Positive Examples

A Positive Representation of Black Male Intellect in The Cosby Show

The Cosby Show

A good education can take you much farther than dribbling a basketball. (Photo Credit: imdb.com)

The Cosby Show offers one of the most powerful and important representations of Black male intellect in the history of American television.  One of the main characters on the show is Heathcliff “Cliff” Huxtable (Bill Cosby), an obstetrician and son of a leading jazz trombonist.  Cliff is married to Clair Huxtable (Phylicia Rashād), a smart and professional attorney.  Clair and Cliff have five children.  The upper-middle class Huxtable family lives in a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights, New York.  Although The Cosby Show has received some negative critiques for focusing on highly educated and successful Blacks, I find the show to provide a needed alternative to the dominant narrative about Black male intellect: the media and other sources often present Black males as being unintelligent and criminals, but Cliff Huxtable represents respectability and brilliance.  His brilliance isn’t wrapped in the traditional “nerd” image either.  (Nothing’s wrong with the traditional “nerd” image, but it’s refreshing to see a representation of intellectual giftedness that doesn’t simply rely on an overrepresented image of what an educated or intellectual man looks like.)  It’s essential to look at the great representation of Black male intellect Cliff Huxtable offers.

Although some don’t like Cliff Huxtable’s positive representation of Black male intellect to be highlighted, a critical observer of The Cosby Show cannot help but to see it.  Cliff is a Black man who is a medical doctor.  It takes a significant amount of knowledge and intellectual prowess to become a medical doctor.  His education enables him to enjoy the life afforded to an upper-middle class man living in America. He doesn’t, however, display his wealth in an ostentatious manner.  Instead, Cliff elects to invest his money in building a strong family centered on the importance of a quality education and essential moral values.

The cast of The Cosby Show in 1989

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Even though Cliff is known more for his comedic ingenuity, the substantial value he places on education isn’t about fun and games at all.  He has fun with all of his children but they know he doesn’t mind disciplining them about a lack of commitment to their academic studies.  Theodore “Theo” Huxtable (Malcolm-Jamal Warner), Cliff’s only son, experiences the most difficult academic challenges, stemming primarily from his frequent lack of focus and motivation to excel academically.  Theo constantly has his mind fixed on beautiful young girls, which, of course, is typical of a young American boy.  Cliff refuses to allow Theo to sacrifice his education for phenomena less vital than a quality education.

Dr. Huxtable presents an interesting fusion of intellectual, moral and comedic excellence.  When Black men are looking for a positive role model, they can follow the example proffered by Cliff.  Too many people aren’t able to see the value of Cliff’s example for Black men because they’re too concentrated on his economic standing.  Black men who don’t have anywhere close to the amount of money Dr. Huxtable has can still learn the essential values of a quality education and active and positive parental involvement from him. 

Imagine if more Black men were to embrace Cliff’s commitment to education and active and positive parental involvement.  How much better would our young Black males be today and how much stronger would Black families be?

Antonio Maurice Daniels

University of Wisconsin-Madison

The Key to Black Male Academic Success: Mentorship

A significant body of empirical research has demonstrated that Black male students academically underperform all students throughout the educational pipeline (Hawkins, 2010; Jackson, 2003). One has to wonder how this can be a reality when there are so many successful Black men in America. Unfortunately, many Black men are not taking Black male academic underachievement as serious as they need to take it. Imagine if White male students academically lagged behind all students throughout the educational pipeline—it would be declared a national emergency. Why will we not declare Black male academic underachievement in the Black community to be a national emergency? Do Black people not really care about Black male academic underachievement? Of course, we do! The challenge for members in the Black community is to resolve the best way to lead a coordinated national effort to begin to tackle this critical problem. This article contends that mentorship is crucial to dramatically ameliorating Black male academic achievement.

Mentorship is the most immediate, practical, and effective tool that we have in the Black community to tremendously improve Black male academic achievement. Yes, there are many important factors that contribute to the national academic underachievement of Black males, but we, Black men, have the power to address this problem ourselves. We cannot depend on others outside of the Black community to educate our children—we have to do it ourselves!

When we are discussing community development and building, we need to include improving Black male academic achievement as a part of this conversation. Community organizers need to organize Black men and women around helping Black male students to experience higher academic achievement. Those discourses about Black male students do not have to be inundated with examples about Black male students who are academically underperforming. Harper (2005) offers us an opportunity to focus on those factors that contribute to high-achieving Black male students. Instead of us always concentrating on what is not working for Black male students, let’s start devoting more of our attention to what is working for Black male students who are experiencing academic success. Harper’s study provides us with critical insights into what factors have enabled high-achieving Black male students to be academically successful.

Discourses about Black male students that only involve the negative dimensions about them ultimately lead to them being viewed as “problems.” When one perceives Black males as “problems,” he or she reifies them. Black male students are human beings—don’t treat them like objects. Let’s work to engender the factors that have contributed to the academic success of the Black male students that Harper’s (2005) work promulgates.

I mentor 50 students across the United States, mostly Black males. For most of them, I only need to send them an email, text, or call them once a month just to make sure that everything is going okay. They may ask me for advice about certain problems they are confronting, to look over a paper for them, pen a recommendation, and/or etc. This does not take much of my time. Some of my mentees, however, consume much more of my time and this is quite fine. I may have to tutor them weekly, heavily critique their papers often, give them lengthy advice frequently, and/or etc. Now, I’m just one person and I’m mentoring 50 students. If I could only get every capable Black man to mentor just one Black male, then we would not have to witness so many of our Black males dropping out of school, experiencing academic failure, and/or being incarcerated or put in juvenile detention centers.

At “The Think Tank for African American Progress” in 2008, a scholarly national conference held in Memphis, Tennessee, I served as a panelist and presenter of a scholarly paper about ameliorating Black male academic achievement. As both a panelist and scholarly paper presenter, I posited that one of the most important reasons why Black male academic achievement is not being improved is we don’t have enough Black people evincing the will to aid with bolstering their academic achievement. At first, many people at the conference thought my argument about not enough people in the Black people having the will to assist Black male students with improving their academic performances was too simplistic. However, as they begin to offer their solutions and positions about Black male academic achievement, they were able to see that everything they were saying came back to my argument about the importance of having more people exhibiting the will to augment Black male academic achievement.

We don’t have to wait for a government program to help Black male students to ameliorate their academic achievement. Capable Black men need to start mentoring Black male students so that they can be on a path for academic success. Even if mentoring a Black male student does not amplify his academic achievement, you will have given him a true chance to improve his academic performance. You probably will help in many other ways. The key thing is to act. Act now!


Harper, S.R. (2005). Leading the way: Inside the experiences of high-achieving African American students. About Campus, 10(1), 8-15.

Hawkins, B. (2010). The new plantation: Black athletes, college sports, and predominantly White NCAA institutions. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Jackson, J.F.L. (2003). Toward administrative diversity: An analysis of the African-American male educational pipeline. The Journal of Men’s Studies, 12(1), 43-60.

Antonio Maurice Daniels

University of Wisconsin-Madison