I’m afraid I may have been a bit flippant during my love for Fat Albert, and in crafting my narrative, lost sight of some truths.
Fat Albert began as a one shot special for television in 1969. Its success led to a weekly series in 1972. Both these dates predate the grim depression the US fell under. The show continued off and on production until 1982, so did produce and air during that deep depression. But it took place in an economically depressed world that had nothing to do with global economics and everything to do with institutionalized racism.
But in a very Canadian way, I wrote about it in a colour blind way. Obviously, the Cosby kids were created in an attempt to include black America. It was unheard of in its time for devoting itself to a portrayal of black youth. The show had a heavy handed moralistic message about topics like staying in school, not lying and forgoing crime. Assumedly, in a non racist America, blacks were still more susceptible to the dark side than whites and required this kind of messaging.
That snark aside, the show was groundbreaking for depicting an inner city impoverished black experience. It isn’t simply the cast, when the Fat Albert kids visit the hospital, the staff is all black, when they encounter police, they encounter black police.
And the show took place in the inner city, a setting that was not a part of America’s mythology, outside of Dirty Harry. Its setting is the same space that in 2010 is the playgrounds for retiring baby boomers that buy condos and shuffle around from restaurants to comedy clubs. Today’s inner city is clean, expensive and well-policed.
But back in the seventies, that same boomer power sank all its money and civic policy into suburbs, and the city suffered badly, and a generation of underpaid visible minorities kept cities barely alive, while conveniently tax supporting the Disneyland that so many Americans recognise as their childhood.
Fat Albert took place in alley ways, in a garbage dump, in movie theatres that were tattered, in a poisonous river that was drying up. It featured kids whose clothes were ratty, who sometimes went barefoot. It featured Kids who were hungry. It centred on stories where kids had to be clever and hard working just to find dimes to go to the movies. Kids who rummaged in the garbage for recyclables, kids who built the things they needed from the dump, and kids who imaginatively built a world for themselves out of what they had at hand.
Long before the gas crunch hit America, Fat Albert portrayed a world that had always lived under austerity conditions.
I always like a point Dimitry Orlov makes when thinking about America. He says in America you feel ashamed if you are poor, whereas the reality for most people everywhere, throughout history is to be poor. He feels wealth has often blinded us to the strengths that exist in economic poverty. People are not islands; they exist within communities and rely on one another, they know one another. They learn and practice a great many skills, building things, fixing things, mending clothes, finding fuel, growing food. Stuff the wealthy westerner knows nothing about. When everyone is poor, the last thing on your mind is any notion of being embarrassed about it.
Rewatching Fat Albert, I was loving the time capsule of my own childhood, a childhood where you ran in the wild, where the community of children had to fumble their way through making rules and finding justice among themselves. My own childhood involved scavenging in the garbage for useful things and even profiting from salvaging electronics that could be repaired. My childhood played in ravines and sewage drains, growing its own mythology about places. My childhood treasured trading crumpled comic books, so we could increase the amount of stories we got to read.
But after my reverie, I just felt I’d left a bit unsaid, concerning Bill Cosby’s greatest contribution to culture.