Bill Cosby is a man of many “firsts.” Cosby was the first Black comedian to conquer white American audiences. He was the first African- American to take a starring role in a network television series in the 1960s, “I Spy”; and the first to star in and produce a #1 TV show in the 1980s, “The Cosby Show.” He became the first successful Black “pitchman” for American consumer products too, from Jell-O to Kodak to Coca-Cola. Bill Cosby both defined and defied what it meant to “cross over.” On the one hand, Cosby was undeniably the first Black celebrity to transcend race — he wasn’t America’s top Black TV star; he was America’s top TV star, period. On the other, Cosby’s mainstreaming was controversial. To some critics, Cosby’s refusal to “deal with racial issues” in his work was a dereliction of duty. But Cosby, even more than Oprah Winfrey, was the foremost archetype for the racially transcendent ascendance of Barack Obama, now the 44th President of the United States.
William Henry Cosby, Jr. was born in Philadelphia in 1937. As a student, Cosby was sub-par, but as a class cut-up, he was a star. Cosby became more serious about his studies after a sobering experience in the Navy, where he worked in the physical therapy wing of a hospital that treated servicemen injured during the Korean War. Cosby returned to Temple University to get a degree in physical education, supporting himself by tending bar at a Philadelphia club. It was here, at the Cellar, that Cosby’s offhand humor became a vocation.
In 1962, Cosby’s performances at the Gaslight Café in New York City attracted the attention of Carl Reiner, whose mentorship sent Cosby on a trajectory to the Holy Grail for American stand-up comedy, the “Tonight Show.” Cosby performed around the country and signed a contract with Warner Bros. Records. But his historic breakthrough came when he was tapped to co-star in “I Spy” with Robert Culp.
Even then, Cosby was dogged by suggestions that, perhaps, his on- screen character presented an opportunity to deal with issues of race. Cosby begged to differ, saying that his mere presence as a white man’s peer, without reference to race, had a transformative effect on the white American psyche.
In the 1970s, Cosby starred in successful films like “Uptown Saturday Night,” and forged his credentials as a children’s educator with his participation in PBS-show “The Electric Company” and his creation of the “Fat Albert” series. But Cosby truly became “America’s Dad” with the triumph of the “Cosby Show,” which ran for most of the 1980s. The fictional Huxtable family presented, again, the definition and defiance of crossover. The Huxtables never dealt with racism on their show. And yet, they were proudly Black, even Afrocenric at times. A reprise of the Cosby TV juggernaut in the 1990s was interrupted by the tragic murder of Cosby’s son, Ennis.
In the 21st Century, Cosby continues to be a controversial figure, especially among young Blacks of the hip-hop generation who take offense to his often pointed denouncements of today’s Black youth. But there can be no doubt that Cosby created a powerful American imprint with his work, and that before the Obamas could enter the White House, the Huxtables had to enter all of ours.