Comedy and Romance: On Diff’rent Strokes and Webster

  • Jared SextonEmail author


This chapter looks at earlier imagery of black youth in US visual culture, discussing the post-civil rights era television situation comedy as a commentary on the racial politics of kinship. It takes Bernie Kukoff and Jeff Harris’s Diff’rent Strokes (1978–1986) and Stu Silver’s Webster (1983–1989) as prime examples. It traces black man-child characters of 1970s and 1980s primetime programming to Buckwheat of the Our Gang film series (1922–1944) and to Topsy of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). These characters betray forms of indiscernible difference linked to a general crisis of categories. The ongoing struggle to politicize black family preservation against attempts by state and civil society to shatter bonds between black parents and children returns symptomatically in the sitcom’s performance and reception.


Black Families Post-civil Rights Buckwheat Tower SS Pickaninny 
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The cinema of policing examined in the preceding chapters has shown itself to be preoccupied with the question of black men’s origins, if only to devise a means of disciplining their development through moral education and athletic training or punishing their seemingly inevitable failure to conform to normative expectations. Put differently, this cinema is concerned with producing and policing the exceptions to the rule in defense of the constituted imperatives of law enforcement. Along the way we have moved toward increasingly literal forms of the adoption of black boys and men. Alonzo Harris in Training Day is figuratively adopted by the Three Wise Men who oversee his operations in the gray zones of legality. The black athletes who co-star in Pride , Friday Night Lights, and Coach Carter are mentored by black and white father-like coaches who variously provide for their wellbeing or leave them to their own devices. And in The Blind Side the interracial adoption motif is again complicated by the centrality of a white mother as protector and guide through the black male’s rites of passage. This chapter examines such dynamics at earlier points in the life course of black boys, a prehistory of sorts for the coaching stage. It discusses, to that end, the post-civil rights era television situation comedy as an oblique commentary on the racial politics of kinship in the afterlife of slavery , taking Diff’rent Strokes and Webster as case studies. It traces the black man-child characters that featured in primetime programming throughout the 1980s to earlier figures in US popular culture: the black rascals of the Our Gang film series of the 1920s and 1930s and, before that, Topsy of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin . The intervening years of the mid-twentieth century witnessed sustained attempts by a new generation of black professionals and community advocates to politicize, yet again, the matter of black family preservation against ongoing attempts by state and civil society to shatter the bonds between black parents and children. We will see that this ongoing struggle is inscribed in the discourse of the television sitcom as a tributary to the broader cinema of policing under review and it returns symptomatically in both its performance and its reception.1

Buckwheat’s Return

In 1966, the late Kristin Hunter-Lattany , award-winning author of the novel God Bless the Child, published her second major work of fiction, The Landlord . The novel was adapted for the screen several years later by Bill Gunn and on the initiative of Norman Jewison the film production was directed by Oscar Award-winner Hal Foster for United Artists and released in 1970 to mixed reviews. (Its 2007 re-release, interestingly enough, drew unanimous critical acclaim.)2 The Landlord is a political satire about the belated coming-of-age of one Elgar Enders (Beau Bridges), a liberal and affluent young white man—a recent critic describes him as an “indolent American princeling” (Hoberman 2007)—who buys a rundown tenement building in a poor, predominantly black Brooklyn neighborhood in order to displace the local residents, renovate the property, and move into his spacious new accommodations—all to assert a putative independence from the stifling blueblood family dynasty whose accumulated wealth made the folly possible in the first place.

Along the way, Elgar doubts the morality—though not necessarily the ethics—of his original plan as he develops obscure feelings of concern for those he would evict and, in a sense, adopts the wary tenants as his ersatz family, friends, and community; or, at least, as his very passionate preoccupation. This change of heart is prompted in no small part by his budding intimate relationship with Lanie (Marki Bey), a young, light-skinned woman living in the building (she is described in the story as having a white father), and a brief and strained affair with Francine Johnson (Diana Sands), a somewhat older brown-skinned woman and wife of a militant Black Power activist, Copee Johnson (Louis Gossett Jr., who garnered a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor). The affair results in an unplanned pregnancy and, after giving birth to a son, Francine announces in the hospital recovery room that she will relinquish her parental rights, but with a twist. She tells Elgar that she wants their newborn son put up for adoption as a white child. When Elgar, taken aback, asks why, Francine replies with biting candor: “Cause I want him to grow up casual, like his daddy” (Jewison 1970).

It turns out that Elgar, now chastened by the profound limits of his self-styled transformation, retains custody of his son and elects to raise him together with Lanie, with whom he has patched things up and will now cohabit somewhere a good distance away from the tenement where they met. With a birth mother like Francine and an adoptive mother like Lanie, it is hard to know if the unnamed son will achieve the desired results seamlessly, light complexion and inherited assets notwithstanding. But the point not to be missed here has to do with the close and problematic association between racial whiteness and the versatile invocation of “the best interest of the child” or, rather, the inverse relation between ascriptions of, or proximity to, racial blackness and the presumed absence or, often enough, the enforced denial of family ties.3 In this sense, Foster’s rendition of Hunter-Lattany’s literary intervention manages to touch a central nerve of the post-civil rights dispensation, wherein the restructuring of the welfare state and the retrenchment of conservative racial politics meet the resurgence of mass-mediated popular culture in the service of a severe agenda.

Hunter-Lattany , who would go on to pen another half-dozen novels and short story collections alongside several books for young readers, also worked successfully as a journalist for the Pittsburgh Courier, a lecturer on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania Department of English, an advertising copyeditor and a television screenwriter. She knew something about the ways and means of American popular culture, in other words, and she bore witness to its troubling ideological underpinnings across a range of media for the long haul. Writing some two decades after her debut novel, well on the other side of the revolutionary zeitgeist of the 1960s and now inhabiting an “openly reactionary” political context she described sardonically as “Reaganstruction” (a title justified, in part, by “the images it has produced of Blacks”), Hunter-Lattany observed that “today’s producers and screenwriters have no governors on their racist fantasies, no authority to answer to, and no one around to set them straight” (Hunter-Lattany 1984, 84).4 What the esteemed writer-critic is referencing in the most immediate sense is the dissolution of the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s and the manifold repression—absorption—cooptation of the broader, midcentury resurgence of the longstanding black freedom struggle . What she attempts to expose to a harsh light is the fundament of a cultural formation seemingly frozen in time and without spatial parameter: the black stereotype.

Black stereotypes were put on the shelf in the 1960s and 1970s—this century’s era of Rebellion and Reconstruction—because Blacks were scaring the hell out of the society and “Anything to pacify those people!” was the response. Now that the threat of Black rebellion seems to be past, now that the pacification programs have withered, and now that “affirmative action” has become a tired phrase rendered meaningless by its being stretched to accommodate a broad spectrum called “women and minorities,” the Black stereotypes are being hurled at us again with a vengeance, as if TV and film producers were getting even for having to shelve their pet fantasies for so long. And they come at us unrelentingly, without the relief of any realistically human Black portrayals. (Hunter-Lattany 1984, 79–80)

“Put on the shelf,” which is also to say held in reserve for future use against the rebellion seeking to dislodge, dismantle or defuse them in pursuit of a radical reconstruction of society. The return of the stereotype in popular culture appears, then, as retribution, or punishment in return for wrongdoing, and it appears without relief or respite, as a state or condition of counterinsurgency. We might wonder about the demand for verisimilitude and the “positive Black images” to which it might give rise, but the description of the predicament is astute. Indeed, one could have chosen almost at random from the portfolio of cultural imagery unleashed in the historic instance, but the present outrage was catalyzed by the return of a figure of the diminutive black man-child, tracing a line of descent from Billie Thomas’ first portrayal of Buckwheat in the 1934 short film Mama’s Little Pirate as President Franklin Roosevelt implemented the First New Deal all the way to Eddie Murphy’s satiric reincarnation of the little rascal on Saturday Night Live in the first year of the Reagan Administration’s imposition of supply-side economics.

Hunter-Lattany discovers a whole set of contemporary film and television characters within this dubious genealogy, but her paradigm example is Arnold Jackson (Gary Coleman) of the hit situation comedy Diff’rent Strokes, which ran for eight seasons and 189 episodes between 1978 and 1986. The analysis, from the title onward, is suffused with a righteous indignation that lends clarity of vision and provides a safeguard against the tendency to forgo necessary judgment in the name of endless complexity. The author is interested in locating the black stereotype and identifying it properly in order to kill it forthwith. Like all of those “Black viewers who [remember] the original Buckwheat and [understand] the dangerous implications of his reincarnation on national television,” she watches with “smoking psychological pistols aimed at the screen” and urges all of those of like mind to “ready our guns” for all of those stereotypes that remain alive and well in the popular imagination (79, 84). As a voice of the spirit of rebellion that survives in the minds of black viewers, she claims with pride a vicarious responsibility for killing Buckwheat’s latter-day reincarnation (Fig. 5.1).
Fig. 5.1

Eddie Murphy plays “Buckwheat” on Lorne Michaels’s Saturday Night Live circa 1982. Image reproduced under terms of fair use

In reality, it was Eddie Murphy himself who ordered the hit on Buckwheat , an attempt on his part to undo what had immediately become his earliest public persona. It marked an attempt on his part, that is, to interrupt the culture’s predisposition to see him as the very stereotype his performance on the popular sketch comedy show was meant to satirize (Miller and Shales 2014). What, then, are we to make of this unacknowledged alignment, this shared discontent, between Murphy and his erstwhile critics? What do they collectively understand about the necessary recourse to (figurative or symbolic) violence in order to counteract the “dangerous implications of [Buckwheat’s] reincarnation on national television?” Why does it require such lethal violence to tell the difference between the black stereotype and the black actor who performs it? And why does the attempt at satire seem to fail so completely? What does this say about the force, the ungoverned fantasies, by which the conflation is achieved in the first place?

Topsy’s Legacy

For all that Buckwheat may seem to suggest, pace Hunter-Lattany , about the misrepresentation of black masculinity in US popular culture, it is important to note that the character was initially drawn as a girl and was played by a young actress named Carlena Beard , sister of Matthew “Stymie” Beard of the original Our Gang cast. In fact, even after the character was recast and played thereon by Billie Thomas , the actor most widely associated with the role, Buckwheat remained a female onscreen for another two years. To say that Thomas played the role in drag, however, would presuppose a prior gender differentiation that the unremarked nature of his performance would belie. The interchangeability of Beard and Thomas points instead toward a persistent denial, or perceived derangement, of gendered difference for the black child; and this confusion installs the black child as the backdrop before which the gendered figures of white boys and girls can be highlighted.

Like the other black rascals (e.g., Booker T. Bacon, Farina, Mango, Pineapple), Buckwheat can be played either by a young actress or by a young actor and the character can morph from female to male (and back again?) without requiring any significant change in role. The distribution of feminine and masculine features, as it were, does not follow the conventions established by the dominant vantage. The whole system of marks is short-circuited, or hot-wired, in such a way that the black child becomes, in a sense, available for anything—seduction, betrayal, peril, disfigurement, death—a condition of social formlessness that renders the genderless child at once insubstantial (and so beyond any ethical consideration whatsoever) and pure substance (and so immune to any suffering whatsoever). The black child in this rendering is not only the constitutive outside of the social domain that indexes a relation to the coordinates of human sexuality, but also the archaic point of abiogenesis preceding the advent of reproduction itself.

On this note, Buckwheat invokes Harriet Beecher Stowe’s earlier literary figure, Topsy , the young enslaved girl purchased by “the kind-hearted plantation owner Augustine St. Clare” (Nyong’o 2002, 376) in her magnum opus Uncle Tom’s Cabin , the bestselling novel of the nineteenth century and principal text of the international abolitionist movement. We are introduced to Topsy in Chapter XX of that famous work, wherein St. Clare presents Topsy as a challenge to the Christian faith and missionary zeal of his cousin, Miss Ophelia, whose charge it is to “bring [Topsy] up in the way she should go.”5 Unkempt and uncouth, Topsy embodies in Stowe’s universe the physical, mental, and spiritual degradation born of slavery: “life among the lowly.” More importantly, Topsy is parentless, a normative state of natal alienation and genealogical isolation indicating that enslaved children are, as it were, paradigmatically orphans.

In point of fact, orphan is too strong a word here because, again, it presupposes a parental bond that has been lost after the fact rather than one that is shattered in advance. As Topsy proffers her own origin story: “Never was born… never had no father nor mother, nor nothin’.” Topsy, before she is converted and civilized and “adopted” by the family that has bought her, comes from no one and nowhere; she has no sense of time, historical or biographical, and no sense of place, no hearth or home. She is perfectly deracinated or, better, she is without an original origin; her origin is non-originary (Marrati 2005).6 When Miss Ophelia queries Topsy about her knowledge of God and the source of divine creation, she replies to the point: “I spect I grow’d. Don’t think nobody never made me.” It will be Miss Ophelia’s principal learning objective to instill in Topsy the fundaments of her abiding faith in Christian salvation. The precondition for Topsy’s conversion from ideal slave to nascent Christian lies in her willingness to develop, in the first instance, a capacity to receive love, white love—what is, on this account, tantamount to a capacity for relationality as such—against which can be registered the “outrages of feelings and affections” that constitute, for Stowe , the core evil of slavery as institution.

To this end, Topsy is moved along the righteous path less by the diligent pedagogy of her pious and condescending mistress (for whom a “feeling of repugnance remains in the heart”) than by the pristine example of her “sibling” Eva, St. Clare’s angelic daughter, who promises Topsy , in one of the pivotal scenes of the story, that “you can go to Heaven at last, and be an angel forever, just as much as if you were white,” if only Topsy will accept Eva’s enjoinder to “try to be good.” Yet, beneath Topsy’s seemingly characteristic incorrigibility, it is revealed, finally, that she suffers from a profound fatalism. “Couldn’t never be nothin’ but a nigger, if I was ever so good,” she declares. “There can’t nobody love niggers and niggers can’t do nothin’!” Eva’s outpouring, then, gives the lie to this racist axiom: “Oh Topsy, poor child, I love you!” It is here, where Eva, the moral centerpiece of the text, has her first and most instructive effect, that the abolitionist sermon gains its coherence. Topsy’s conversion is determinant for Miss Ophelia’s and St. Clare’s respective changes of heart; Eva’s memory becomes crucial to Uncle Tom’s renewed commitment to his own Christian faith, opposing as he does unto death the slaveholder Simon Legree and becoming thereby a martyr to the cause of Quimbo’s and Sambo’s (the slaves who were ordered to kill Tom) subsequent conversions, and so on.

Topsy’s chief role in the novel is thus to provide an object lesson in the power of white Christian love to overcome wretchedness among both the perpetrators and the victims of great moral evils, a love epitomized by the innocence of youthful white femininity. This innocence is not autochthonous, however. It is produced in the moment of juxtaposition between black and white female children in profile, Topsy (“with her usual air of careless drollery and unconcern”) and Eva (“her whole face fervent with feeling”). Eva can appear “like the picture of some bright angel stooping to reclaim a sinner” only because Topsy is repeatedly described as “odd and goblin-like” in turn. Topsy plays darkness to Eva’s light, crudeness to Eva’s refinement, despair to Eva’s hope, but, most importantly, incredulity to Eva’s belief, reestablishing against the cynicism of the culture of slavery that the abolition of “heathenism,” wherever it be found, is the proper occupation of white Christian women and men.7

Cultural critic Tavia Nyong’o observes that dramatic adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin became “the indispensable play of the late nineteenth-century American theater and para-theater” and remarks the particular popularity of the Topsy character therein (Nyong’o 2002, 376). Most relevant for present purposes is the fact that, while such stage versions “sometimes capitalized on Topsy’s transformation from wild child to demure Christian” to advance the text’s redemptive vision, they more commonly “misread Stowe’s novel and took St. Clare at his word when he claimed [initially] to have bought Topsy as entertainment [rather than to spare her further abuse at the hands of her previous owners], and left her laughably reprobate” (376). He continues:

As an entertainer, Topsy quickly became one of the most popular characters in the play, as necessary as Uncle Tom. Actors playing Topsy sometimes received top billing in mid-nineteenth-century productions, and Topsy’s song was a hot seller in sheet music. Rival productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin were soon advertising two Topsies—double the fun and fidelity to Stowe’s novel be damned. Topsy’s conquest of the landscape of United States popular culture makes her an inaugural figure in the genealogy of performing black children. (376)

It is in this light that Buckwheat can be seen to hyperbolize (perhaps to the point of satire) for a modern filmgoing audience the already exaggerated attributes of the “pickaninny” stereotype that Stowe’s sentimental novel both drew upon and canonized in the antebellum period. But if Topsy “appears at a historical moment where a white supremacist and slaveholding nation was actively debating ‘the character and destiny’ of black folk” (Nyong’o 2002, 376) and the character is mobilized to argue alternately, sometimes simultaneously, for ultimate assimilation or extinction, then “what is interesting about the black rascals [Buckwheat above all] is less their fit within then current racial policies of segregation” and more “the lack of fit between the racial formation of the time, ideologically considered, and the general economy of innocent pleasures to which Our Gang caters” (380).

That is to say, insofar as our critique focuses exclusively upon Buckwheat et al. as the reproduction of stereotypes, it misses the ways in which the popular film and television series seeks “a production of the appropriate ambience for the insinuation of racially unmarked innocence, an innocence predicated upon a forgetfulness of the past that is one of the greatest privileges of whiteness” (381). Buckwheat emerges not so much as a repetition of Topsy , who is firmly embedded in the partisan politics of the day, as an artifact forged in the aftermath of her transformation, or perhaps as an effect of the transformation in the post-bellum white public sphere now supposed to be—or wishing it were—capable of loving black children as its own, “just as much as if [they] were white.” Of course, in order to insinuate racially unmarked innocence per se, the marks of racial difference must be reiterated and it is the function of the stereotype to manage the ambivalence generated by the operative contradiction.

We can track in this instance the procedure of a subtle political dynamic identified by historian Robin Bernstein in her book Racial Innocence (2011). There she examines, from the antebellum period to the civil rights era in the United States, “the pivotal use of childhood innocence in racial politics” (Bernstein 2011, 65). Her researches in American literature, drama and material culture across the massive upheavals of civil war, industrialization, urbanization, and the rise of mass media find that

When a racial argument is effectively countered or even delegitimized in adult culture, the argument often flows stealthily into children’s culture or performances involving children’s bodies. So located, the argument appears racially innocent. This appearance of innocence provides a cover under which otherwise discredited racial ideology survives and continues, covertly, to influence culture. (51)

The emergence of the figure of the pickaninny in popular culture in the mid-nineteenth century preserves for the pro-slavery ideology and beyond what Bernstein calls “the libel of black insensateness” (51) in the face of abolitionism’s growing moral force and political power. Insensateness is perhaps the signal attribute of the “pickaninny” stereotype. This is not to say that she is indestructible or even invulnerable, for she is constantly endangered, disfigured and killed; but rather that she does not genuinely feel the pain of the injuries she receives. In a word, she does not suffer. She may experience fear or fright or threat, she may cry out, but none of this actually registers (34–36).8 This is why and how she inhabits her condition with such strange ease. She may be wretched, as the story runs, but she knows nothing about it. It is all lost on the black juvenile and this imputed incapacity to feel is the very source of amusement, and vindication, for white audiences.

In the Our Gang series, the black rascals , unlike their white counterparts, are “subjected to consistently imaginative punishments that frequently culminate in an implied off-screen death” (Nyong’o 2002, 381) . To be sure, the emerging generic conventions of the slapstick comedy film render all violence humorous, but its clear racial distribution prompts us to ask: Does the racially unmarked innocence sought onscreen serve, in the final instance, to reassert the whiteness of “the category of the child and, ultimately, the human” (Bernstein 2011, 36) by expelling the black juvenile from its domain over and over again? Does this depressing feature of Buckwheat’s first public life in the post-Reconstruction era become an inescapable inheritance for Murphy’s satirical man-child post-civil rights? And does it become a contiguous and overwhelming influence on Coleman’s Arnold Jackson as well? How might the denial of black childhood—as it migrates from the stage to the silver screen to the television sitcom—supplement the unraveling mythology of the childlike black adult? How might the insensate black juvenile onstage or onscreen counteract arguments circulating in the political sphere about the realities of black suffering, first by the abolitionist movement and later by the twentieth-century black freedom struggle (Fig. 5.2)?9
Fig. 5.2

Billie Thomas plays “Buckwheat” in Gordon Douglass’s Glove Taps (1937), part of Hal Roach’s Our Gang series (1922–1944). Image reproduced under terms of fair use

Like the “peculiarly genderless” (Nyong’o 2002, 37) Topsy and the parentless non-child juveniles (and, by implication, the childless “adult” slaves) for which she stands, it would seem that the black also betrays no index of generational movement. Whether young or old, male or female, the black appears in racist culture as a figure whose traits afford no reliable measure of human differentiation. “They all look alike” is more than a notion. It describes in a phrase an entire cultural apparatus whose psychic life not only shapes the visual field, but also structures the social, the political and the economic spheres. And lest we be misled by the eventual emergence in popular culture of black juvenile figures (from Buckwheat to Arnold and beyond) deemed “cute” by the dominant vantage, we are cautioned to recall that even “when a pickaninny was well-dressed and adorable… this icon of insensateness did not call for protection. Whereas the white child manifested innocence, the pickaninny deflected it: the pickaninny made not itself, but its violent context, appear innocent” (Bernstein 2011, 65) .

Reforming the White Family

We have already had occasion to label the violent context of the 1980s “Reaganstruction.” It bears repeating, however, that this context also provides the conditions of emergence and relations of production for our central point of interest, Diff’rent Strokes (1978–1986): the vehicle that thrust Gary Coleman into overnight celebrity and made Arnold Jackson a household name, installed the young protagonist’s signature phrase (“What you talkin’ bout, Willis?”) as an item of common parlance, and laid the groundwork for both a successful spinoff, The Facts of Life (1979–1988), and its primetime heir, Webster (1983–1987), starring Emmanuel Lewis in the eponymous lead role. Diff’rent Strokes owes a good deal of its popularity to the towering influence of producers Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin, whose Tandem Productions dominated 1970s television with a series of top-rated and award-winning sitcoms: first and foremost, All in the Family (1971–1979), the most watched television show in the country for a record-breaking five consecutive years, but also the notable spinoffs Maude (1972–1978) and The Jeffersons (1975–1985), alongside another pair of respectable productions featuring black main characters, Sanford and Son (1972–1977) and Good Times (1974–1979). Yorkin went on to produce the modestly successful black-cast sitcom What’s Happening!! (1976–1979), under auspices of the short-lived TOY Productions company he co-founded with Bernie Ornstein and Saul Turteltaub.

Lear, in particular, exercised a progressive political influence on the culture of 1970s primetime, pursuing an array of programming that shrewdly integrated social issues into evening television for a diverse viewing audience attempting to make sense of the ongoing social, political, and economic conflicts associated with what the late historian (and distinguished food writer) Josh Ozersky understatedly terms “an era of change” (Ozersky 2003). All in the Family staged the countervailing forces of radicalism and reaction unleashed throughout the United States, setting the rants of an unreconstructed white working-class bigot, the infamous Archie Bunker (his name signifying the very personification of Silent Majority retrenchment), against a constellation of pithy rejoinders and well-formulated critical commentary from his moderate wife, his hippy daughter and son-in-law, and his diligent, upwardly mobile black neighbors—George and Louise Jefferson and their bright and handsome son, Lionel. All in the Family , garnering at its height fully one-fifth of the national population as its audience, kept in productive and pleasurable tension the profound ethical questions and pressing everyday challenges posed by the new social movements for civil rights and Black Power , feminism and women’s liberation, sexual revolution, and peace. In the midst of the Nixon Administration’s politics of backlash, the sitcom warded against the demonization and caricature afoot in the shifting political climate and held open a space for the normalization of, among other things, alternative family forms, gender equality, and racial integration. Popular culture for Lear , then, was a site for political education and adjudication as much as it was for entertainment and escape.

The Jeffersons , as the Bunker’s neighbors came to be known after relocating from the modest row houses of Queens to the posh high-rises of Manhattan’s upper east side, elaborated the integrationist theme adumbrated by All in the Family , introducing viewers to the first professional middle-class black family in American television history. And the principals, despite the patriarch’s trademark antics, were unapologetic about their residence in “a deluxe apartment in the sky.” The Jeffersons remains one of the longest-running sitcoms in general—outlasting Friends (1994–2004), for instance—and the single longest-running black sitcom in particular, surpassing by three seasons the more celebrated The Cosby Show (1984–1992). Lear’s work not only attempted to symbolically desegregate privilege within the existing arrangements. It also sought to sustain, within generic and institutional constraints, the public discourse of social justice and economic equality articulated most forcefully by the black freedom struggle and, in more attenuated form, the social democratic vision of the Great Society, enabling downward redistributions of wealth, power, and resources. Sanford and Son, set in the Watts section of South Central Los Angeles, and Good Times, set in the Cabrini-Green housing projects of Chicago’s South Side—both locales of major civil disturbances during the “long hot summers” of the late 1960s—dramatized the lives of poor and working-class black families in urban ghettoes, adding a degree of texture to the grim conditions of “American Apartheid” officially acknowledged by the 1968 Kerner Report and perhaps lending a degree of urgency to that federal commission’s propositions as well.

This is not to say that the sitcom, even in the hands of a Hollywood liberal like Lear , could become a cultural accompaniment to the sort of revolutionary change that defined the political horizon. Quite the contrary, the genre and the medium have tended in the historic instance to depoliticize, which is to say privatize and individualize, the social problems of the moment. Sociologist Darrell Hamamoto , writing in the twilight of the Reagan—Bush era , discusses this ideological maneuver in his aptly-titled Nervous Laughter:

The symbolic resolution of dilemmas inherent in interpersonal relations has long been the signal strength of the television situation comedy. […] If macroeconomic events were beyond all comprehension and personal control, then at least a certain measure of solace, security, and autonomy might be found at the level of interpersonal relations revolving around domestic life. In the situation comedy, sociopolitical contradictions become transcoded into personal problems. (Hamamoto 1991, 126–127)10

There is a double movement at work here. First, sociopolitical contradictions, or macroeconomic events, are transcoded into personal problems and sequestered to the sphere of domestic life. Second, after “the dilemmas inherent in interpersonal relations” are loaded with such immense freight, they are brought to a symbolic resolution affording “a certain measure of solace, security, and autonomy.” Yet, if interpersonal relations, all things remaining equal, are already complicated by inherent dilemmas, and so must always make due with symbolic resolutions where real contradictions remain irreducible, then the second-order ideological labor that this symbolic resolution must perform when interpersonal relations stand in for “events beyond all comprehension and personal control” becomes tenacious indeed. This for the ideal viewer during good times, better known in this case as the postwar liberal consensus of the brief American Century from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson. But just as President Dwight Eisenhower, the pivotal figure between the end of the New Deal and the rise of the New Federalism, appointed Richard Nixon as his Vice President, coupling his moderately reformist domestic policies with the anti-communist politics of containment, the liberal consensus contained within itself the seeds of its undoing.

As the full effects of global economic restructuring (e.g., stagnating wages, rising unemployment, decreased social spending) were beginning to be widely felt across the USA and the radical implications of a genuine commitment to the egalitarian ideals of the social movements worked their way into the common sense, media executives, with their fingers held up to the political wind and their noses pressed to the ledger, mandated a return to the guidelines of normalcy that dominated network television programming from its inception in the 1940s through the 1960s. The permission for political experimentation inspired by the era of change was effectively revoked. We might think of this as the cultural accompaniment of the counterrevolutionary political restoration that would usher in the neoliberal orthodoxy informing the dominant discourse of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, including the ascendant doctrine of colorblindness. By the time President Carter took action to address the 1978 public health scandal regarding the Love Canal toxic waste superfund in Niagara Falls, NY, “the salience of ‘socially relevant’ themes in the television situation comedy as seen in the 1970s gave way to the micropolitics of intimacy” (Hamamoto 1991, 126).11

Whither the Black Family

Whereas the relevancy boom of Norman Lear’s 1970s attempted to catalyze in its audience an intelligent consideration of the social milieu along with a certain measure of solace, relief, and personal autonomy, the new ratings-driven programming led by NBC’s newly appointed president Fred Silverman sought to crush any such consideration and sever any such linkages between education and entertainment as the decade expired. Before coming to NBC, Silverman produced the hit miniseries Roots for ABC, earning the latter network the honor of airing the most-watched television event in history (over 70% of the viewing audience tuned into watch the final episode) and destabilizing the longstanding position of CBS as industry leader. What is telling about the success of Roots, however, is less its artistic merit or political saliency in its rendering of the story of an African American family “from slavery to freedom” and more its capacity to circulate as commodity, demonstrating to elite decision-makers that empty innovation, rather than stale repetition, was the frontier of expansion: not original, timely or relevant, but simply new, shiny, and different. Nolan Davis, writing for the New West, asked at the time, “Is Kunta Kinte the New Fonzie?” (quoted in Ozersky 2003, 177)?

Diff’rent Strokes and Webster entered the fray of this post-civil rights era “ratings mania,” in which programming selected in order to capture maximum market share was monitored on a daily basis and risks were minimized ruthlessly. What made Diff’rent Strokes a safe bet? To begin, it followed the integrationist theme established by The Jeffersons several years earlier (Acham 2004, 171). In fact, Gary Coleman made his network television debut in a guest appearance as George Jefferson’s streetwise eight-year-old nephew, linking the forthcoming sitcom directly to the ethos and environs of its predecessor. But something was lost in the gap between the launch of The Jeffersons in 1975—flanked as it was by Sanford and Son and Good Times—and the first season of Diff’rent Strokes in 1978—when these leading black working-class sitcoms, and the antagonism they inscribed, disappeared. Diff’rent Strokes is not just another integrationist sitcom. Rather, like its contemporaries Benson (1979–1986) and Gimme a Break! (1981–1987), and its next of kin, Webster, it features lone black characters isolated in white settings with scant connection to any larger black community, history, culture, or politics. Communications scholar Catherine Squires glosses the distinction in her comprehensive study, African Americans and the Media, as follows:

The networks continued to play it safe in the later ‘70s and early ‘80s, with Black TV characters. One prominent trend featured White adoptive parents and mentors who took on the task of socializing Black kids and teens. […] Like the “exceptional” Black characters of the 1960s, these Black children were situated in all-White worlds. Unlike the isolated, middle-class Black predecessors like Julia, though, these characters did not live amongst Whites to prove Blacks were “just like” them, but to provide comic (and some might say racial) relief. Through their sassy, comic uses of Black slang and “street smarts,” characters like Gary Coleman’s Arnold livened up the “square” White environments, and safely integrated them. But like Julia, these children were divorced from contact with Black communities, suggesting that their Black origins had little to offer them. (Squires 2009, 224)

The suggestion that “Black origins [have] little to offer” children was hardly novel at this time, but it was nonetheless glowing red from the heat of public debate. The National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW), in light of extensive analysis and direct observation by its professional membership of myriad “barriers to preserving families of African ancestry” in the pursuit of child welfare , issued a comprehensive policy statement at their Fourth Annual Conference in 1972 (NABSW 2003). Known primarily—and almost always reductively—in both the scholarly literature and the mass media for its trenchant (and, to date, unwavering) criticism of interracial adoption and its advocacy of race-matching in child placement, the NABSW actually grounds its controversial position, including the proposal to treat interracial placement as an option of last resort, within an overarching formulation of antiblack racism as ideology, institutional practice and structural condition.

One could, for what it’s worth, interrogate the theorization of cultural identity that underwrites much of the NABSW’s argument that black children receiving interracial out-of-home placements by child welfare agencies for foster care or adoption “are disengaged from their cultural background” and are therefore “denied the opportunity for optimal development and functioning” (NABSW 2003). One could cite, on that score, existing scholarship that demonstrates how, for instance, no demonstrable difference exists between black and white foster families, and black children adopted interracially fare as well as black children adopted interracially; or how, to take another example, the earlier the age of adoption the higher the chances for successful adjustment are, a prime rationale advanced for permitting, or even promoting, interracial adoption in lieu of extended periods in foster care awaiting eligible black adoptive families; or how even the NABSW’s preference for kinship care with extended family members (who are most likely to be black) over out-of-home placement in foster care or adoption (where both of the latter options are more likely to be interracial) nonetheless presents problems of oversight for those relatives not trained and monitored as registered foster families (Moran 2001). I say one could do this, for what it’s worth, because the above points are merely arguments in favor of interracial placements without consideration of the bedrock motivation of NABSW’s general position: protecting black families from group-based harm.12

For those that might presume that family preservation is a categorical public policy goal, the NABSW makes clear that black families, or families of African ancestry, are particularly targeted for destruction. How is this so? Clearly, it is unrelated to any racial disparities in rates of abuse or neglect. As the NABSW states: “contrary to popular opinion, parents of African ancestry are no more likely to abuse or neglect their children but they are more likely to be investigated, have children removed from their home, and receive fewer services that are often found to be substandard.” Instead, it has to do with a host of institutional factors that are as readily identifiable as they are deeply entrenched. It is a well-known fact that the child welfare system in the United States has, to put it mildly, serious design flaws. Among these is the tendency to ignore abuse and neglect among the middle and upper classes and to punish abuse and neglect with undue severity among the poor.

Those with resources are not only better able to defend themselves against the intrusions of child welfare agencies, legally if need be; they are also shielded from scrutiny by a geography of privacy and a presumption of fitness even when evidence of trouble presents itself. This is especially true for instances of neglect, representing the lion’s share of child welfare cases. Child welfare as a profession systematically conflates child neglect with the material effects of poverty. It fails to recognize the distinction between parental care, or lack thereof, and parental resources, or lack thereof. When cases of abuse or neglect are found to exist among families of means, those families are much more likely to receive in-home support services leading to rehabilitation and preservation. In cases where out-of-home foster care placement is deemed necessary, the emphasis is laid upon reunification rather than adoption. Since black families are disproportionately poor, it stands to reason that they are more likely to be subjected to intervention and disruption. To this extent, the structural effects of the racial wealth gap shape the unequal operations and outcomes of child welfare.13

However, the “color of child welfare” is overdetermined by systemic racial discrimination by policymakers, agency administrators, and caseworkers. Legal scholar Dorothy Roberts , a leading commentator on the issue, is unequivocal: “America’s child welfare system is a racist institution” (Roberts 2002, 99). That is, even when controlling for a host of typical indicators of child endangerment—from parental substance abuse to physical or sexual violence—black families are far more likely than their white counterparts to experience state intervention and that intervention is far more likely to be punitive, resulting in permanent separation of parents and children and of siblings from one another. The disqualification of black family rights is rooted in what Roberts calls “the system’s fundamental flaw”: “The child welfare system is designed not as a way for government to assist parents to take care of their children but as a means to punish parents for their failures by threatening to take their children away” (74). The child welfare system is more accurately described by the official title it carries in many states throughout the country: child protective services. For this reason, the system is activated “only after children have already experienced harm and puts all the blame on parents for their children’s problems” (74). Importantly, this shift in orientation toward protection is strictly correlative with the shift in the racial demographics in child welfare from overwhelmingly white to disproportionately black.14

The group-based harm of the system’s child “protection” orientation is bound up with a set of popular assumptions about black family dysfunction and parental unfitness that draw upon and reinforce longstanding stereotypes about “deviant Black mothers and absent Black fathers,” painting a picture of an anomalous “matriarchal” structure that distorts child development and undermines community development. At bottom, these “myths about Black mothers,” dating back to pro-slavery ideology and, later, the attack on Reconstruction and the defense of segregation, “confirm the need for the state to intervene in their homes to safeguard their children and to ensure that their children do not follow their dangerous example” (Roberts 2002, 61). The careless mother, the matriarch, the welfare queen all represent the frightful destiny of Topsy grown up, still suffering from “outrages of feeling and affection” despite gaining family rights post-emancipation. As such, the modern child welfare system inherits, in inverted form, the moral dilemma of Uncle Tom’s Cabin : how to save black children? Like the liberal sentimental abolitionism of the nineteenth century, the neoliberal child welfare system of the twentieth century must maintain the very segregation, and domination, of black children that its mission is, ostensibly, meant to overcome.

It is in this context that the seemingly contradictory fear of miscegenation and the fear of black separatism in the white imagination can be understood as two sides of the same coin. Whereas miscegenation represents a supposedly biological threat to mythic white racial purity, black separatism is regarded as a sociological threat of greater familial and communal dysfunction, leading inexorably to increased crime and general social disorder. The contorted mechanisms of black children’s state-sponsored discipline and punishment, particularly with respect to “un-parented” black boys, overlays the otherwise unspoken belief that black reproduction as such is a problem. William Bennett , conservative moralist and former Secretary of Education for the Reagan Administration , said as much during an episode of his Morning in America radio program in 2005, an outlet with over one million active listeners. While addressing a caller who opined that legal abortion hurt the US economy by reducing the number of productive workers paying into the Social Security system, Bennett offered his own hypothetical to chasten such wild speculation.

BENNETT: All right, well, I mean, I just don’t know. I would not argue for the pro-life position based on this, because you don’t know. I mean, it cuts both—you know, one of the arguments in this book Freakonomics that they make is that the declining crime rate, you know, they deal with this hypothesis, that one of the reasons crime is down is that abortion is up. Well…

CALLER: Well, I don’t think that statistic is accurate.

BENNETT: Well, I don’t think it is either, I don’t think it is either, because first of all, there is just too much that you don’t know. But I do know that it’s true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could—if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down. So these far-out, these far-reaching, extensive extrapolations are, I think, tricky. (Seifter 2005)15

Tricky indeed: Bennett and his defenders went to considerable lengths to rationalize his assertion by denegation (e.g., “We should never commit this atrocity, but if we did…”). And the agonizing public debate that ensued served mainly to entrench the condemnation of blackness, even among Bennett’s anti-racist critics (e.g., “OK, black male crime rates may, in fact, be higher, but the reasons are not racially inherent…”).16 The problematic assumptive logic and conceptual framework of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s infamous 1965 report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, was reiterated broadly across the board.17

Roberts, then, helps to clarify why the problem of interracial adoption that emerged in full force in the discourse of Black Power in the 1970s is important but not essential to the historical analysis of state violence against the black family, and the refraction of this violence in the products of popular culture. The crucial element here is, to borrow the phrasing of literary critic Hortense Spillers , the continuing negation of black women’s “mother right” as a “feature of human community” (Spillers 2003, 227). This negation is the hard core of the more general fact that “the laws and practices of enslavement did not recognize, as a rule, the vertical arrangements of their family” (Spillers 2003, 249), a general fact that also characterizes the political culture and policy environment of “the afterlife of slavery ”—post-emancipation , post-civil rights (Hartman 2007) . Adopting this critical insight, family matters for the African American personality assume a different hue and cry. As such, “one aspect of the liberational urge for freed persons is not so much the right to achieve the nuclear family as it is the wish to rescue African-Americans from flight… essentially, to bring the present into view rather than the past” (Spillers 2003, 249) .

Perhaps, then, this is why William Merritt, the former president of the NABSW, describes interracial out-of-home placements as a “particular form of genocide” (quoted in Rothman 2004, 195) . If to some it may seem “absurd and hurtful to use the language of genocide when you look at the acts of individual loving white parents of black children” (Rothman 2004, 196), then they only need to look upstream to those processes that systematically displace black children and push them into the adoption stream in the first place. This is why, according to sociologist Barbara Rothman, “it is not absurd to think in terms of genocide when you look at social policy” (Rothman 2004, 196).18 Accordingly, the seemingly banal micropolitics of intimacy depicted in the television sitcom, if re-inscribed, or if viewed for what is already inscribed there as subtext or throwaway line or opening gambit, can follow a thread back to those occluded macroeconomic events and sociopolitical contradictions that otherwise remain beyond comprehension.

Arnold Emerges

To be sure, Diff’rent Strokes was a “safe” show, as Squires notes above. But nominal safety begs the question: safe for whom and from what? If NBC was indemnifying itself against financial risk, it did so by addressing the paramount political issue of black freedom, at least this one “aspect of the liberational urge for freed persons,” through a process of inoculation. Mr. Drummond (Conrad Bain), a wealthy white widower living in a Park Avenue high-rise, has agreed to look after his recently deceased black housekeeper’s two sons, Arnold (Gary Coleman) and Willis Jackson (Todd Bridges). Mr. D, as he is affectionately known, describes the late Mrs. Jackson in terms redolent of the mammy stereotype: “a sweet wonderful woman…like a member of the family” with a “great sense of humor.” And his description of her sons as “orphans…from Harlem…two innocent, sweet, helpless little boys” would not be altogether unfamiliar to Stowe’s Augustine St Clare.

In Season 1, Episode 2, “Social Worker,” the Drummond family is visited by a social worker, Ms. (she emphasizes, “not Mrs”) Aimsley, for a routine evaluation of post-placement adjustment. After being coached by Mr. Drummond to give positive reviews of their home life to date, the boys put on a dog and pony show to placate the stern government agent. Referring to themselves as “Happy Willis” and “Delirious Arnold,” the former describes Mr. D as “a real cool dude” and the latter reveals as an obvious aside that “confidentially, the man is loaded… L-O-D-I-D.” Ms. Aimsley notes the material comforts of their new surrounds (we learn later in the episode that Mr. D is so rich, in fact, that he has never even heard of a garage sale). However, she is compelled nonetheless to ask: “Boys, have you ever lived in a non-black neighborhood before?” Willis deflects this first query: “Just once when our landlord in Harlem painted our building white.” Ms. Aimsley continues: “Arnold, do you miss seeing other black children your age?” And Arnold parries: “No ma’am! If I miss seeing a black kid my age, all I gotta do is look in the mirror” (Fig. 5.3).
Fig. 5.3

Arnold Jackson (Gary Coleman) and his brother Willis (Todd Bridges) raise their concerns with Mr. Drummond (Conrad Bain) in Jeff Harris and Bernie Kukoff’s Diff’rent Strokes circa 1979. Image reproduced under terms of fair use

Throughout the consultation, the boys put on airs as rich white children (i.e., adapted), and not the children of a rich white man (i.e., adopted), as evidence of Mr. D’s fitness. They smile broadly, they walk arm-in-arm, they affect proper enunciation and grammar, and they use a Pollyannaish tone and idiom reminiscent of Mr. D’s prep schooled daughter, Kimberly (Dana Plato). Ms. Aimsley, of course, sees through the amusing act, punctuated as it is by Arnold’s black vernacular punch lines, but she admits to Mr. D after the fact that ‘the boys seem to be getting along just fine and, frankly, I’m surprised.’ ‘Why should you be?’ asks Mr. D.

MS. AIMSLEY: Well, it’s been my observation that white children are usually happier in white families and black children with black families.

MR. D: Oh, really?

MS. AIMSLEY: Mm-hmm, but then it just might be that money can buy happiness. It must be nice to be L-O-D-I-D.

Ms. Aimsley is suggesting, of course, that Arnold and Willis have fallen in love with their own upward mobility, rather than forming any genuine emotional bond with their new guardian. Mr. D replies to the point: “It’s true, I do have money. But I really do care a lot for those boys.” And that is that.

Following this visit, however, Mr. D is so astonished by the evident facts of racial segregation in the United States that have been brought politely to bear against his studied inattention to the world beneath his thirtieth-floor balcony19 that he repeats to his white housekeeper, the unflappable Mrs. Garrett, what was offered by the caseworker as a—to boot, computer-generated—truism of the profession: “black children belong with black families.” Arnold inadvertently overhears this distressing fragment of the conversation and takes it, out of context, as a racist rejection of their nascent filiation. Arnold relays the message to his older brother and Willis registers the mood of disappointment: “And all the time I thought that was one dude who was colorblind.” Beyond the immediate hurt, though, Arnold is perplexed:

ARNOLD: Why would he pretend to like us, Willis?

WILLIS: I guess cause we’re the latest fad in honkyland.

ARNOLD: What does that mean?

WILLIS: It means we better get outta here before he puts us in a jockey suit and plants us in the front lawn.

While the reference to the racist connotations of the black lawn jockey replica is meant to insinuate the young boys into the historical derogation of adult black masculinity, they are both, and Arnold in particular, too young to fit the mold. Moreover, “the latest fad in honkyland” has placed them, not on the exterior, but on the interior of the domestic sphere of this “man of means,” perhaps not unlike the ceramic “pickaninny” figurines evoked by Topsy and Buckwheat in earlier moments. As Mr. D has already recounted for them in the opening episode the ostentatiously long list of his possessions—the elite education, the high art collection, the square footage of Manhattan real estate, the antique furniture, the hot tub, the color TV and stereo, the priceless city view—Willis is rightly concerned that he and Arnold have become part of Mr. Drummond’s collection of things. Willis’ clarification is lost on Arnold, of course, since Arnold is, if not unaware of, then at least underwhelmed by, the force of antiblack racism. (The general dynamic between the brothers is one in which Willis tries to impress upon Arnold the cold, hard truths of the world—as he understands it in light of his thirteen years—and Arnold tries to encourage Willis to lighten up.)20 Arnold and Willis notify the social worker forthwith to indicate their dissatisfaction at Mr. Drummond’s residence and announce their preference for re-placement with a black adoptive family. When Ms. Aimsley puts Mr. D on notice about the impeding change, he attempts in vain to talk to the boys about their apparent change of heart. He finds them in their room watching TV, laughing, intent on ignoring him.

MR. D: What’s so funny guys?

WILLIS: The whites were attacking the Indians and the Indians are winning.

ARNOLD: Aw man, talk about a fast haircut!

This oppositional reading of a scene from the Western film genre sets the stage for what the boys believe is their defensive and reactive rejection of Mr. D in the face of his racist pronouncement, and their rejection is rendered through a curious racial transposition, like Indians repelling the aggression of white colonial expansion through armed self-defense. When Willis reiterates Arnold’s reiteration of Mr. D’s reiteration of Ms. Aimsley’s reiteration of the professional common sense—“blacks belong with black and whites belong with white”—their newfound preference for a black family is offered without explanation and, for all intents and purposes, requires no rational justification. “It’s just that things ain’t working out,” says Willis. Dejected and confused, but credulous, Mr. D does not press the issue and in his very brief concession speech he simply states: “I see. Well, I only want to do what’s best for you,’ cause I love you.” With that, Mr. D accepts the failure of his final promise to Arnold and Willis’ mother and his former housekeeper. Recall that Mrs. Garrett replaced Mrs. Jackson in her capacity and so, as her proxy, the white woman who now occupies the position inflects the latter’s wishes without account. Mrs. Garrett consoles Mr. D accordingly:

You’re very kind and loving, and you make a wonderful father. Besides, look what they got here. I’m telling you, these kids are living in the lap of luxury. […] Believe me Mr Drummond, that black couple is gonna have to be something else before those boys will give up all of this and… leave you.

As it turns out, “that black couple,” Geoffrey and Olivia Thompson, is something else. The heads of a successful manufacturing business that provides barrels to overseas oil refineries, Mr. Drummond’s luxury apartment—seven-figures, two-stories, four-bedrooms and a housekeeper—simply reminds the Thompsons of the “little flat in London” they use “just for weekends.” Now that the gross material advantages Mr. D represents with respect to their tenement in Harlem seem quaint in comparison to the Thompsons’ fortune, the boys must address the racial dimensions of their prospective adoption ceteris paribus. And, under the circumstances, they do choose to vacate the premises. Yet before Arnold’s faux pas can run its course—and Arnold is designated the “big dummy” here—the “rather opinionated” social worker, in a moment of self-satisfaction, repeats the race-matching mantra, reveals the source of misunderstanding, and catharsis begins. Importantly, it is Olivia Thompson, appearing as Arnold and Willis’ prospective black adoptive mother, that rearticulates the last wishes of their recently departed black birth mother. And, according to this strange calculus of race, class and gender, only she, a black woman of means, can give the (posthumous) blessing: “Black or white, it’s love that counts.”

The triangulation is thus complete. Mrs. Garrett is the working-class white counterpart to Mrs. Jackson the working-class black woman; Mrs. Thompson is the owning-class black counterpart to Mrs. Jackson the working-class black woman. Mr. Drummond would seem to be the fourth term, the white owning-class male counterpart to Mrs. Jackson the working-class black woman, but within the semiotic square that positions these women along axes of race and class, the missing and unspoken term is, in fact, the late Mrs. Drummond. What makes it possible for Mr. Drummond to establish the double substitution of his custodial claim is this series of relays or mediations wherein the terms of racial domination and class struggle are progressively isolated and negated. What remains, however, is the gender trouble and sexual panic of a wealthy, middle-aged, presumptively heterosexual white widower who must, on his word, take up the task of raising two young black boys—in place of the white son he always wanted and alongside his teenaged white daughter.21 In this way, the question of interracial intimacy that had been, as noted, only recently broached in the history of America television by the late 1970s, debuts in the proper sense as a matter of male bonding, intergenerational and patriarchal, in the relative absence, or management, of white women and the total absence of black women (Fig. 5.4).
Fig. 5.4

Gary Coleman poses for press pictures as “Arnold” on Diff’rent Strokes circa 1980. Image reproduced under terms of fair use

Here the desire that black children might have for filiation with black caretakers or relatives, and perhaps even the larger idea and ethos of black community as such, has no positive value; it exists, on this telling, only as a reaction formation against the rejection of intimacy by white society.22 More importantly, though, the subject of the drama has been changed from considerations of “the best interests of the (black) child” to “the best intentions of the (white) parent.” This much should give pause to the careful viewer. But, ultimately, it is the displacement of “the vertical arrangements of [black] family” in general and of black “mother right” in particular that makes possible the entire dialectic between white father and black sons, the enduring dream of interracial fraternal bond. When Ms. Aimsley reports at the end of the episode that she will tell the computer to “go suck a lemon,” she is not refuting a racist presumption, even one taken up in a misguided white liberal’s attempt to provide for black child welfare . Rather, she is endorsing, and thereby giving state sanction to, the rejection of the very concern raised by the NABSW, in the name of Black Power , for the preservation of black families. It is not unreasonable to conclude, then, that Diff’rent Strokes is, first and foremost, about the death of the black mother. Whatever other ancillary themes and topics the show may take up (e.g., the growing pains of adolescence, the moral training of children, the contemporary reconfiguration of the nuclear family), the critical point is that this foundational violence is sedimented into its symbolic universe for the duration; first, by restricting the matter to the distal question of interracial adoption and, second, by preempting that question altogether with the canard of colorblindness. In fact, the alternative white family formation—single parent and blended—becomes the site for the re-institutionalization of black natal alienation , a gentrified revision of the bourgeois family that insulates interracial intimacy from the potential turbulence of its historic association with miscegenation.23

Arnold Redux

Noting the success of NBC’s production over five seasons, ABC launched its own spinoff in 1983. Webster presents the story of George Papadopolis (Alex Karras, former standout defensive lineman for the Detroit Lions), a sports newscaster and former professional football player, and his wife Katherine Papadopolis (Susan Clark), a socialite, philanthropist, and consumer rights advocate. Theirs is an interethnic and cross-class marriage: George, a working-class child of Greek immigrants and Katherine, a member of the WASP upper crust. These factors of minor internal difference will sensitize the newlywed couple to the fortune that awaits them and provide degrees of mediation for the major difference they will broach in their adoption of Webster, the son of George’s former football teammate, after his parents are killed in a car accident. And the troubles involved are announced directly.

In Episode 1, “Another Ballgame,” Webster arrives at the Papadopolis residence “special delivery” by way of a courier service, rather than through the intermediaries of an adoption agency. After George receives Webster from the courier, Katherine asks apprehensively, “George, did we just buy a child?” Webster’s commodity status is highlighted in this opening scene by a number of formal elements, including George’s objectifying grip—arms outright with hands beneath his armpits, at the level one would position a ventriloquist’s dummy—and Webster’s costume-like “little man” suit and tie, stiff posture, and rolling eyes, silently searching the apartment. It dawns on the couple in short course what they are being asked to assume, and Katherine objects strongly to the consequent restructuring of the domestic sphere. The ensuing exchange is telling:

GEORGE: Well, he’s kinda cute.

KATHERINE: That’s not the point.

GEORGE: Then I can’t keep him?

KATHERINE: He’s not a puppy, he’s a child. […] We’ll do everything we can for him. We’ll find him a nice home.

GEORGE: What is he a puppy?

KATHERINE: That’s not fair, George.

Webster, who has wandered into the bedroom where the adults are talking, overhears the deliberations. He feels himself an imposition in his new home and leaves the following note on his way out the door: “You have a nice house here. A boy would be happy.” George tracks down Webster at the football stadium nearby and attempts to explain why he and his wife cannot or, rather, should not adopt him. Webster, in turn, appeals to George’s latent desire for children despite his and Katherine’s decision to remain childless by choice in pursuit of their respective careers. Webster pleads: “I don’t eat much. I know how to make my own bed. I’m tidy.” George demurs: “You can stay with us as long as it takes for us to find you a good home.” Webster parries: “What am I, a puppy?” George, taking the point, asks, finally: “Don’t you want a family?” Webster, undaunted, retorts: “Don’t you?” So, whereas George impresses upon Webster the value of living a life with people who are eager, rather than reluctant, to care for you, Webster impresses upon George the improbable prospect of a life with a child who, like a puppy, actively solicits your care rather than one that, at best, makes a virtue out of necessity.

George is won over by Webster’s persistence, a persistence that is curious not only for the age of seven, even in TV land, but also given the fact that Webster is, at the time we meet him, in the most immediate shock and mourning over the sudden loss of his parents, his home, and the whole of his natal surround. Together now, George and Webster attempt to prevail on Katherine, who makes defensive recourse to the pluralist idea of different strokes. She explains to Webster: “Take the zoo, for instance. Some women go to the zoo. They love to go to the zoo. They go to the zoo all the time. I am not one of those women. I don’t like the zoo.” Webster’s task, and his stake, is to convince Katherine why a trip to the zoo, where presumably she will encounter Webster as if for the first time, can provide a source of enrichment rather than displeasure. No longer a stray animal, he is now a caged one, “radical cuteness” intact. The appeal to family by surrogate succeeds by and by, so much so that this very odd white couple begins to rethink their life plan, which is to say principally that the liberal feminist ideals Katherine lives by become attenuated. Over the course of the first several episodes we witness the reconversion of the decidedly non-domestic career woman trying diligently to learn the traditional gender roles she previously rejected, making a bid, for Webster’s sake, to start “homesteading in Middle America,” as she puts it. Within this sweep, white masculinity can remake and reassert itself through a political rapprochement with the social effects of the movements for racial justice and gender equality, betraying a kinder, gentler white man for the new age (Fig. 5.5).
Fig. 5.5

Webster Long (Emmanuel Lewis) hugs George Papadapolis (Alex Karras) in Stu Silver’s Webster circa 1983. Image reproduced under terms of fair use

The true reckoning, however, is delayed but not evaded, returning with misleading openness in Episode 8, “Travis.” It is not immediately clear how the title is related to the themes of the episode, except that we know Webster’s father is Travis Long (Harrison Page), George’s former teammate. Travis asked George to serve as Webster’s legal guardian in the event of his and his wife’s untimely death and that request comes under intense and belated scrutiny here. In the opening scene of the episode, Katherine chats after exercising with her friend Ellen, a black woman who Katherine knows well from her college days. Despite their otherwise cordial rapport, Ellen is bothered, on principle, by Katherine’s interracial adoption and says so without further explanation: “I don’t think a white couple should be raising a black child.” When Katherine takes this news to George for discussion, her practical-minded husband counsels: “It’s an opinion… Does an opposing opinion automatically make you wrong? […] What makes her the expert?” But Katherine has a serious contention: “Well [Ellen is] a housewife, mother of three, she’s black, she has a Ph.D. in sociology specializing in the placement of minority children, and she’s written this book, Trauma and Culture Shock of the Adolescent Victims of the Liberal White Left. […] She is an expert in her field.” Furthermore, Katherine concurs, “Webster has a right know about his culture, about his background, about his heritage, about where he comes from,” assuming Ellen’s objection is grounded, after all, in a concern for Webster’s awareness of “culture,” “background,” and “heritage.”

It remains perfectly ambiguous what precisely is the source of Ellen’s expertise—her being black, a wife, a mother, a sociologist, a published author or a specialist in the placement of minority children—though one would think the last would be decisive. In any event, the summary judgment of a black professional—whose “rather opinionated” research might be cited by Ms. Aimsley’s computer—stands in for the pointed and complex debate inaugurated, or reignited, by the NABSW more than a decade earlier. And, much as in the case of Diff’rent Strokes, the issue is reframed beyond recognition, as the very notion of black expertise on race matters, and the legitimacy of the political demands it recalls, is not so much refuted as it is circumvented. George, now impatient, says: “Do you think that kid in there has got a problem because we’re white?” “I don’t know,” Katherine replies. “But I sure would like to find out.” And so they do. Predictably, Webster does not have a problem with the fact that George and Katherine are white, but this is not revealed without routing the determination of the child’s approval, already a displacement of the adjudication of his best interest, into an economy of sacrifice.

KATHERINE: Are you ever embarrassed that George and I are your guardians?

WEBSTER: I’m confused. Do I do that to you?


WEBSTER: Then I guess you don’t do that to me.

KATHERINE, to GEORGE: Maybe he doesn’t understand what we’re trying to say. He is only seven.

Indeed, Webster interprets his guardians’ concerns wrong side up. “They’re very nice, Teddy,” he muses to his stuffed animal companion. “They wouldn’t ever want to hurt my feelings. But I don’t think they were telling the truth. I think I do embarrass them.” Webster is sure that his guardians would not want to hurt his feelings, but they have, in raising this awkward question in so awkward a way, inadvertently done just that. In asking him about embarrassment, that is, they cause him embarrassment, a “confusion or disturbance of mind.” Webster seeks consolation in a young white playmate, Melanie, but her ingénue’s advice only compounds the misunderstanding. Consulting the dictionary entry for “embarrassment,” Webster and Melanie, through a process of elimination, land on a definition indicating “difficulty arising from the want of money to pay debts” and conclude thereby that Webster presents a financial burden to George and Katherine. Having defined, and more importantly, quantified the problem in this way, Webster sets out to remedy the situation by selling off his toys to neighborhood kids, raising $1.87 for the cause.

As Webster plies his wares, Katherine is shown following Ellen’s advice to bone up on the scholarly research on white families raising black children, suggesting a parallel in her and Webster’s respective, albeit well-meaning errors. Each of them mistakenly believes that they are a problem to the other. George remains the skeptic, dismissing outright or, rather, disavowing the very question of race-conscious parenting as nothing more than an unnecessary source of discomfiture for parents and children alike. Katherine notices the impromptu clearance sale and interrupts Webster’s commerce. After learning of Webster’s plan, Katherine explains: “Our problem is much more serious than money. I don’t know if we’re the right parents for you. I like you very much, but the truth is that you’re black and we’re white and I’m not sure if being together as a family is for the best.” Webster reiterates his earlier stance and, again, misinterprets: “I don’t mind that we’re different colors. Oh, I see, you mind.” Fed up with the sort of handwringing that characterizes the “liberal white left,” George insists to Katherine: “I’m sure this arrangement is gonna work. Darling, we’re not black, I can’t help that, but we’re the right family for Webster.” “How do you know?” Katherine implores. “How can you be so sure? Make me sure” (Fig. 5.6).
Fig. 5.6

Webster talks with Katherine Calder-Young Papadapolis (Susan Clark) circa 1983. Image reproduced under terms of fair use

George, meeting the demand, gathers his newly blended interracial family on the couch to “settle the whole thing” in a scene deeply reminiscent of Spencer Tracy’s climactic soliloquy in Stanley Kramer’s 1967 film, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? In this instance, however, the director makes use of a flashback sequence to add an important authorial twist to the white patriarch’s pronouncement. It is seven years prior, on Webster’s birthday, and George has just walked off the field in the middle of a professional football game with his friend and teammate, Travis. Now at the hospital, they are buzzing with excitement about Webster’s arrival when Travis asks George to be Webster’s godfather. George is honored by the request, but concerned about its implications.

GEORGE: Travis, you think it’s okay for a white guy to bring up a black child?

TRAVIS: I don’t know about that, man. But if you’re the white guy, and it’s my kid in question… just why you being so difficult, you want the gig or not?

GEORGE: Well, I was only thinking about people. You know how people are.

TRAVIS: People are going to think whatever they want to think. Nothing is going to change, George, not completely. If people look at what we do as some kind of social statement then that’s their problem. But I’m not giving you my kid to make a social statement. I’m giving you my kid because I love you, George Papadopolis. You got the same values, same standards, same soul. You’re the closest thing to me that I can think of.

Aside from the evident way that George distances himself from responsibility for and inhabitation of the structures of antiblackness by rendering racism a problem of other people (white people? black people?), it is crucial that black people establish that considerations of race and racism do not enter their thinking when pursuing their children’s best interests. “Social statements” on the welfare of black children are not made by black parents with meaningful personal ties to white people; they merely nominate the best person for “the gig” on the basis of “values,” “standards,” and “soul,” rather than some putatively segregationist logic of race-matching. It is worth noting, on this point, that both Mrs. Jackson in Diff’rent Strokes and Travis Long in Webster are from working-class communities (Travis’ recent ascent to the NFL notwithstanding), and the barriers to their stated desire for the posthumous interracial adoption of their own children are middle-class black professionals like Ellen or adherents like Ms. Aimsley or even, temporarily, Katherine herself, all educated fools. White men, whether bluebloods like Philip Drummond or nouveau riche white ethnics like George Papadopolis, have little trouble with the prospect of interracial adoption because they experience no compunction in their interactions with black people in general. White women with professional aspirations, under the influence of liberal feminism, are susceptible to doubt about white parental fitness, for white and black children alike. White men have heard it from the horse’s mouth, as it were, and their word is their bond. Better yet, they are bonded to the ghostly word of departed black mothers and fathers, to honor their singular final wishes as a testator’s veto against the interference of political pressure, government mandate, or public opinion (Fig. 5.7).
Fig. 5.7

Webster sits with his uncle Phillip Long (Ben Vareen) circa 1985. Image reproduced under terms of fair use

GEORGE: So this is why I trust this, why I’m so sure. And if you don’t trust me, trust Travis Long. […] Travis didn’t say anything about easy. It wouldn’t be easy if Web was white. I think we have a pretty good head start. Here’s a little kid that loved us enough to sell all his toys for a buck-eighty-seven. And a woman who cared enough to risk losing that little boy, if it would be the best thing for Web. And a man, your pop, who was closer to me than his own brother. I don’t see easy, but I do see family, don’t you?

In the symbolic universe of Reaganstruction, the vindication of white interracial adoption , and the negation of the political demand for black family preservation that underwrites race-matching policy, is grounded in the earnest and profound intimacy that blacks ostensibly feel toward whites and the moral acceptance and eventual reciprocation of that intimacy by their white obligatees. White parents of black children cannot be interested; they must consider the best interests of the child, however perfunctorily, and be willing to relinquish custody in order to be rediscovered in that interest and as its ultimate guarantee. If black parents choose to give their children to white surrogates because they are kindred spirits, then we cannot fail to appreciate the acuity of Fanon’s observation that “what is called the black soul is a construction by white folk” (Fanon 2006, xviii).


  1. 1.

    The black man-child trope persists up to the moment. Consider subsequent black sitcoms like, most notably, William Bickley and Michael Warren’s Family Matters (1989–1998), starring the nerdy Steve Urkel (Jaleel White); and, more recently, Kenya Barris’s Black-ish (2014–), where the negligible difference in maturity between the protagonist Andre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) and his sons, teenaged Junior (Marcus Scribner) and eight-year-old Jack (Miles Brown), are a constant theme. One could consult as well the many episodes of Ellen Degeneres and Steve Harvey’s children’s variety show, Little Big Shots (2016–), where, among the guests, young black boys are regularly featured in comic exchanges with Harvey to emphasize their premature badness, boldness, and boastfulness.

  2. 2.

    See, for instance, the online film review clearinghouse, Rotten Tomatoes, where it was rated “100% Fresh.” Leading critics writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, Salon, Variety and the Village Voice all offered positive reviews.

  3. 3.

    Roberts (2002) speaks directly to this association: “White families…benefit from the presumption of parental fitness and valuable family ties. […] [Holding] up white families as the superior standard against which all other families fail is entrenched in American culture” (67). Throughout the text, however, she speaks to the ongoing denigration of black parental fitness in general and black maternal fitness in particular.

  4. 4.

    Thanks to Professor Jennifer Reich for bringing this article to my attention.

  5. 5.

    All citations for Harriett Beecher Stowe’s text are from the Project Gutenberg online copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Or Life Among the Lowly (1852, 2006, 2011).

  6. 6.

    There are, needless to say, generative possibilities inherent in the political terror of deracination.

  7. 7.

    Stowe’s novel argues that Christianity is anathema not only to slavery and its “outrages of feelings and affections” but also to racism and “the feeling of personal prejudice” it entails, even among abolitionists. Indeed, the convergence of slavery and racism is represented in the character of Simon Legree, a northern racist turned slaveholder, the quintessential godless man. In Chapter XXXIX, she writes of Legree: “No one is so thoroughly superstitious as the godless man. The Christian is composed by the belief of a wise, all-ruling Father, whose presence fills the void unknown with light and order; but to the man who has dethroned God, the spirit-land is, indeed, in the words of the Hebrew poet, ‘a land of darkness and the shadow of death,’ without any order, where the light is as darkness. Life and death to him are haunted grounds, filled with goblin forms of vague and shadowy dread.” The “goblin forms” that Legree sees in Tom and the other slaves on his plantation surely recall the “goblin-like” countenance that Miss Ophelia observes on Topsy’s face up until the point of her late conversion, just prior to Eva’s untimely death. The question remains, obviously, about how the author, as she is wont to do, ensures her own distance toward the very racist discourse her text invariably reproduces.

  8. 8.

    Bernstein (2011) concludes: “Pain divided tender white children from insensate pickaninnies. At stake in this split was fitness for citizenship and inclusion in the category of the child and, ultimately, the human” (36).

  9. 9.

    “The unfeeling, un-childlike pickaninny is the mirror image of both the always-already pained African American adult and the ‘childlike Negro’” (Bernstein 2011, 35).

  10. 10.

    For further reading on the history of the situation comedy in American television, see Dalton and Lindner (2005), Moore et al. (2006), Morreale (2003), and Taylor (1989). For treatments of the African American presence in television in particular, see Acham (2004), Fearn-Banks (2006), and Squires (2009).

  11. 11.

    For a discussion of this return to normalcy and its relation to internal developments in the corporate structure of the television industry, see Ozersky (2003), especially Chap. 6.

  12. 12.

    See Part Three of Roberts (2002) for a theory of African American group-based harm in relation to the child welfare system.

  13. 13.

    Roberts reports that “the economic fortunes of white and Black children are just the opposite: the percentage of Black children who ever lived in poverty while growing up is about the same as the percentage of white children who never did” (Roberts 2002, 46). See Part One of Roberts (2002) for more on the intersections of race and class in child welfare.

  14. 14.

    The sharp statistical disproportion between white and black families that Roberts cites in her research has eased slightly in the last 15 years or so, but the structural dynamics remain firmly intact. Black families remain far more likely than their white counterparts to face forced separation, black children remain vastly overrepresented among children in child protective services and foster care, and they remain the least like to find adoptive homes, especially black male children. See, generally, Child Welfare Information Gateway (2017).

  15. 15.

    Some might rightly hear a resonance between Bennett’s comments and those offered more recently by Congressman Steve King (R-Iowa). King shared on social media that he concurred with the public positions of far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders , then leader of the racist, xenophobic Party of Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid). Wilders was convicted in 2016 by a Dutch court of inciting racial and religious discrimination against North Africans in the Netherlands. King, who had already made past public statements extolling the superiority of the civilization of the white Christian West, wrote in March 2017: “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies.” When asked to clarify in an interview with CNN later that week, King doubled down by saying, “Of course I meant exactly what I said,” and then concluded: “If you go down the road a few generations or maybe centuries with the intermarriage, I’d like to see an America that’s just so homogenous that we look a lot the same, from that perspective” (Gupta 2017). From the present discussion, we see that King’s fears of a demographic threat posed by immigration from Asia, Latin America and the Middle East is rooted in a deeper, more long-standing tradition of antiblack sexual regulation, segregation and population control endemic to the racialization of modern slavery from at least the fifteenth century onward.

  16. 16.

    For an overview of the debate, including the mischaracterization of Steve Levitt’s Freakonomics, see Saletan (2005). The phrase “condemnation of blackness” is from Muhammad (2010), who tracks the development of the social, economic and political conflation of blackness and crime in the post-Reconstruction-era USA.

  17. 17.

    For reflection on the Moynihan Report on the 50th anniversary of its publication, see Geary (2015).

  18. 18.

    Rothman explains further: “Adoption is the result of some very bad things going on upstream, policies that push women into having babies that they then cannot raise. Racism is of course the other feeder stream: More women of color find themselves placed just there, placed willingly or very much against their will. Some make adoption plans and place their babies in waiting arms; some have their children wrenched away by a deeply neglectful state, which then finds neglect. A lot of what adoption is about is poverty; a lack of access to contraception and abortions; a lack of access to the resources to raise children. In addition, a lot of what poverty is about in America is racism. Moreover, as much as the black community stands there with open arms, absorbing as many of those babies and children as it can, the same poverty that pushes all those babies and children into the adoption stream ensures that there won’t be enough black homes to take them all” (Rothman 2004, 197–198).

  19. 19.

    Although this isn’t entirely true. Mr. D, in the same episode, quips that he’s had a good day because he walked all the way home from the office through Central Park without being mugged. He also jokes, in the first episode, when bragging to Arnold and Willis about the obscene wealth they will now enjoy as his new charges, that on a clear day one can see from his balcony all the way across the Hudson River to New Jersey—likely the multiracial, multiethnic working-class neighborhoods of Jersey City—“not that anyone would want to.”

  20. 20.

    On Arnold’s role as comic relief, see Heffernan (2006). There the author writes that Diff’rent Strokes “is the representative document of the surreal race politics of 30 years ago, which made gods of limousine liberals and allowed minstrelsy to inform black roles for children. If the 60s had radical chic, the 70s and 80s had radical cuteness. The face of this ideology in primetime was Arnold Jackson… At the time Arnold struck audiences as an endlessly endearing trickster figure, whose Harlem-bred sensitivity to being hustled had been reduced to a sweetie-pie affectation: ‘What you talkin’ about, Willis?’ Arnold was supposed to be shrewd and nobody’s fool, but also misguided; after learning his lessons, he was easily tamed and cuddled.”

  21. 21.

    Given the history of American film and television, one would think that Diff’rent Strokes would generate controversy for placing under the same roof a pubescent black boy (Willis) and a pubescent white girl (Kimberly), both ages thirteen. In a sense, the too obvious objection to that doubly taboo interracial, incestuous sexuality was repressed, only to return in a fascination with the perversion attributed to the cast off-screen. All three of the former child stars—Gary Coleman, Todd Bridges, and Dana Plato—struggled with substance abuse and various legal problems that led to financial ruin. Plato additionally gained some notoriety when she posed nude for Playboy magazine and later starred in several soft-core pornographic films. A similar aura of perversion would attach itself to Emmanuel Lewis, star of Webster, with the emergence of his close and public friendship with Michael Jackson, especially as the latter faced allegations of sexual crimes against children.

  22. 22.

    This dynamic has been noted regarding questions of identity for black characters broadly in contemporary American television. See, for instance, Ibelema (1990), who summarizes as follows: “There is a definite pattern in all the episodes on African or racial identity. First, concern with African identity results from a personal crisis. The African American character does not project his African cultural identity in normal times. Overt awareness and projection are triggered by an event or in moments of self-doubt. Secondly, the character begins to engage in uncharacteristic behavior, rejects most social norms, and acts in exaggeratedly strange ways. In other words, overt awareness and expression of African identity is portrayed as a form of personal revolution and social rebellion. Thirdly, the character is confronted with ‘evidence’ that convinces him that assertion of African identity is not necessary. Fourthly and finally, the character reverts to his old ways, and the identity crisis is over” (Ibelema 1990, 122–123).

  23. 23.

    Wiegman (2002) makes a related argument is made with respect to Richard Benjamin’s Made in America (1993). She writes about how “the absence of interracial sexuality… is critically important to the presence of white multiracial desire” in narratives of liberal whiteness for the post-segregationist era” (Wiegman 2002, 861).


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of African American StudiesUniversity of California, IrvineIrvineUSA

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