The Specter of Cosbyism

A scene from Dear White People

Some lives have the bad luck of being symbolic: they shrink into hard little parables. Lorraine Hansberry had a life like that. In 1959, A Raisin in the Sun premiered on Broadway, making her the first black playwright to strut proudly into the mainstream. Like any “historic” moment, it was met with righteous howls of self-congratulation—Broadway’s, America’s, Hansberry’s—and the sneers of former comrades. She’d written a play about the striving lower classes, but there she was, the heiress from Chicago, posing primly for the papers. She’d made a tour of New York’s Commie fringe only to bang out her Broadway-ready monument to black dignity and lay it at the feet of middlebrow whites. So in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967), the critic Harold Cruse paints Hansberry as a kind of Faustian hero, a standard-bearer of the compromises and petty aims of the black bourgeoisie. Never mind that Raisin itself was sterile and conformist, shallowly political; never mind that it smeared an undeserved salve on the wounded liberal conscience; and never mind that Raisin’s Younger family, who struggle beatifically in a rather antiseptic version of Chicago’s South Side, could easily have lived in one of the dilapidated slums owned by Hansberry’s own family. What counted, Cruse noted acidly, was that blacks were being flatteringly portrayed, and on a huge, commercial stage. In Hansberry’s genteel fantasy, they were—at last—respectable.

What is the black bourgeoisie? In books, they’re sometimes a squinting, suspicious group—clutching the totems of wealth and good taste, they slink through a series of carpeted rooms and elite schools. They live out the bluntest paradoxes and suffer the most exquisite stings. “Impostors” among the oppressors, “traitors” to the oppressed, they quake as Race and Class groan and bash like tectonic plates. Like the brown heroes of postcolonial fiction (à la Rushdie and Naipaul) the black bourgeois is sometimes the uppity exile who straddles two worlds, striking melancholy postures against a sooty imperial backdrop—as in Hilton Als’s The Women (1996). On The Cosby Show, of course, the Huxtables are a rich professional couple with a brood of harmless children. Race reclines into smiling irrelevance. Sometimes, these black bourgeois are spotted stamping out little political flames, happy to be defined against, not by, the accident of their blackness. They scorn radicalism. They get rich.

But sometimes, flushed with the drama of political upheaval, they take a sharp glance down from their high balcony on the social edifice. They see the brutal ironies of history, they feel an ache for the poorer majority—and they make common cause with it. This is brief. After years of trudging grimly through the meritocracy, the black bourgeois learns to temper fury with a wary sophistication, alert to the fickleness of fate. It’s a sad, tragic pattern, tracked with caustic exactitude by Cruse—but James Baldwin had already tossed out one of his pithy principles: “They are in the extraordinary position of being compelled to work for the destruction of all they have bought so dearly.”

It’s an impossible position. It throttles the conscience, stretching it into grotesque new shapes. The black bourgeois winds up gutted of “identity”—the narrator of Darryl Pinckney’s High Cotton (1992) is wistfully, tellingly, unnamed—or puffed up with a roaring self-love. “You are a negro cum laude graduate of one of the best colleges in the world. Valedictorian of a top High School, in a class of over 500 graduates,” wrote Dorothy Dean’s mother to her bitter, brilliant daughter. “You are no ordinary person.”

Two recent pieces of media—a sitcom and a film—are impaled on just this question: the black bourgeoisie’s battle for and against “ordinariness.” The titles blurt their politics: Black-ish is about what it means to be truly black, and Dear White People is a sharp riposte. That the producers of Black-ish, a sitcom on ABC, deemed it prudent to advertise the overt blackness of their product is a sign of something. So is the fact that Dear White People, an independent film with modest funding, managed to get national distribution. This flood of black faces on screens both big and small is enough to summon the ghost of Hansberry, peddling her sanguine ’50s vision—but A Raisin in the Sun is a play about the dignified underclass, the downtrodden-but-upright proletariat, whereas Dear White People and Black-ish don’t dare to gesture—however idly—at the poor. These days, even the upright cannot be downtrodden, so the face of blackness thrust forth by both the TV series and the film is well-spoken, well-heeled, white collar.

Yet for all of the consolations of class, these black characters burn with a vengeful indignation unthinkable in those early days of Cosby Show conformity. Black-ish is less about the black bourgeoisie than the black nouveaux riches, but the characters are prone to the same wincing unease, the same virtuous declaration. André Johnson is an LA advertising executive; his wife, Rainbow, is a physician; and they have four children. Together, they compose a handsome, brown unit, vaguely shiny in the clinically bright set lighting. But André, the oafish father, is concerned that, because his children are being raised in a hollow, suburban McMansion, his family has begun to lose its “culture.” His mission, stated and restated in buffoonish voice-overs, is to shove blackness back into their lives. But the children, who have only known this bleached suburbia, blink innocently at the mention of “struggle” or “history,” or even “basketball.” They are, in the show’s asinine parlance, black-ish.

Black-ish lifts the model of the Cosby Show—wealthy black family, prospering effortlessly—and submits it to a forced twisting that seems at first like self-consciousness. It certainly shatters the Huxtable illusion of seamless assimilation as it whips around the question of being a “black face in a white place.” Rainbow’s ears perk up at what she thinks is “coded language”: someone says her son is a “natural athlete” who runs “like a panther.” When she brings this up with her husband, he falls into a Homer Simpson–esque reverie in which a white butler opens a velvet-lined box with a credit card inside: “Your race card, sir?” “Ah, yes, my African American Express,” André replies. This is the extent of the show’s racial conversation: a snicker at the abiding awkwardness of difference.

So the glinting surfaces of the Johnsons’ LA home have been scrubbed clean of historyBut it is “history,” in the loosest, most slack-jawed sense of the term, that André mourns with such bleary pathos over the course of the first season. André Junior, the first victim of dilution—or contamination—announces with blameless enthusiasm that he would like to have a Bar Mitzvah, at which point he will pick a Hebrew name, like Shlomo or Shmuel. (The narrative of American Jewry hovers darkly over the series: once upon a time, even Jews weren’t considered white, and now here we are.) Instead, at the urging of his father, he has a Bro-Mitzvah, to which he arrives in a clunking gold chain and an old-school tracksuit. But Junior still wants to play field hockey, obsesses over Lord of the Rings, and has, generally, abdicated the throne of black virility that goes so oddly unquestioned and un-ironized. Blackness, in Black-ish, is still earthy and masculine and traditional, a dam against the tide of all that is prissily deviant or simply uncool. This grasp at black essence is simpler, of course, if you sidestep the tiresome fact that blacks are “underrepresented” in positions of power and privilege not merely due to some ethereal “cultural” difference that wafts fancifully through the polity: no, there is a thudding, drearily real story here of redistricting and school closures and the threat of violence, all of which dent the hard, metallic face of the Black-ish universe. The show challenges nothing; it is cheerily cynical, breezily sexist. It is adored by critics.

As is Dear White People, with better justification. But even when the setting is an Ivy League campus, our black bourgeois heroes still stomp around in the same diffuse anguish. “Counterculture?” says a haughty old dean. “Is that what you think this is?” True, being among the Talented Tenth (in W.E.B. Du Bois’s phrase) grants you cheap admission to a vast lineage of collective, articulate outrage, a well from which all of your beautiful ethics springs. But what kind of ethics is this—noblesse oblige? What, in planting race at the center of the film, is being probed, or declared, or laughed at? And what is the quarrel of these well-to-do black students with the society that seems so pleased by their ascent? With Dear White People, as with Black-ish, such questions are like blunted instruments: they poke but do not penetrate. The film traipses along with glancing allusions and a clipped humor that makes it a fine document of the current political mood, though not in the intended way. Dear White People is fascinatingly messy, or messily fascinating—like Black-ish. It is not a failure—unlike Black-ish. But it mimics a certain kind of race conversation, one that huffs at every jeer and dismissal while ghastly structures march on, unchallenged. The problem here is not “identity politics.” Rather, the film furthers a politics that is not one: the campus renegades can only demand that blacks, too, slough off the chains of Stereotype and pass effortlessly through the marble halls of power. And what could be treacherous, or contradictory, or coyly complex, about power?

Winchester University is a fictional Ivy. To Justin Simien, Dear White People’s young director, this must have seemed the perfect field on which to pitch his film’s satirical battles: only in college does glass-clinking prestige clash (or tangle) so readily with the pristine radicalism of youth. So the film is haunted by empty promises and betrayed ideals. Armstrong-Parker is a historically black residence hall that may be broken up by a new rule that will “randomize”—that is, integrate—housing, and it’s amid this administrative maelstrom that Sam White, the sharp-tongued heroine of Dear White People, strides into view. Casting a bold, militant silhouette, Sam is an outspoken member of the Black Student Union; she wears a leather jacket and a giant Africana necklace that thumps against her as she charges from building to building, toppling things. On her radio show, Dear White People, she deals ideological lashes to the thoughtless majority: “Dear White People: Stop dancing.” “Dear White People: Please stop touching my hair.” “Dear White People: The minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, does not count.”

But she’s also a filmmaker whose laughable piece of agitprop, Rebirth of A Nation, we glimpse early on. (At the end of the film, she glides quite predictably into aesthetic maturity.) A joke on D.W. Griffiths’s infamous silent-era “masterpiece,” Sam’s version tells a hokey fable of vicious whites (her actors don what can only be called “whiteface”) who howl and off themselves as soon as Barack Obama is elected. It’s a sign of Dear White People’s political lukewarmth that even the impudent rebel announces such an uncomplicated solidarity with the commander in chief. And Sam’s, too, is a silent film, complete with lolloping ragtime score: in one of the intertitles, the President proclaims “Free Health Care For All!!” to the thankless wrath of millions.

Simien has paced Dear White People like a teen movie, snappy and brash, with constant music. Dialogue is mostly a slick casing stuffed with punchlines, the funniest of which made the trailer, so the film itself claps together with the insolent click of a Judd Apatow product (though it winks at Spike Lee). Even the climax, when black students burst furiously into a black-themed Halloween party, furnishes us with such a coarsely drawn confrontation that it almost doesn’t matter that such parties occur everywhere and always. For the genre, Dear White People is an intellectual triumph, which is saying very little—but the film’s success at cradling sensitive racial questions in a bouncily accessible idiom has earned it applause from august figures like A.O. Scott at the New York Times, who grants sheepishly that the film leaves its audience—“pale-skinned critics very much included”—in a bracing, if awkward, state of enlightenment.

Arrayed around Sam like apostles in The Last Supper, frozen in their gestures, is a cluster of other black students, all acting out their race at varying levels of compromise. Troy Fairbanks is a handsome overachiever and dean’s son, who flinches at—but obeys—the diktats of his academic father; Troy is also eager to exploit his blackness to endear himself to the clueless white men who head Pastiche, the campus humor rag. Lionel Higgins, the saturnine gay boy, tries the same with the school newspaper. And Coco Conners is a race traitor to the extreme (her real name is Colandrea): she writhes anxiously within her blackness, seems buried alive in it. But vanity overtakes her: she takes up the mantle of the Sassy Black Girl when a reality TV producer descends upon Winchester, tinkling the bells of fame in her ear, goading her to make trouble on campus because on television, “conflict is a commodity.”

Television itself exerts an oddly strong force on Dear White People—the key, perhaps, to this newest version of racial politics. The tangled vines of plot all strain up towards the “media,” with its images of blackness to be clung to or, more often, tilted against. (There are echoes, here, of André Johnson’s advertising job, where he is head of the “Urban” division.) The media, by the characters’ rigid logic, manufactures stereotypes, so it must be stormed and reclaimed. There is Pastiche, the satirical magazine, which feeds students directly to National Lampoon; there is The Bugle, the campus newspaper (with an advisor at the New York Times!); then there’s Coco’s TV producer, and Sam’s radio show, and her risible, riotous attempts at cinema; and the film itself opens with a newscaster reporting on the “race war” that has erupted at Winchester, the aforementioned brawl at the Halloween party where white students—with tragically miscalculated cheek—dress up as black people.

They don wigs and face paint, jerseys and gold teeth, gleefully, sloppily, cruelly measuring the distance between the Poor, Criminal Blacks (as the media depicts them!) and the Educated Whites. Race—already a “construct”—becomes spectacle. It’s clever of Simien to have us gaze at our heroes as they themselves gaze at the conflagration recounted on TV news, dazzled by the refraction of their own experience in the normative, corporate camera lens—a tidy closing of the mediated loop. But Dear White People is itself transfixed, trapped in the same hypnosis, drifting dazedly away from the sturdy actualities of black struggle towards a concern with image and perceived social value. Yes, the racists are horrible: but isn’t the outrage of Sam et al. a bit lacking in perspective or irony? Is it possible that they’re a tad too spooked by the black lumpens who haunt pop culture and heckle the black bourgeoisie? Their reaction recalls the shame André feels on Black-ish when his comically shady, shifty-eyed black colleague offers to plant cocaine in a colleague’s desk.

This is a chicly renovated version of what’s often called “respectability politics”: in Dear White People, the characters shudder at the carnival of thugs and gangsters that puncture the delicate membrane of bourgeois approval. Sam spits sharply at one of her black comrades as he lights a joint: “Stop stereotyping yourself.” Coco drops the name “Colandrea” because it is too obviously black, she thinks it doesn’t “pass the résumé test”—and she is right. That life itself has become a single, protracted “résumé test” is a fact too solid to dispute. Coco’s is a view narrowed by power, buttressed by fear, and sharpened by a social structure eager to dismiss and distort in the name of competition. One can’t help but feel a distant sympathy with this kind of thinking—in High Cotton, it’s called “a Lot-like contract of deliverance.” But to be constantly proving oneself to a power that one has every right to despise: this is not revolutionary, or radically honest, which is how Dear White People pleads so desperately to seen. It is an ideology of embarrassment.

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