Culture & Conversation Media

‘Black-ish,’ Cliff Huxtable, and Me: The Problem of TV’s Cruel-to-Be-Kind Black Father

Kieran Scarlett

These seminal TV shows uncritically depict Black fathers' often caustic “coaching” to prepare their sons for an inhospitable world. I know, from my own family, that cruelty isn't the way to make a man.

“I love you, but I do not like you.”

My father said these cutting words to me several times during my adolescence. Cold and distant, he seldom doled out praise. When he did, the approval came with distinct qualifiers or with criticism: “You’re too smart to be this stupid.” Or “you’re a talented pianist, but you’re playing the ‘wrong’ kind of music.”

He regarded my presence and inability to live up to his ideals with a mix of bewilderment, impatience, and disgust. Growing up, I would have given anything to feel like my dad liked me. I tried to pantomime interests I didn’t have in sports and other things traditionally coded as manly to sell him on liking me.

Whenever I failed to meet his expectations, he saw it as a failure of masculinity. Because the party line says that Black men have to be tough and reared even tougher as preparation for how inhospitable, often violently so, the world can get for the Black man in America. Black fathers had to be cruel to be kind.

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Such is the dynamic on ABC’s hit sitcom Black-ish. Dre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) is dismissive and mean to his eldest son, Junior (Marcus Scribner), usually by policing either his Blackness or masculinity. Junior is presented as being just a little bit odd. Too influenced by whiteness, too influenced by the New Age politics of his liberal mother, too steeped in interests that can be coded as feminine or queer, prior to Junior’s sexual awakening. All of this offends what Dre views as acceptable and noble expressions of Black masculinity.

Black-ish also pulls a similar move with Pops (Laurence Fishburne), Dre’s father. Pops is also verbally abusive and dismissive, with very rigid ideas of what it means to be a strong Black man in America. And in his book, Dre always seems to be falling just short.

This multigenerational, toxic, and hypermasculine Black fathering is never acknowledged as such. And that’s jarring in a show known for the sharp, incisive commentary about Black life in America. The show often features very shrewd dissections of respectability politics via its upper class Black Los Angeles family. It smartly addresses the double standard of how female and male teenage sexuality are viewed via the Johnsons’ two eldest children (played by Scribner and Yara Shahidi).

But, unlike its depiction of the double standard and being Black and bougie in a white world, the show presents a father’s harshness towards his teenage son and plays this dynamic for laughs. And it’s hardly the first sitcom to do so.

The Cosby Show engaged in similar depictions of Black father-son relations. Maybe you remember the now-famous scene in the show’s pilot where Huxtable patriarch Cliff (Bill Cosby) confronts only son Theo (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) about his lackluster grades. After Cliff tries to show Theo how difficult it is to make it in the world without a college degree, Theo proposes his father love him anyway, regardless of whether he’ll ever be an A-student. After canned applause and a long pause, Cliff barks, “Theo, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life! No wonder you get D’s in everything!” He then tells Theo he brought him into this world and he’ll take him out if he doesn’t shape up.

I’m not so hypersensitive that I deny the immediate humor in this exchange, divorced from any real analysis. But I also recognize that any mention of The Cosby Show invites unavoidable talk of Bill Cosby and the sexual assault allegations against him—something he has in common with Black-ish star Anthony Anderson (who was accused of rape in 2004, though the charges were dropped and no one seems to remember the allegations now).

But this moment in The Cosby Show is incredibly curious in the larger context of the series’ arc. In later seasons, Theo is diagnosed with dyslexia while at New York University—relatively late for such a diagnosis. One can’t help but wonder if the knowledge of Theo’s learning disability could have been identified and addressed earlier if Cliff had met his flailing academic performance with firm compassion and a curiosity about his son, rather than shaming tactics and threats. What if the show had connected the dots between those seasons? What if Cliff had had a on-screen epiphany and said, “Theo, I was too hard on you. I assumed you were just lazy, so I didn’t try to figure out why you were struggling”?

“It’s just a sitcom.” “You’re doing too much.” “It’s not that deep.” Fans of this series and believers in the idea that Black boys need to “man up” and “grow a pair” will say this. I’ve heard it all before on social media.

However, that simply doesn’t wash. Not when you consider that both Black-ish and The Cosby Show, to their credit, routinely tackled serious issues specific to the Black experience in America.

The “it’s not that deep” defense, while sounding good on paper, falls apart under a microscope. It’s “that deep” when we allow it to be—when the goalposts we use to measure if it is indeed “that deep” suit our rhetorical motives. The call is not for some perfect, idealized depiction of Black father-son relationships that ignore the crippling patriarchal structure all men are socialized under, regardless of race. It is for an examination of that dynamic in the confines of media that’s so willing to provide other cultural commentary. We must question why this particular toxic norm goes mostly unchallenged and how that both reflects and informs of how we view Black masculinity in America.

I fully recognize how my own specific experience colors my readings of both these beloved (if now tainted, in the case of The Cosby Show) pieces of Black Americana.

I grew up with a father who was a Cliff Huxtable—rigidly unteachable when his children’s ideas didn’t align with his own. My father was also an Andre Johnson and a Pops Johnson. More accurately, he was also a Troy Maxson. I read playwright August Wilson’s Fences in college, but it wasn’t until I saw the role of Troy rendered indelibly by Denzel Washington in the 2016 film adaptation that I was able to truly contextualize and empathize with my father.

Like Troy Maxson, my father was a blue-collar worker—Troy was a sanitation worker, my father a city bus driver. He felt like the world hadn’t fulfilled the promise of his potential. And my dad is, to his credit, a very intelligent man. In a rare moment of vulnerability and talking to me rather than at me, I recall my father telling me how he constantly felt demeaned and talked down to by the wealthy lawyers and businessmen who frequented his bus route. I now see that his constant moving of the finish line for his approval was his way of preparing my brother and me.

I understand it. And, in a very real way, he was correct.

I’ve been in many spaces where my ability or my right to even be there was questioned for no other reason than my Blackness. I’ve received the adulation and compliments from my mostly white elementary and high school teachers growing up—praise I now see was tinged with surprise that a Black child was able to perform way above their racialized expectations.

I also know that none of my father’s caustic “coaching” truly prepared me for the repeated trauma of being a Black person in America. Can anything truly prepare a child for that? Will Andre Johnson’s constant monitoring of Junior’s Blackness in the home prepare him for how he’ll be picked apart by both white America and his more hypermasculine Black peers? Did Heathcliff Huxtable’s repeated mocking of Theo’s intellect truly make him better in that regard? Did Troy Maxson’s controlling policing of Cory’s every move make him into a suitable man?

In the case of a more high-minded text like Fences, we see a more unvarnished depiction of the consequences of this harsh, ugly, hypermasculine fathering that favors pre-emptive cruelty over warmth. I felt an uncomfortable familiarity with Troy Maxson’s frequent verbal undressing of his son Cory. They reminded me of the way my own father would lash out at me in verbal tirades, usually when my mother wasn’t in the room (like in Fences).

None of this made me into a man. What Black boys need from their fathers is a sanctuary, a haven away from the world. And that warmth need not shield them from the cruel realities of the world.

For years, I internalized my “daddy issues.” I kept them to myself in service of performing Black hypermasculine stoicism. I didn’t communicate them to my own father, who to this day will insist he has tight relationships with his children, despite how he volunteered himself out of our family after my parents’ divorce. He will happily tell everyone except me how proud he is of me and how close we are. We haven’t spoken in nearly a year.

This is what the type of real-life fathering co-signed by sitcoms like The Cosby Show and Black-ish yields. For my father and I, there were no sing-a-longs to Ray Charles songs. The barbs we traded back and forth didn’t ultimately resolve themselves in 30 minutes or less. There was simply a constantly disapproving father and his bewildered, angry, and rejected son: two people who retreated to their own separate corners of family household and, now, the world.

In this current cultural moment, where we’re finally having an honest public conversation about how toxic masculinity hampers the liberation of both men and women, we should strive toward another conversation—one about how trauma begets trauma. How the cultural mores surrounding gender are often suffocating and damaging to relationships. And how unpacking all of this will lead men of all racial backgrounds to freedom from standards and practices implemented to protect and build us up, but only serve to further shackle us to miscommunication, silence, and pain.

I’d like to think that the such a conversation would lead us to a world where I could have a relationship with my father. I remain ever hopeful that such a world is possible. I remain even more hopeful and insistent, as a Black man reared coldly by an angry and traumatized father, that this is a world that all Black boys and I deserve.

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