Please read the two readings and write two poems related to each of them. After the poem, you will write how the poem is related to the reading for each of them. So 1 page for 1 poem+ explanation. I uploaded one reading as attached file and the other
reading is online at https://seriouspony.com/trouble-at-the-koolaid-point
Television, Black Americans,
and the American Dream
W:am E Buckley Jr. has observed, “It is simply not correct …
at race prejudice is increasing in America. How does one
ow this? Simple, by the ratings of Bill Cosby’s television
show and the sales of his books. A nation simply does not idolize
members of a race which that nation despises” (Demeter, 1986, p. 67).
Buckley seems to suggest that if racial prejudice exists at all in the
United States, it does not figure significantly in the nature of American
society, nor does this explain very much about social inequality based
on race and characterized by racial discrimination, racial violence, and
economic dislocation-and perhaps most interesting about Buckley’s
observation is his reliance on Bill Cosby’s successful media presence as
a barometer of American racial equality.
An open class structure, racial tolerance, economic mobility, the
sanctity of individualism, and the availability of the American dream
for black Americans are represented in a wide range of media. Representations
of such success are available in the The Cosby Show, the box
office power of Eddie Murphy, the international popularity of Michael
SOURCE: This chapter originally appeared in C1itical Studies in Mass Commu11icatio11, 6,
376-386; used and slightly modified by permission.
132 ISSUES IN TELEVISION/CABLE
Jackson, and the visibility of Oprah Winfrey. Equally important to the
contemporary ideology of American racial openness, however, are
representations of deprivation and poverty such as those shown on
network newscasts and documentaries. In media reports of urban
crime, prisons overcrowded with black men, increased violence associated
with drugs, and the growing ranks of the homeless are drawn the
lines of success and failure.
As Buckley’s observations demonstrate, the meanings of these representations
are not given; rather, viewers define and use the representations
differently and for different reasons. One message of these
representations of success and failure is that middle,class blacks ( and
whites) succeed because they take advantage of available opportunities
while poor blacks and other marginal members of our sociery fail
because they do not (Glasgow, 1981; Lewis, 1984). These representations
operate not just in terms of their relationship to the empirical
realities of black life in America but also in rel�tionship to other popular
media constructions about black life. My interest here is in the relationship
between representations of black life in fictional and nonfictional
television and the ideological meanings of these representations when
television is viewed as a complete ideological field (Fiske, 1987a). In
the following section, I theoretically situate the problem. I then turn
to a discussion of black failure as represented in the CBS News
documentary The Winishing Family: Crisis in Black America and the
representation of upper-middle-class black affluence in the The Cosby
To describe how television representations about race communicate
and to examine their ideological meanings, I draw on Gramsci’s notion
of ideological hegemony (Gramsci, 1971; Hall, 1982). Media representations
of black life ( especially middle-class success and underclass
failure) are routinely fractured, selectively assembled, and subsequently
become a part of the storehouse of American racial memory. The social
and racial meanings that result from these processes appear in the media
as natural and given rather than as social and constructed. In Ideology
and the Image (1981), Bill Nichols stated that “ideology uses the
Black Amcric:ms·and the American Dream 133
fabrication of images and processes of representation to persuade us
that how things are is hQw they ought to be and that the place provided
for us is the place we ought to have” (p. 1). I use hegemony to specify
the material and symbolic processes by which these racial representations
and understandings are produced and naturalized (Fiske, 1987a; Hall,
Media representations of black success and failure and the processes
that produce them are ideological to the extent that the assumptions
that organize the media discourses shift our understanding of racial
inequality away from structured social processes to matters of individual
choices. Such ideological representations appear natural and universal
rather than as the result of social and political struggles over
The process of medi:i selection and appropriation, however, is only
one part of the play of hegemony. Mass media and popular culture are,
according to Stuart Hall (1980), sites where struggles over meaning
and the power to represent it are waged. Thus, even as the media and
popular cultural forms present representations of race and racial
( in )equality, the power of these meanings to register with the expression
(common sense) of different segments of the population remains
problematic. Meanings constantly shift and are available for negotiations.
It is in this process of negotiations that different, alternative, even
oppositional readings are possible (Fiske, 1987a; Hall, 1980). Because
of this constantly shifting terrain of meaning and struggle, the representations
of race and racial interaction in fictional and nonfictional
television reveal both the elements of the dominant racial ideology as
well as the limits to that ideology.
Within this broad struggle over meaning, Fredric Jameson (1979)
shows how popular cultural forms such as film and television work
symbolically to establish preferred, even dominant ideological meanings.
In popular culture, ideology is secured through the psychological
appeal to utopian values and aspirations and a simultaneous repression
and displacement of critical sensibilities that identify the social and
economic organization of American society as the source of inequality.
In television representations of blacks, the historical realities of slavery,
discrimination, and racism or persistent struggles against domination
are displaced and translated into celebrations of black middle-class
visibility and achievement. In this context, successful and highly visible
134 ISSUES IN TELEVISION/CABLE
stars such as Bill Cosby and Michael Jackson confirm the openness and
pluralism of American society.
The commercial culture industry presents idealized representations
of racial justice, social equalit)� and economic success. Idealized middleclass
black Americans increasingly populate fictional television. They
confirm a middle-class utopian imagination of racial pluralism (Gray,
1986). These idealized representations remain before us, driven, in the
case of television, by the constant search for sta.ble audiences and the
centrality of advertising revenue as the basis for profits (Cantor, 1980;
As Jameson further notes, however, utopian possibilities are secured
against the backdrop of reified nonfictional ( and fictional) representations.
In the case of racial representations, the black underclass appears as menace
and a source of social disorganization in news accounts of black urban
crime, gang violence, drug use, teenage pregnancy, riots,’ homelessness,
and general aimlessness. In news accounts ( and in Holl ood films such
as Coum), poor blacks (and Hispanics) signify a social menace
be contained. Poor urban blacks help to mark the boundaries of appropriate
middle-class behavior as well as the acceptable routes to success. As a
unity, these representations of black middle-class success and underclass
failure are ideological because they are mutually reinforcing and their
fractured and selective status allows them to be continuously renewed and
secured. Furthermore, the meanings operate within a frame that privileges
representations of middle-class racial pluralism while marginalizing those
of racial inequalit)i This constant quest for legitimacy and the need to quell
and displace fears at the same time as calling them forth are part of the
complex ideological work that takes place in television representations of
The representations of black American success and failure in both
fictional and nonfictional television, and the assumptions that organize
them, are socially constructed according to commercial, professional,
and aesthetic conventions that guide producers and consumers of
television (Gray, 1986). These conventions guide personnel in the
selection and presentation of images to ensure that they are aesthetically
appealing, cuiturally meaningful, politically legitimate, and economically
Although fictional and nonfictional representations of blacks emanate
from separate generic quarters of television, they activate meanings
Black Americans and the American Dream 135
for viewers across these boundaries. That is, the representations make
sense in terms of their intertextuality between and within programs
(Fiske, 1987a; Fiske & Hartley, 1978; Williams, 1974). Television
representations of black life in the late 1980s cannot be read in isolation
but should be read in terms of their relationship to other television texts.
The meaning that these· representations express and activate are also
significant in terms of the broad social and historical context in which
they operate. Fictional and nonfictional representations of black life
appear at a time when political and intellectual debate continues over
the role of the state in helping the black urban poor and whetl1er or not
affirmative action ought to remain an active component of public
policy. Within the black political and activist community, sharp differences
remain over the role of the black middle class and the efficacy of
black-generated self-help programs to battle problems facing black
communities. Increased racial violence and antagonisms (including
those on college campuses), economic dislocation, a changing industrial
base, ethnic and racial shifts in the demographic composition of
the population, and the reelection of a conservative national administration
help set the social context within which television representations
of black life take on meaning.
Myriad community, institutional, social, political, and economic
forces shape the broad public discourse on the conditions of blacks in
contemporary American society. In the absence of effective s�ial
movements such as those for civil rights, students, women, and agamst
the war, which, at the very least, helped ground and mediate media
representations, these representations take on greater authority and find
easier access to our common sense (Winston, 1983, p. 178). Under
these conditions, tl1e ideological potency of media representations
remains quite strong.
Media representations of black success and failure occur within a
kind of gerrymandered framework. Through production conventions,
political sensibilities, commercial pressures, and requirem�
nts for social
organization and efficiency, television news and enterta1�ent selectively
construct the boundaries within which representanons abo
black life occur. The primacy of individual effort over collemve possibilities,
the centrality of individual values, morality, and initiative, and
a benign (if not invisible) social structure are the key social terms that
define television discourses about black success and failure.
136 ISSUES IN TELEVISlON/CABLE
REIFICATION AND THE UNDERCLASS
To explore the reification side of the Jameson formulation, I begin
with a discussion of the CBS News report aoout the black urban
underclass. The social report that aired in January 1985 is titled The
Uinisbing Family: Crisis in Black America. C_BS senior correspondent Bill
Moyers hosted the 90-minute documentary, which was filmed in Newark,
·New Jersey. Through interviews and narration by Moyers, the
report examines the lives of unwed mothers and fathers, detailing their
education, employment, welfare history ( especially across generations),
hopes, frustrations, and disappointments.
The appearance of the terms vanishing family and crisis in the tide of
the program implicitly suggests the normalcy of everyday life when
defined by stable nuclear families (Feuer, 1986; Fiske, 1987a). Missing
is recognition that families and communities throughout the country
are in the midst of significant transformation. Instead, the program title
suggests an abnormal condition that must be recognized and addressed.
In the report’s opening segment, visual representations also help
frame the ideological terms of the report. Medium and long camera
shots are used to establish perspective on the daily life in the community.
Mothers are shown shopping for food and caring for children; groups
of boys and young men appear standing on street corners, playing
basketball, listening to music, and working out at the gym. Welfare
lines, couples arguing, the police, housing projects, and the streets are
also common images.
These shots tie the specific issues addressed in the story into a
broader discourse about race in America. Shots of black men and youth
standing on corners or blacks arrested for crimes are conventionally
used in newscasts to signify abnormalities and social problems. These
images operate at multiple levels, so even though they explicitly work
to frame the documentary, they also draw on and evoke images of crime,
drugs, riots, menace, and social problems. People and communities
who appear in these representations are labeled as problematic and
The documentary’s four segments are organized around three major
themes, with each segment profiling unmarried couples. By the end of
the four segments, the dominant message of the report is evident;
self-help, individual responsibility, and community accountability are
Black Americans and the American Dream 137
required to survive the crisis. This conclusion is anticipated early in the
report with a promotional tease from a black social worker. In a
30-second sound bite, the social worker notes that the problem in the
black community is not racism or unemployment but the corruption
of values, the absence of moral authority, and the lack of individual
motivation. This dominant message is also reinforced in the introduction
to the report by correspo:11dent Moyers:
A lot of white families are in trouble too. Single parent families are twice
as common in America today as they were 20 years ago. But for the
majority of white children, family still means a mother and a father. This
is not true for most black children. For them things arc getting worse.
Today black teenagers have the highest pregnancy rate in the industrialized
world and in the black inner city, practically no teenage mother gets
married. That’s no racist comment. What’s happening goes far beyond
Because blacks dominate the visual representations that evoke images
of crime, drugs, and social problems, little in the internal logic and
organization of the documentary supports this contention. Even when
voice-over data are used to address these issues among whites, it
competes with rather than complements the dominance of the visual
representations. Moyers’s comment is also muted because the issues are
examined primarily at the dramatic and personal level.
For example, the first segment considers the experience of urban
single-parent families from the viewpoint of women. The opening piece
profiles Clarinda and Darren, both young and poorly prepared emotionally
or financially to care for an infant. Clarinda supports the baby with welfare
and is also the baby’s primary source of emotional nurturance. Darren
occasionally sees his baby but takes little economic or emotional responsibility
for her. On camera, he appears distant and frustrated.
The second segment focuses on Alice, 23, and Timothy, 26. They
are older but financially no more prepared to raise a family than
Clarinda and Darren. Unlike Darren, Timothy is emotionally available
to Alice. (On camera, they confess their love for each other, and
Timothy is present at a birthday party for one child and the delivery of
another.) In the interview, Alice freely shows her frustration with
Timothy, especially his lack of work and unwillingness to take responsibility
for his family.
138 ISSUES IN TELEVISION/CABLE
Timothy, on the other hand, lives in a world of male sexual myths
and a code that celebrates male sexual conquest and virility (Glasgow,
1981). Although he confesses love for Alice and his kids, he avoids
economic and parental responsibility for them, especially when his own
pleasures and sexual conquests are considered.
The mothers in these segments are caring, responsible, and conscientious;
they raise the children and provide for them. They are the
social, economic, and emotional centers of their children’s lives. As
suggested in the interviews and visual footage,·the fathers are absent,
immature, selfish, irresponsible, and exploitative. Where women are
shown at home with the children, the men are shown on street corners
with other men. Where women talk of their children’s futures, men
speak in individual terms about their current frustration and unrealistic
The dramatic and personal tone of these representations makes them
compelling and helps draw in the viewer. These strategies of organization
and presentation also help personalize the story and, to a limited
extent, give the people texture and dimensions. Nevertheless, these
representations are also mediated by a broader set of racial and class
codes that continue to construct the people in the documentary as
deviant and criminal, hence marginal. The members of the community
are contained by these broader codes. They remain curious but distant
The third segment features Bernard, a 15-year-old single male who
still lives at home with Brenda, his 30-year-old single mother of three.
This segment tells the story of life in this community from the young
male point of view. The male voice takes on resonance and, in contrast
to Darren and Timoth); we learn that the men in this community have
feelings and hopes too. The segment shows Bernard’s struggle to avoid
the obstacles (drugs, educational failure, unemployment, homicide,
jail) to his future. From Brenda’s boyfriend (and roll model for Bernard),
we learn about the generational persistence of these obstacles to
young male futures.
In each of.these segments, the dramatic dominates the analytic, the
personal dominates the public, and the individual dominates the social.
Individual mobility, character, and responsibility provide powerful
explanations for the failures presented in the story. Indeed, by the final
segment of the report, the theme of moral irresponsibility and individBlack
Americans and the American Dream 139
ual behavior .as explanations for the crisis of the underclass is fully
developed. M?yers introduces the segment this way:
There arc successful strong black families in America. Families that affirm
parental authority and the values of discipline, work, and achievement.
But you won’t find many who live around here. Still, not every girl in
the inner city ends up a teenage mother, not every young man goes into
crime. There are people who have stayed here. They’re outnumbered by
the con artists and pushers. It’s not an even match, but they stand for
morality and authority and give some of these kids a dose of unsentimental
As a major “actor” in the structure of this report, Moyers is central
to the way that the preferred meanings of the report are conveyed. As
an economically and professionally successful white male, Moyers’s
political and moral authority establishes the framework for identifying
the conditions as trouble, for articulating the interest of the dominant
society, and for demonstrating that in the continued openness of the
social order there is hope. Through Moyers’s position as a journalist,
this report confirms the American dream even as it identifies casualties
of the dream.
Moyers’s authority in this story stems also from his position as an
adult. During his interviews and stand-ups, Moyers represents adult
common sense, disbelief, and concern. This adult authority remains
throughout the report and is reinforced ( and activated) later in the story
when we hear from caring ( and successful) black adults of the community
who claim that the problems facing the community stem from poor
motivation, unclear and unsound values, and the lack of personal
discipline. Like Moyers, these adults-two social workers, a psychologist,
and a police officer-do not identify complex social forces like
racism, social organization, the changing economy, or the welfare state
as the causes of the crisis in their community. They blame members of
the black community for the erosion of values, morality, and authority.
This is how Mrs. Wallace, the social worker, puts it:
We are destroying ourselves. Now it [the crisis] might have been
motivated and plotted and seeded with racism, but we are content to be
in this well now. We’re just content to be in this mud and we need to get
out of it. There are not any great white people running around this block
tearing up stuff. It’s us. We’ve got to stop doing that.
140 ISSUES IN TELEVISION/CABLE
When combined with the personal tone of the documentary and
Moyers’s professional (and adult) authority, this comment, coming as
it does from an �dult member of the community, legitimates the
empp.asis on personal attributes and a benign social structure.
At the ideological level of what Stuart Hall (1980) calls preferred
readings, each segment of the documentary emphasizes in?ividual personalities,
aspirations, and struggles for improvemen.
t. These assumptions and
analytic strategies are consistently privileged over social explanations,
and they provide a compelling vantage point from which to read the
documentary. This displacement of the social by the personal and the
complex by the dramatic both draws viewers into the report and takes
them away from explanations that criticize the ·social system. Viewers
question individual coping mechanisms rather than the structural and
political circumstances that create and sustain racial inequalities.
I consider the utopian side of the Jameson formulation by exploring
the theme that media representations of black success and failure are
ideological, precisely to the extent that they provide a way of seeing
underclass failure through representations of middle-class success. Implicitly
operating in this way of viewing the underclass ( and the middle
class) is the assumption that because America is an open racial and class
order, then people who succeed (and fail) do so because of their
individual abilities rather than their position in the social structure
In contrast to the blacks in the CBS documentary, successful blacks
who populate prime time television are charming, unique, and attractive
individuals who, we assume, reached their stations in life through
hard work, skill, talent, discipline, and determination. Their very
presence in formats from talk show (Bryant Gumbel, Arsenio Ha�,
Oprah Winfrey) to situation comedy (Bill Cosby) confirms the Amencan
value of individual success and mobiliq,
In the genr� of situation comed programs such as The Cosby Show,
227 Frank’s Place, and Amen all
show successful middle-class black �ericans who effectively negotiated their way through benign social
institutions and environments ( Gray, 1986). Their family-centered lives
Black Amcric:ins :ind the American Dream 141
take place in attractive homes and offices. Rarely if ever do these
characters venture into settings or interact with people like those in the
CBS documentary. �s doctors, lawyers, restaurateurs, ministers, contractors,
and housewives; these are representations of black Americans
who have surely realized the American dream. They are pleasant and
competent social actors whose racial and cultural experiences are, for
the most part, insignificant. Although black, their class position (signified
by their occupations, tastes, language, and setting) distances
them from the codes of crime, drugs, and social problems activated by
the urban underclass. With the exception of the short-lived Frank’s
Place, the characters are never presented in situations where their racial
identity matters. This representation of racial encounters further appeals
to the utopian desire in blacks and whites for racial oneness and
equality while displacing the persistent reality of racism and racial
inequality or the kinds of social struggles and cooperation required to
eliminate them. At the level of the show’s dominant meanings, this
strategy accounts in part for the success of The Cosby Show among blacks
In virtually any episode of The Cosby Show, the Huxtable childrenSandra,
Denise, Vanessa, Theo, and Rudi-are given appropriate lessons
in what appear to be universal values such as individual responsibility,
parental trust, honesty, the value of money, the importance of
family and tradition, peer group pressure, the value of education, the
need for independence, and other important guides to successful living
in America. In contrast to the experience of the young men in the CBS
documentary, Cosby’s Theo learns and accepts lessons of responsibility,
maintaining a household, the dangers of drugs, the value of mone and
respect for women through the guidance of supportive parents.
Theo’s relationship to his family, especially his father Cliff, the lessons
of fatherhood and manhood are made explicit. Theo and his male peers
talk about their aspirations and fears. They even exchange exaggerated
tales of adolescent male conquest. Because similar discussions among
the young men in the documentary are embedded within a larger set
of codes about the urban black male menace, this kind of talk from
Timothy, Darren, and Bernard signals their incompetence and irresponsibility
at male roles. In the middle-class setting of The Cosby Sh for
Theo and his peers, this same talk represents the ritual of adolescent
male maturation. Together, these very opposite representations suggest
142 ISSUES IN TELEVISION/CABLE
a contemporary version of the culture of poverty thesis that attributes
black male incompetence and irresponsibility to the absence of male
role models, weak personal values, and a deficient cultural environment.
The strategy of imparting explicit lessons of responsibility to Theo
(and to young black male viewers) is deliberate on the part of Cosby.
This is not surprising given that the show enjoyed its greatest commercial
success in the midst of increasing gang violence and epidemic teen
pregnancy in urban black communities. The show’s strategy illustrates
its attempt to speak to a number of different audiences at a number of
different levels (Fiske, 1987a; Hall, 1980).
Shows about middle-class black Americans revolve around specific
characters, settings, and situations (Gitlin, 1983; Gray, 1986). The personal
dimension of social life is privileged over, an1 in many cases displaces,
broader social and structural factors. In singling out The Cosby Show, my
aim is not to diminish the unique qualities, hard work, and sacrifices that
these personal representations stress. Nevertheless, I do want to insist that
the assumptions and framework that structure these representations often
displace representations that would enable viewers to see that many
individuals trapped in the underclass have the very same qualities but lack
the options and opportunities to realize them. And in the world of
television news and entertainment, where production conventions, rating
wars, and cautious political sensibilities guide the aesthetic and journalistic
decisions of networks, the hegemony of the personal and personable rules.
Whether it is Bill Cosby, Phylicia Rashad, Darren, Alice, or Bill Moyers,
the representation is of either deficient or gifted individuals.
Against fictional television representations of gifted and successful individuals,
members of the urban underclass are deficient. They are unemployed,
unskilled, menacing, unmotivated, ruthless, and irresponsible. They
live differently and operate with different attitudes and moral codes than
everyone else; they are set apart. Again, at television’s preferred level of
meaning, these assumptions-like the images they organize and legitimateoccupy
our commonsense understandings of An1erican racial inequality.
The assumptions that organize our understandings of black middleclass
success and underclass failure are expressed and reinforced in the
Place and Amen (Feuer, 1987; Taylor, 1987). The idealized repre
sentations of family presented in these shows maintain the hope an
possibility of a stable and rewarding family life. At the same time, thi
idealization displaces (but docs not eliminate) possibilities for critica
examination of the social roots of crisis in the American family (Jameson
144 ISSUES IN TELEVI SION/CABLE
Family stresses such as alienation, estrangement, violence, divorce,
and latchkey kids are typically ignored. When addressed in the television
representations of black middle-class families, they are represented as
the subject of periodic and temporary disagreements rather than as
expressions of the social stresses and disruptive impulses that originate
in the social organization of society and the conflicting ideologies that
shape our understanding of the family as a social institution.
At the negotiated level of meaning (Hall, 1980), The Cosby Show
effectively incorporates many progressive moments and impulses from
recent social movements. The show presents Claire’s independence,
autonomy, and authority in the family without resorting to exaggeration
and trivialization (Downing, 1988). Again, this utopian impulse
is one of the reasons for the show’s popular appeal. And yet it is also
one of the ways the explicit critical possibilities of the show are
contained and subverted. Claire’s independence and autonomy are
expressions of her own individual character; they are confined to the
fall)ily and put in the service of running a smoother household. This
claim on the family and the affirmation of female independence are
especially appealing when seen against the crisis of the family dissolution,
female-headed households, and teenage pregnancy presented in
the CBS documentary. Ironicall)� this celebration of Claire’s independence
and agency within the family has its counterpart in the CBS
documentaf)i In each case, black women are assertive and responsible
within the contexts of their various households. Thus, even within the
constraints of underclass poverty, this moment can be read as an appeal
to the utopian ideal of strong and liberated black women.
Ideologically, representations of underclass failure still appeal and
contribute to the notion of the black poor as menacing and threatening,
especially to members of the white middle class. Such a menace must,
of course, be contained, and through weekly visits to black middle-class
homes and experiences, whites ( and middle-class backs) are reasonably
assured that the middle-class blacks with whom they interact are safe
(Miller, 1986). Whites can take comfort in the fact that they have more
in common ‘Yith the Huxtables than with those representations of the
family in crisis-Timothy, Clarinda, Darren, and Alice.
The twin representations of fictional and nonfictional television have
become part of the public discourse about American race relations.
Although, no doubt, both the fictional and the nonfictional repreBlack
Americans and the American Dream 145
sentations of blacks are real, like all ideology, the realities a�e selected,
partial, and incomplete. Where the television lens is trained, how wide,
which angle, how long, and with whose voice-these shape much of
what we see and how we understand it. As these fictional and nonfictional
television representations indicate, television helps shape our
understandings about racial (in)equality in America.
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Please read the two readings and write two poems related to each of them. After the poem, you will write how the poem is related to the reading for each of them. So 1 page for 1 poem+ explanation. I uploaded one reading as attached file and the other