A New Era of Black Entertainment

Amber Payne
Chessington Marshall
Morgan Grain
Genae Smith
Brandon Bridges

Changing the Face of Blacks in America

For several decades, African Americans have been coping with stereotypical portrayals of them through various media. Images like the mammy, the sambo, the brute, and the zip coon dominated communication mediums across the nation. African Americans had very little contribution and say in how they were portrayed. Initially, the emergence of television sitcoms was no different; blacks were type-casted into portraying specific stereotypes in the early ‘50s through the ‘70s. However, an aspect of television changed in the ‘80s when a man named Bill Cosby took control over the images expressed in his shows. By highlighting the reality of several black communities, The Cosby Show and a Different World changed the face of blacks in America.

"The Cosby Show" opening credits.


"A Different World" opening credits.


Gangsters, Thugs and Drugs

Before the emergence of positive images of African-American on television, most Americans saw through sitcoms and news stations a poverty stricken, ignorant and drug induced black family. During the ‘80s, the crack cocaine epidemic was accompanied with an increase in violence in several black communities. In the 1980’s nineteen year old Ricky Ross, an infamous drug dealer began his rise to the top of the drug chain. He came up with a method to not only get crack cocaine but sell it for cheap. Ross saturated Los Angeles but also Kansas City, Oklahoma, New Orleans, St. Louis and Seattle. He then stretched his crack and cocaine markets in Atlanta, Miami, New York and Detroit.

The effect that this epidemic had on African American families was enormous. To many underprivileged black men, selling crack cocaine was a means to an end. To many struggling black mothers crack cocaine was a mean that ended their family member’s lives, and also their own. This also created what America called the War on Drugs. Blacks were portrayed as gangsters, thugs, drug dealers, victims of the crack epidemic, and uneducated. There was no balance of media portrayals of African-Americans to the average American

Movin On Up!

African American sitcoms of the 1980s bore a new era of black entertainment. The Cosby Show was the third longest running black sitcom. The show originally aired in 1984 and ran for eight seasons on the NBC television network. Starring Bill Cosby, the show focused on the Huxtable family. Former executives of ABC, Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, suggested making the family affluent and financially sound with the father being a doctor and mother being a lawyer. Thus, the show’s content would focus more on Cosby’s standup comedy on family life rather than jokes about living in poverty

This video is a prime example of how Bill Cosby chose to produce an image of a good father figure in the African-American society.


Success in the “Black Media”


“In order to succeed, your desire for success should be greater than your fear of failure. ”
Bill Cosby

The Cosby show was considered a phenomenon in black history of television. The show was way more than laughs and life lessons; it defied all racial and demographic boundaries. Showing an African American family that was educated and middle class switched the view of blacks in communities and broke stereotypes. The Cosby show aired in 1984 and quickly became a household favorite. Even though the Huxtables were living the “American dream,” that was not the case for all African Americans across the country. When the Cosby show aired, the media and viewers got to see another side of the African American race. The Huxtables challenged these common black stereotypes. Instead of gangsters and thugs, audiences saw a strong father figure, and parents who were professionals.  The social impact of the Cosby show did break some barriers but not all. It distorted white America’s perceptions about African-American progress. 

American Viewers Experience “A Different World”

A Different World attacked issues that weren’t “family- related” and were too risky for the Cosby Show such as race and class relations, police brutality, the equal rights amendment, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The success of the show has been credited to the spike in enrollment at HBCU’s during the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the 1980’s, 8.4% of Blacks were college graduates. In 1983, 1.1 million Blacks (605,000 females and 497,000 males) were enrolled in college, which was double the number in 1970. Yet and still, Blacks only represented 10% of the college population ages 18-34 years in 1983. A Different World enlightened millions of Americans to life on historically black campuses. 

This video shows how the sitcom “A Different World” introduced America to student life at a Historically Black college or University.


Revolutionary Sitcoms

Both shows were revolutionary in influence and expressed the progressive side of the African American community. No longer were black men seen as dead-beat or absent fathers. Cosby portrayed the quintessential American father, which is something most Americans were not used to viewing. Cosby created interest in higher education and encouraged African American youth to be more involved in society by becoming aware of politics and social issues with these sitcoms.