Over the weekend my mom went to a friend’s graduation at Brooklyn College. She was very proud of the fact the her friend, father Anthony, –one of the priests in her church– was now a college graduate. Somehow she got to the part about who was in the audience, and she mentioned Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad. Now that was a story I wanted to hear. Mom somehow always buries the lead, I think she wanted to test if I was listening. And hearing the names of my favorite tv parents, took me back to Saturday summer afternoons in Madrid. When we watched episodes of The Cosby Show –lounging on the red couch, eating lentejas, and drinking Fanta–in front of the black and white tv set after spending all day at the public pool.
Television programs back in the 80s were not very diverse in Spain, outside of El Barrio Sesamo, there were no shows for children. But when we did watch tv, our options were very small. On the one hand there were the Tarzan movies, where the Africans seemed to be always running away and in fear of the animals, while he managed not only to communicate with them, but also train them. Second option was The A-Team, where the one black character Mr. T, was more about brute force than intellect.
And then, there was The Cosby Show. A family on television where everyone was black. Both parents worked, the kids went to school, had friends and lived normal lives. These were people who looked like me. Now as an adult , I realize how important it is for children to see people who look like them in positive roles. It teaches you that you too can reach higher heights, you can choose any medium and succeed, that you matter. That the color of your skin does not mean you are less smart, less capable, or less committed to work hard.
After 20 plus years of watching tv in the States (even BET), I’m now working my way through French TV. I can count on one hand how many black news anchors, black actors in positive roles I´ve seen. One of my favorite shows is Scène de Ménages, which focuses on the home life and relationships of four couples. There is the retired married couple who are always bickering, and amuse themselves by playing jokes on others. Then there is the middle-aged married couple with a kid in college, where the husband is very much a kid. There is a young married couple who is adjusting to life with a baby. And then there is the only black character. A business man living with his white girlfriend. They are the only unmarried couple.
I watch the show because it’s funny and many of the scenarios are ridiculous. But if I am an adolescent black or Arab girl interested in acting living in France, what do I take away from this show?