Part of the reason why some people can’t navigate their hero worship of Bill Cosby amidst constantly unfolding post-rape-revelations is that not only do they not want to knock down a black idol, but one of the most endearing portrayals of a father on television. Like, ever. Watching an old good episode of The Cosby Show now is downright gut-wrenching. I don’t want to give up all my cool Cliff Huxtable moments either. It’s hard to move on, but do you really want to go down on the wrong side of history over a TV show? Especially when there are so many other options?
In an attempt to help people along who just can’t let go of Cosby because of Cliff, I offer here four other black TV dads to replace the one you’ve lost. These are engaging, human characters and, as it turns out, pretty decent human beings in real life. If you simply must labor under a hero worship model, you could do a lot worse than these dads. Here’s hoping they don’t prove me wrong in ten years.
James Evans, Sr. is the prototype of keeping-it-real black TV fatherhood, the father that all other black TV fathers spring from. There may have been other black TV dads before him, but every black TV dad after him bows down to his earnest, hard-working, tough-talking (and acting) nature. He loved his family fiercely, and even though he was a hard and flawed man, he provided in ways that most family units with ten times his resources would envy. It is a characterization that resonates decades later. Actor John Amos portrays this kind of character a lot, in part because he maintains an intelligence-driven, culturally aware moral standard in his off-camera life. When Good Times began catering to the shuck-and-jive of the character of JJ, Amos stepped up and made it known that he wasn’t there to do a minstrel show. Shortly after, he was let go from the show, becoming the first black TV dad to perform a Chappelle Show Step Off. Amos has the distinction of actually hitting this ball out the park twice: he also starred on the short-lived 704 Hauser Street, which was generally pro-black as hell but had a particularly poignant moment between the father and son character over an incident of racial discrimination in the third episode.
Julius is cut from the James Evans cloth: hard-working, blue collar, tough-chinned family man who runs his home with a bit of an iron fist (second to his wife, who runs everybody). Casting Crews as the eternally frugal and oft put-upon Julius was a bit of a master stroke: Crews was already recognizable as one of Hollywood’s toughest and physically large actors, and the show manipulates the typical baggage that comes with that image by never making him genuinely threatening. There is the implication of threat, but when a child receives actual punishment he’s almost never the one to give it. While never crossing the line to actual teddy bear dad status, he does become the parent the kids are often consoled and schooled by. In real life, Terry Crews is a pretty upstanding guy, a die-hard family man who leans away from the Hollywood machine. As the father of five children and one marriage, he’s pretty atypical celebrity fare. His book, Manhood, spends much of its time bravely exposing his many emotional vulnerabilities and his efforts to build an enviable, beautiful life out of some of the hardest knocks a person can have.
Uncle Phil was a successful father who still felt it important to instill a strong sense of self and work ethic in his children and adopted nephew, Will Smith. Looking at his three kids, I’d say he was about 2 out of 3 on that count, but with the addition of Will to his family he got a chance to really flex his black muscles, and flex them he did. He mostly rode the kids hard, but when they needed defending and educating on how the world worked, Uncle Phil came hard. And remember when Will broke down about his father leaving him? What did Uncle Phil do? Break our hearts. In real life, James Avery wrote poetry, gave time to numerous charitable causes (education and animal rights most notably, and traveled with the USO to various countries in support of American troops.
We really should have one from a show that’s actually still on TV, yes? I gave this show a lot of grief when it came out, and after the pilot I wasn’t sold. A few episodes in and they fixed most of their ham-fisted problems and the show started to turn around. As a father, Andre Johnson is a work in progress. He has lost some of his habitual man-child tendencies, become a more knowledgeable and sensitive father figure, and generally works as an interesting road map for fathers who struggle with not only family issues, but modern day black issues. Off camera, Anderson is a devoted family man who founded the Anthony and Alvina Anderson Charitable Support Foundation to help out a variety of causes, from diabetes awareness to domestic abuse.
It’s time to upgrade your TV dad game, people. Enjoy.