Class and Cranapple Juice: The World According To Cousin Pam

Towards the end of “Period of Adjustment,” the sixth season episode of The Cosby Show that introduces Cousin Pam, one of her friends “from the ‘hood,” Lance stands in the Huxtable living room asks for some cranapple juice because, as he wryly observes, “this looks like a house that would have some cranapple juice.”  Within the context of the show’s history, it is a moment fraught with social and class implication and directly addresses a theme that haunted the program throughout its history.  I see the cranapple juice ss nothing less than a signifier representing a certain set of critiques that dogged The Cosby Show throughout its existence.  For Lance, cranapple juice is something you see on television on commercials and shows, not a drink that you can get in real life.  And for Lance-and many viewers-The Huxtables’ life seemed just as unrealistic as the cranapple juice.

Since the beginning, The Cosby Show had always been criticized in some circles for what some saw as an unrealistic depiction of a black family.  Ironically, most of the loudest voices putting forth this critique were African-American. To put it bluntly, some black folks  didn’t think the Huxtable lived like real black folks because they had too much money.  The concept of a black pediatrician and a black lawyer was just too much for a lot of people to wrap their heads around.  Personally, I trace the furor to the infamous second season episode, “The Auction,” when Clair pays $10,ooo for a painting.  Even though the script went to great pains to show that the painting was purchased for sentimental reasons and the follow-up episode, “Vanessa’s Rich,” tried to defuse the brouhaha, I don’t think the Huxtables ever really recovered from what many viewed as the proof of their extravagance.

And, importantly, the show had only really addressed the critique, until this point, through the faceless girls who had jumped Vanessa in the aforementioned episode.  After that, the issue of the Huxtables class status was never addressed again.  The introduction of Cousin Pam, one of Clair’s relatives who apparently lived in the other part of Brooklyn, introduced a different dynamic, however.  Unlike Vanessa’s nameless assailants, Pam was a new cast member who brought along a whole gaggle of recurring characters.  And Pam’s crew all served as voices to interrogate the different types of class experiences that black people have on an ongoing basis.

I thought it was a brilliant move on the part of Cosby and the other creators and, the inclusion of Cousin Pam, led to a series of storylines that earlier seasons couldn’t have explored.  Rather than set up that same ol’ tired, “bourgie black folks are stiff and rigid and poor black folks sho’ can get down!” dichotomy, Cousin Pam, literally, personified the fact that we are all one family regardless of what it says on our W4 and, as evidenced by Pam’s girl Charmaine’s migration from “the ‘hood” to the ivory towers of A Different World’s Hillman College, class is not an impenetrable barrier.  Whether the family grappled with Pam’s boyfriends incidence on unprotected sex, the incidence of Pam serving as protector as Rudy went to see a rapper in a seedy club, or Cliff and Clair discussing how they’re going to pay for Pam to go to college, the inclusion of Cousin Pam completely dissembled any notion that the Huxtables were untouchable and weren’t “real.”

Moments after Lance asks about the cranapple juice, Cliff and Clair come in from a date.  After they are introduced, Cliff asks Cousin Pam to offer her friends a snack and tells her that he’s pretty sure they have some cranapple juice.  It’s a funny moment and, certainly, after six years, it’s a moment when the writers are playfully addressing the issue of socioeconomics and the Huxtables.  What I think is more important than the fact that, while the Huxtables indeed have cranapple juice,  Cosby & co. let you know that the juice is for everyone.

And He Somehow Figured Out How To Get His Hair Done In The Past!

I think it’s fair to say that, if Bruce Leroy found himself thrust through time and stranded in the mid-19th century, he’d curl up in a fetal position and quietly sob about his lack of a paint brush?  Sho’nuff, however, never skips a beat, establishes a new identity and becomes a bad ass bounty hunter.  Advantage: Sho’Nuff.

Hair’s The Thing…

I have a question.  When did we start saying that woman with perms have “natural hair” just because they don’t have a weave?  The first time I noticed it was during the rounds of publicity for Good Hair when Nia Long was referring to herself as “going natural” and, just the other day, there were photos floating around of Gabrielle Union also “wearing her natural hair.”  So, a perm don’t count anymore?  Is this like vegetarians who eat fish?  I’m not trying to go all Arrested Development and start no mess, I’m just askin’…

Martha Washington For Post-Apocalyptic Warlord!

So, there was a bit of an uproar over a story in Newsweek discussing how the current recession is specifically affecting middle-class, college educated white men.  Long story short, this is the first time a job shortage has hit the most mainstream of demographics and, while it’s still worse for women, minorities, those without college educations and, well, anyone that ain’t a middle-class white guy, well, there’s still some folks who aren’t getting jobs that have never had a problem getting jobs.  In other words, traditionally, it’s been super-duper awesome being a white guy in America and, now, it’s just more awesome than being anything else. 

And, according to the story, a lot of those guys are having a tough time dealing with their new reality.  Writers Rick Marin and Tony Dokoupil report that incidents of depression, anxiety attacks and familial stress have been on the uptick mainly because this demographic does not know how to deal with hardship.  The article quotes Judith Gerberg, a Manhattan-based executive career coach who says, “If you went to the college of your choice, married the woman of your choice, and bought the house of your choice, you’ve never dealt with rejection. You’ve never had to develop fortitude.”

This, of course, makes me think about Mad Max.

Let’s go back a little.  I am an unabashed child of the 80’s and have palpable  memories of living in a country that twice elected a doddering old mad man  to be in charge of The Big Red Button.  As a young teen, there was no doubt in my mind that, one day, we would all live in a radioactive, post-apocalyptic wasteland.  And, frankly, I couldn’t wait because The Road Warrior, Mad Max, Escape From New York, A Boy And His Dog, Creature Feature staples like Soylent Green and The Omega Man and a million other depictions looked AWESOME.  Again, because I was knew something was…off…about Ronald Reagan, I looked at these films, not so much as entertainment, but as a sort of series of instructional manuals.  “Okay, I’m going to need some bottled water, canned food, a machete and/or a crossbow, and some type of headband.”

The white guy-ness of them always threw me out my viewing though.  Nothing against white guys (some of my best friends are white guys, hell, some of my neighbors are white guys…), but I never really believed that when civilization collapsed, as a specific group,  your “average” white guy is going to be that helpful because they don’t really have a lot of experience in that area.

No, if you want someone to help, When The Shit Drops, you need to have someone out front who’s used to dealing with adversity.  You need an example of what Zora Neale Hurston called “the mules of the world.”  You need a black woman.    When stuff goes insane, I need somebody with experience in prospering under insane conditions.

That’s why I love Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons’ The Life and Times of Martha Washington.  Over a ten-year period, Miller and Gibbons created a postapocalyptic world where the apocalypse was the result of bankruptcy, a splintered U.S. and corporations running amok.  Sound familiar?  In the middle of this, they dropped the protagonist, Martha Washington, a poor, black, uneducated (but fiercely intelligent) black girl from the Cabrini Green projects.   And, whether her enemies are project rapists, corrupt superior officers or a Godlike computer entity, Martha applies the survival skills and adaptability she learned in her environment to survive and prosper.

(This is the point where I should probably acknowledge the black female protagonists of Octavia Butler, specifically, Parable of the Sower’s Lauren and Lilith, the main character in Dawn.  While both are black women facing unspeakable odds, I would argue neither are as downtrodden as Martha; Lauren was literate in a mostly illiterate world and had the luxury of preparing for life outside of her relatively privileged enclave  and Lilith was granted, basically, superhuman powers by her alien captors/saviors.)

So, y’know, God bless the victims of the “Mancession.”  Seriously.  Your pain is your pain; it’s just by the grace of God, everybody in my house got a gig and I’m certainly not going to dismiss the situation of cats who ain’t got one.  But, again, this just goes to prove what I’ve always believed.  When The End comes, I’m damn sure not following Kurt Russell ’cause he’s going to be to busy crying.  No, I’m looking for the person who’s figuring out how to make some stew and use old hangers as a blade.  Hell, that’s part of the reason I married her.

In A Poetic Way, It Would Also Make A Great Weekly Series; Sort Of A Black 30 Rock

You know, as much as I love the razor sharp satire of Bamboozled, in a lot of ways, I think Dancing in September does a much better job exploring the nature of the black sitcom and the way the coonery we hate comes to the screen.  The criminally underrated Reggie Rock Bythewood wrote and directed this inside look  at how television and race intersect, Nicole Ari Parker and Isiah Washington personify very balanced statements on the value of working inside and outside the system and the sequence demonstrating how a well-meaning look at black life becomes a spectacle is as chilling now as it was a decade ago.  Good stuff…

The Huxtables in Autumn

I love The Cosby Show for many reasons. Like many admirers of the show, I admire the combination of the positive depictions of African-Americans and the high quality of the comedic elements that became the cultural phenomenon that resonates to this day. Still, even with all the acclaim, I don’t think The Cosby Show gets the props that is should from either social or pop culture critics.  For instance, even though Cosby was lauded for the “positivity” his show put on display for America, very rarely is the show’s conscious and ongoing depiction of African-American culture-artistic, political and social-acknowledged.  And, even more frustratingly, as a lover of television, I marvel at how the sheer quality of The Cosby Show is often undervalued.  It’s as if, because it was an important political artifact and is viewed as one of those watershed moments when America’s view on race evolved, no one really talks about how damn funny it was.  Symptomatic of The Cosby Show‘s underestimation is the dismissal of the later years.  Most conversations about the show seem to take for granted that it “jumped the shark” during the later years, specifically, when Olivia joined the cast.

I disagree. 

For one thing, I believe that the post-Olivia years provide a fascinating example of how a long running series can evolve and adapt to the bane of any show that features child actors.  I think the years’ long story arcs of Sondra, Denise and Vanessa are a testament to how strongly the characters were drawn in the early years, I argue that Theo Huxtable is the best depiction of, not only a black teenager, but any teen character on a television show and, the more I pay attention, the more I appreciate the metacommentary of the barely veiled tension between Rudy and Olivia as the latter  began to upstage the former’s role as “the cute one.”

The later years are also necessary viewing for anyone who remains vested in the ongoing conversation of how, “black” The Cosby Show was. One of the most common critiques of the show was that, during the turmoil of the Reagan Years, The Cosby Show presented an unrealistic picture of black prosperity and, more damning, a “safe” image for white America.  Cosby and co.’s response to the charge was embodied in the famous season three episode, “Vanessa’s Rich” when Clair and Cliff inform the audience through Vanessa that the Huxtables aren’t rich because, “rich people’s money works for them, and we work for our money.” However, I would submit that the entire character of Cousin Pam was created from the impetus of demonstrating the connection of the Huxtable clan to the black folks that many said they ignored.  For these reasons and more, I love The Cosby Show but I am continually studying and appreciating the Huxtables…in Autumn.

Sho’Nuff Waits For No Man…or Woman

Another reason Sho’Nuff is better than “Bruce” Leroy?  Well, as much as we’ve established that the Shogun of Harlem is a scholar and a gentleman, and he would indeed respect young Ms. Jackson’s wishes to slow things down in their relationships…there’s no way he would have went out like a punk and been in that video with her turning her head on him.