With Father’s Day this Sunday, I’ve been thinking about how fathers have been portrayed on television over the years.
As a child growing up in the Bronx in the 1970s, the TV fathers who I best remember were Jim Anderson, Robert Young’s character on “Father Knows Best,” and Mike Brady, portrayed by Robert Reed in “The Brady Bunch.” Both men were typical of the kinds of men that many expected to be the “head of the family” in 20th-century American society.
Mr. Anderson and Mr. Brady were also in stark contrast to my father and many of the working-class black men I knew in my neighborhood or saw on TV, characters like Redd Foxx’s Fred Sanford and John Amos’s James Evans, Sr., who was much closer in spirit to my own dad.
That all changed in the fall of 1984, when America was introduced to Bill Cosby’s Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, who quickly took on the unprecedented role for a black man as America’s “favorite dad.”
There was a need to celebrate a character who challenged historic stereotypes of black men as fathers — often portrayed as absent, shiftless, unemployed and overly chauvinistic. But was an upper middle-class professional not dramatically different than his white male peers really what black audiences were looking for? Where were the black male characters who represented the complexities of what it means to be a black in contemporary America? Would we even know them if we saw them?
In my recent work researching the intersection of African-American and pop cultures, I have been examining the ways that black men are legible to us in the popular imagination. In the ways that seeing a black man on television with a basketball or on a newscast about crime is terribly familiar to us, more complex images of black men as fathers seem few and far between. Indeed, the recent Samsung Galaxy II commercial–featuring basketball star LeBron James engaging with his sons over breakfast–seems almost revolutionary.
–Mark Anthony Neal, “On Occasion, TV Captures Complexities Of Black Men As Fathers,” The Herald-Sun 6/12/13