Why we need to get over Clair Huxtable


Brittney Cooper has a provocative piece up over at the Crunk Feminist Collective about (symbolically) slaying the patriarch and matriarch of The Cosby Show clan, Cliff and Clair Huxtable, in light of resurfaced concerns over real life patriarch Bill Cosby’s rape accusations. There’s a lot there to make you reconsider just how warm and fuzzy and lovable the character of Cliff Huxtable was. But here I want to talk about Clair.

I was born into a world where the Huxtables were near-universally beloved and held as the gold standard of black romantic possibilities. Each was an ideal partner in the context of a heteronormative relationship. But Clair even more so.

Because Clair was this personification of black womanhood that we didn’t get to experience in pop culture. Not only did she have an ideal career and an ideal husband (who also held an ideal career), she managed to be a loving and attentive mother who could still be regarded as beautiful and/or sexy. She was bilingual Strong Black Woman with a law degree, lady in the streets/freak in the bed, world class mother, etc. etc. Everything a black man could ever want.

And there has been my problem. I’ve known a great number of black men who idealize Clair Huxtable, and real life iterations of women who fall into her generation or before. They’re glad that her whole working outside the home thing never interfered with her performing her wifely or motherly “duties,” because you know, women can work but they’ve still got to be women. Clair Huxtable gets tossed around as a means of shaming black women who don’t live up to this standard.

Which brings me back to Cooper’s piece. Her slaying of Clair comes in the context of embracing a new generation of black women television stars, namely those in Shondaland. She writes:

How meta does Shonda Rhimes have to get for us to see that she’s peeling back layers, forcing us to look in the mirror, offering Black women opportunities every week to deal with our own racial and sexual traumas at the hands of white patriarchs and white patriarchy? Black men have traditionally dealt with that trauma by aspiring to the level of power white men have. Black women have experienced so much of the trauma of white patriarchy in intimate space –though not only there–and it’s time we had an opportunity to work out that trauma in (representational) intimate space. For once it’s about us and our pain, and what “the man” has done to us, specifically.

The lives of the black women in Shondaland are a bit more complicated, one may say messy, than that of Clair Huxtable. They have affairs and sleep with white men and don’t have children and are not at all like your grandmother. At least, the version of your grandmother that you met as your grandmother.

And this is what bothers me most about the idealization of black women from previous generations, which is mostly just a way to shame younger women for their ambition and sexual freedom. One, your granny was probably getting it in. I know most people don’t want to consider that, for any number of reasons, but our failure to do so is not about our grandmother’s “pristine” character but our romanticization of purity. Yes, the women that raised us, bathed us, fed us, disciplined us, and imparted their wisdom to us also liked to drink, smoke, and fuck. Deal with it.

That’s the other part of the romanticization. We want to believe that they did the cooking and cleaning and raising of children because their hearts were just so filled with love and they would never abdicate their womanly responsibilities. How often do we stop to consider that perhaps they never wanted children? How often do we stop and consider that perhaps they exhibited talents in childhood that weren’t encouraged because they were woman? How often do we stop and consider the limitations imposed upon them do lack of access to reproductive health care? How often do we stop and consider the women stuck in hetero relationships and unable to express their sexual love of women for fear of an ostracizing community or even death? How often do we stop to consider the women who stayed in abusive relationships because there was nothing else for them?

Nine times out of ten, we don’t. We laud these women for their strength, but never consider what it takes to embody such strength. We don’t consider the interior lives of these women. It’s acutely felt when discussing black women, because they have been the pillars of our communities, the only thing that has kept us going.

But they weren’t all Clair Huxtable. And they never needed to be. They were and are fully human, and everything that comes with that. So if slaying this pivotal pop culture figure can be a means of helping us explore the inner lives of black women, then slay we must.

MychalMychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for Feministing.com and Salon. As a freelance writer, social commentator, and mental health advocate his work has been seen online in outlets such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, Salon, Al Jazeera English, Gawker, The Guardian, Ebony.com, Huffington Post, The Root, and The Grio.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for Feministing.com and Salon.

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