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Commentary: Obama, Cosby, King and the mountaintop


(CNN) -- Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told followers the nightbefore he was killed that he had been "to the mountaintop" and seen thepromised land of racial equality. Last week's election of Barack Obamawas the equivalent of taking all African-Americans to that peak, saysDr. Alvin Poussaint.


Dr. Alvin Poussaint says Barack Obama's election will shape the perceptions of a generation of black children.

Dr. Alvin Poussaint says Barack Obama's election will shape the perceptions of a generation of black children.

In his view, Obama's victory last week wasn't just a political triumph. It was a seismic event in the history of black America.

Poussaint has made it his life's work to study how African-Americans see themselves and how the larger society sees them.

From the days of the civil rights movement through the 1980s, when hewas a script consultant on "The Cosby Show," to today, he has been aleader in assessing how images of black people in the media shapeperceptions. Poussaint, who is 74, is professor of psychiatry at JudgeBaker Children's Center in Boston and at Harvard Medical School.

At a key point in the civil rights movement, Poussaint moved toMississippi and worked for the Medical Committee for Human Rights, inJackson, from 1965 to 1967, helping care for civil rights workers andaiding the desegregation of hospitals and other health careinstitutions.

Poussaint met Bill Cosby in the 1970s and hasworked with him on a variety of books and shows, most recentlyco-authoring a book with Cosby. He was interviewed by CNN on Wednesday.

   CNN: What do you think is the long-term impact of the election of Barack Obama as a symbol and a message to the black community in America?

Dr. Alvin Poussaint:We're going to have a generation of children -- if he's in there foreight years -- being born in 2009, looking at television and images,hearing before they can talk, absorbing it in their brain and beingwired to see the visual images of a black man being president of theUnited States and understanding very early that that's the highestposition in the United States.

So I think that's going to be very powerful in its visual imagery ...and they're going to see these images constantly on television,probably offsetting a lot of the negative imagery that they may see inshows and videos and sometimes in stereotypic comedy.

Theseimages will also make black parents proud. Although there are manybarriers to this, it might put back on the table the importance of thetwo-parent family. ... Maybe it will do something for couples and bringblack men and black women closer together.

The sense of pridemay carry over into family life, the same way it is being carried overnow into the life of the church already. At black churches this pastSunday, all of them were talking about Obama and being ambassadors forObama -- in other words, suggesting that now that he's president, thatblack people should take the high road.

The big problem with allof this is that if there's high expectations that somehow the socialills that the black community faces will suddenly evaporate, they'regoing to be disappointed -- because the economy, the economic crisis isa major issue that's going to affect the black community, making thingsworse. ... So there's going to be more unemployment, more poor people,more black homeless and more poverty. ...

Obama's also going tohave a positive effect on the white community. Way back in the 1960s, Iused to go to Atlanta when it was segregated and even after it starteddesegregating. When you went downtown to restaurants, you would walk inas a black person and they would kind of act like, "What are you doinghere?" You weren't welcome, you know, you just felt it.

AndMaynard Jackson became the first black mayor, and I felt a whole changein the tone of the city. You went places and when you walked in, peoplehad to consider: "Is this someone who knows the mayor, this blackperson?" And so I think they began to treat all black people betterbecause black people were now in power. ... This may help to eradicatestereotypes that they hold. ...

So this may have a spinoffeffect -- maybe more blacks will break through the glass ceiling incorporations, more blacks may, because of their newfound confidence,become more civically engaged, run for office.

CNN: What if he had lost, what would the impact have been then?

Poussaint:A lot of black people would have concluded that he lost because of hisrace, and the black people who had no faith in the system in the firstplace would have continued to feel that way, maybe even more strongly,and maybe even have more anger at the institutions that have authorityover them and that they see as white-controlled.

CNN:Obama is taking over at a time of tremendous international and nationalchallenges. Every president has setbacks. What would be the impact ofsetbacks on a political level?

Poussaint: Nearlyeverybody that you hear talk about it realizes that he's inheriting ahorrible situation. In fact one of the black leaders joked about how,as soon as things are falling apart in the country, that they hand itover to a black person -- "Here, you take it."

People are sayingthat he's just been dealt a terrible hand and is going to have to workvery hard to be successful and they're rooting for him and hoping.There's a mindset right now of "What can we do to help Obama?" And Idon't think it's just black people saying it, it's all the people whovoted for him, young people and women, the workers, the unions -- "Whatcan we do to help him be successful, and undo the mess that we're in?"

CNN: What do you make of the idea that "The Cosby Show" made America more ready to vote for a black man to be president?

Poussaint:I don't know, you can't study this stuff scientifically. The intentwhen the Cosby show came on ... was to present a black family that wasnot the old stereotypical family that white people laughed at in asitcom. And we wanted the show to have a universality, in terms of amother, a father, wonderful children, a lot of love being shown, anemphasis on education.

Today if you have 12 or 15 millionviewers of a show a week, it's number one. Well, Cosby was bringing inabout 60 million people a week. So this had a deep effect on whitechildren, Latino children, and even many adults, what their images ofblack people were.

So that's why Karl Rove reached into thehat the other day and said this was the beginning of the post-racialera, because it made white people embrace this black family like afamily of their own and fall in love with it.

It probably playedsome role at chipping away at those negative images, which made whitepeople ... more ready to embrace a lot of things, including Tiger Woodsand Oprah Winfrey and Denzel Washington and Will Smith. Certainly whenObama gets on the scene, people don't say, "What kind of black familyis that? We haven't seen any black family like that."

Becausethat's what they said about the Cosby show, ... that this doesn'trepresent a black family, this is fantasy. And it wasn't fantasy,because there were black families like that in 1984, and there are manymore black families like that in the middle class and upper-middleclass today.

CNN: You were a consultant on the Cosby show. How did that come about?

Poussaint:I knew him and his wife. When the show was coming on, he called me andsaid he wanted me to ... be a production consultant to keep this apositive show without stereotyping: "I want you to read and critiqueevery single script before it goes into production, anything you wantto say to make this family psychologically believable, living inreality." He wanted the story lines to have a plot that made sense. ...He told me to weed out what he called put-down humor, which he felt wastoo prevalent, particularly on a lot of black shows where you make funof people.

I was allowed to comment on anything, from theclothes to some of the people they were casting, to making sure therewas a wide range of colors on the show in terms of complexion, what'son the reading table, what cultural activities the kids are going to,what colleges they're applying to. ...

   CNN: You co-authored a book with Bill Cosby. What's the message of that book?

Poussaint:It's called, "Come on People: On the Road from Victims to Victors." Themessage is, don't be helpless and hopeless and see yourself as a victimand wallow in failing and think that's your lot in life. What you haveto do is take the high road and you have to work hard to try to achieveagainst the odds. ...

Most of the black people are where theyare today because we succeeded against the odds, we didn't allow theracism out there to totally squelch us. And we feel that spirit isbeing lost, particularly in low-income communities and sometimes amongmiddle-income people too. And we felt they had to adopt more of anattitude of being victors.

And victors are active, they try todo their best, they take education very seriously. And Obama's a goodexample -- if he took a victim's attitude and said, "Well, a black mancould never get elected president of the United States," which a lot ofus felt like, he wouldn't have run for the presidency. So he adoptedwhat we call a victor's attitude -- "I'm going to go for it, it may bea longshot, but it's possible."

CNN: What do you compare the Obama victory to in terms of significance?

   Poussaint: The civil rightsmovement's success in getting the civil rights bill of '64 and theVoting Rights Act of '65, that opened things mightily for the blackcommunities all over the country. Obviously getting those bills andthose accomplishments -- forget about The Cosby Show -- the votingrights bill played a significant role in Obama's victory.

CNN: Does Obama's victory as a historical moment equal those?

   Poussaint: It equals those but it has a more powerful visual symbolism. It's like people are going from [Martin Luther] King,who was moving us toward the mountaintop ... to Obama, people saying[we're] getting to the mountaintop and now being able to gaze down. Soit's the fruition of a movement beginning in slavery. ... We were inslavery for 250 years, and then Jim Crow segregation for another 100,and we've been struggling for freedom. Obama represents us winning ourfreedom -- like "free at last, free at last, free at last."

But it's not really true. We still have racial discrimination in thecountry, we're still going to have racial injustice that we have towork on and eradicate. But he's a great symbol that we're going to getthere. We're going to get there.

Entry #157


TenajComment by Tenaj - November 13, 2008, 2:00 pm
For those who are interested in black images (portrayed) there is a documentary I recommend called "Ethnic Notions" It is a must see or read the script by Marlon Briggs and narrated by Esther Rolle.

It was customary for black children to be depicted on post cards with eyes stretched in fear for some kind of danger. Falling out of a tree or being eaten by an crocodile or biten by a snake etc. They were called Crocodile bait and Seasside coons series.

This documentary not only explain and show images of the"Loyal Toms, carefree Sambos, faithful Mammies, grinning Coons, savage Brutes, and wide-eyed Pickaninnies roll across the screen in cartoons, feature films, popular songs, minstrel shows, advertisements, folklore, household artifacts, even children's rhymes. These dehumanizing caricatures permeated popular culture from the 1820s to the Civil Rights period and implanted themselves deep in the American psyche."

It's interesting that those people were comfortable with that. We screened this documentary it at the Museum along with "Black is Black ain't" and had a discussion afterward with people of all races. No scared, ignorant bigots but intelligent people.


That is just the beginning - realizing how blacks were portrayed in this matter and why and lending insight into when Poussaint stated:

"So I think that's going to be very powerful in its visual imagery ...and they're going to see these images constantly on television,probably offsetting a lot of the negative imagery that they may see in shows and videos and sometimes in stereotypic comedy"
justxploringComment by justxploring - November 13, 2008, 3:24 pm
It's true. There have been times when I started to talk to a Black person and expected a certain "accent" and was ashamed of my stereotyping. It's years and years of conditioning. However, when people meet a woman and she says she works in a hospital the question is usually "Oh, are you a receptionist? or "Are you a nurse?" Sure those are honorable jobs, but why don't they ask "Are you a doctor?" I only brought this up because I was with a female doctor a few weeks ago and that happened. Does that mean those people are sexists?

You mention Sambo. Not long go I was explaining to a Black friend from another country what the whole"Sambo" controversy was when there was a stupid rumor about Palin (which I don't believe) accusing her of calling Obama "Sambo." When I grew up the book "Little Black Sambo" was popular and I never thought of it as racist. It became so controversial it soon became banned in schools and was removed from stores & libraries. I think it was probably the drawings of the young boy that were offensive, but it's hard to remember. I guess there will always be some people who believe it was a story about the magic of childhood and others who feel it depicted a Black child negatively. The same goes for the character of Buckwheat on "Our Gang" All of the children were silly and goofballs, but some people feel he was portrayed as a caricature or a racial stereotype. I never heard the "N" word in my home growing up and my neighbors (White family) were members of the NAACP and even made me a junior member. I've mentioned them in earlier blogs. Back then they had "colored" exchange students staying at their house, but that was never considered to be a racial slur as it is now.

Sure I'm very happy the negative images that were common years ago have been questioned and brought to light, and I surely want to live in a world where people get along and respect one another, but I hope we don't get so carried away that people will be afraid to communicate openly out of fear of offending another person or being politically incorrect.
TenajComment by Tenaj - November 13, 2008, 7:25 pm
People say things, call names and play the politically correct card. People know how they should treat other people. We were suppose to learn that as a child. We know what the rules are - we just want to break them at our convenience.

I don't bite into the politically incorrect card.

One poster used the word "Nappy" in the title of a political blog post. When I first say it I went "huh" I thought, well he a pretty well educated guy and maybe I'll be introduced to the other meaning of the word since it's used mostly in a derogatory way. He wasn't talking about carpet.

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