keats. And I'm always on the hunt for more recent titles like journalist Jabari Asim's “Whose Toes Are Those” which produced this uber cute dramatic "reading" from my then 3-year-old Logan. But I also strategically place copies of Essence, Ebony and Black Enterprise Magazines around the house so that they just might stumble upon a copy, tear through and see people who look like them. I honestly try to limit the amount of mainstream television they watch so they don't hear those subliminal messages that can seep in when you're a racial minority and you don't see yourself reflected and affirmed in the majority media: "This isn't your world. You don't belong here. You're not one of the beautiful ones."
Because I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are the beautiful ones. And for now at least, I think they still believe that they are, too.
How do you make sure your kids are exposed to positive portrayals of African Americans in media? What books do you recommend for your young black children?
Amanda Miller Littlejohn is a writer, mother of two and owner of the public relations and branding consultancy Mopwater Social PR.
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