"The question is being asked more and more by reporters," says the black Harvard professor, arguably America's best-known psychiatrist. "Its purpose is not clear, but it seems to be framed as an attack, calculated to make us feel guilty."
"The question" has nothing to do with Reagan's likely reelection, or cuts in social programs, or the future of Jesse Jackson. The question Alvin Poussaint has grown tired of hearing is this: "Is the 'Bill Cosby Show' black or white?"
The Bill Cosby show, for those who spend all their TV time watching Ted Koppel or "The Six Wives of Henry VIII," is the season's hottest new family sitcom: ingratiating, well-acted and funny. But the "Huxtables" (Cosby's TV family) are not public housing residents or recent escapees from the ghetto or wise-cracking domestics or overweight nannies. Their children don't spend their time running con games or explaining their innocence to the authorities.
He is a physician; she is a lawyer; the kids are pretty much like yours, though cuter. And the question keeps coming: is the family black enough?
Poussaint, who gets the calls because he has been retained to review the show's scripts for psychological consistency, racial authenticity and freedom from unintended insult, admits a degree of bafflement. He was especially baffled, he says, by a reviewer in the Village Voice who described the "Huxtables" as "quite determinedly (not) black in anything but their skin color. I don't mean just in their lifestyle -- even their cultural background, and their whole context of reference, is that of American Caucasians." Then: "Some white liberals and the few blacks who care may think of Cosby as a sellout, but the truth is that he . . . no longer qualifies as black enough to be an Uncle Tom." Other critics have settled for milder putdowns: "Father Knows Best' in blackface," (Newsweek) or "racial neuter."
Very few of the criticisms come from black viewers, Poussaint says. "I'm not sure what the white reporters are complaining of," he said in a recent interview. "Sometimes it seems they want the show to be 'culturally' black in the sense that they think of cultural blackness -- like the Jeffersons or "Good Times" -- and sometimes it seems they would be happier to see them cussing out white people, a sort of protest sitcom. Some seem to feel that because the family is middle- class with no obvious racial problems, that constitutes a denial or dismissal of the black poor. And some seem to feel somehow threatened."
Far be it from me to invade the psychiatrist's turf, but it may be that many whites really do doubt that a solidly middle-class black family can be as authentic as a solidly middle-class white family. Maybe they really don't know that there are growing numbers of black families whose life styles are a lot closer to the "Huxtables" than to the "Jeffersons," that you don't have to be poverty-stricken or bitter or smart-ass to be authentic.
No doubt these well-off black families spend more time talking about racial matters than do the "Huxtables," but so, I suspect, do the real-life counterparts of the folk on "Cheers."
Some politically sensitive viewers might prefer that the Cosby clan take advantage of the opportunity to educate its huge audience on the nuances of racism. But carefully. There is the danger that too much "message" could destroy a show whose survival depends on being funny.
Besides, there is value in letting white America understand that blackness isn't necessarily a pathological condition.