As a writer of this article, I am not a parent…which is one of my main inspirations behind writing this.
We were all children once (insert “water is wet” response here). Whether we were raised by our biological parents, foster parents, other family members, or did not have any parental figures, we were once young. We know what it’s like to be parented (or lack thereof), and as a result, we each have an individual opinion in regards to parenting. Some of us vow to never abandon our kids while others pledge to raise their children differently from their childhood. Ultimately our paradigm towards parenting forms before becoming an actual parent. It happens when we think existentially about how we grew up in the world and what we want to pass down or throw away. In terms of cultural values, we typically take back from our culture and race, and decide how much of it we want to embrace. The bottom line is that parenting dynamics in the 21st century are different than in previous decades, especially with black families. As a result, we must collectively shift the paradigm of parenting towards one which can best allow adults to parent children. Reflecting on James Avery’s role in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, I think that paradigm lays within an “Uncle Phil” model of parenting- one that says I can love you because you are a child, even if you aren’t my child or even if your mother isn’t my wife.
Preamble: Marriage of the Heart > Marriage of Chromosomes
In the 21st century, the thought of legal marriages being the sole means to introduce a child into world is unedifying and archaic. According to a Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study, the amount of out-of-wedlock births in the United States is almost 1.6 million, which accounts for 40.6% of births. Although that number isn’t the majority, it is high enough to indicate a trend in childbirth. Many factors can be considered: fathers leaving the mother after a “quickie,” births from women who were raped, or a couple simply deciding to have a child before or without getting married. It is, for the most part, universally viewed negatively if a father walks out on the mother and child completely and especially if a woman were to become impregnated after falling victim to rape.
The case of parents raising a child together out of wedlock is one that is more morally ambiguous. In terms of legalities, unmarried parents do have to jump through more paperwork hoops in terms of securing rights for the father of the child(ren). On the moral and ethical side, it isn’t absurd to think that two unmarried parents can raise a child. Stability does not lie in a marriage certificate but in a clear understanding from the parents involved. Divorce rates hover around 50% based on many sources, which shows that legal documentation isn’t a miracle cure for parental disputes. The parents should ask themselves, “Are we marrying out of obligation, religious or otherwise, or are we marrying each other because we love each other?” A child’s mental health can also be heavily affected by parents who divorce. According to the US News and World Report, children whose parents are experiencing a divorce can suffer from symptoms such as stress and depression to the point of needing counseling. These affected children truly need adults who are there to help them grow, or parents with awareness that their situation is changing. This may even mean giving up a child for adoption. Children in foster care definitely experience their fair share of stress and strife as well. The American Academy of Pediatrics describes foster care systems as inept in terms of addressing the mental health needs of children, which is why parenting is more than a biological connection.
The Huxtables: The American Dream that Died
As most or all of us know, Bill Cosby’s public image and personal behavior have been called in to question lately due to the plethora of rape allegations. His accomplishments such as his role as Cliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show, has also appeared in many discussions regarding Cosby’s image. The Cosby Show happens to be what black people (and America) considered a black family with a positive image. They are the black family who realized the American Dream. The image Cosby portrays is that of Cliff Huxtable: an OB/GYN who is married and has children within his upper-middle class household. He is very heartwarming and comical, but can also be stern along with his wife Claire Huxtable in teaching their children lessons. There is nothing wrong with this; it’s good to show that black families can be fully functional, or even traditional in American values if any black person would like to operate in that fashion. It is possible for black people to hold “universal” values such as health, education, financial stability, and other traits which ensure tranquility in a home. But what happens when a person has a friend with a child, but that friend isn’t doing so well financially or otherwise so he/she considers an adoption agency? What about the children who simply need a stable home to read, write, and do basic functions that other children that age are doing?
This is where Uncle Phil and the Banks family swoops in. The Banks being another well off family, took Aunt Vivian’s (Janet Hubert-Whitten/Daphne Maxwell Reid) is this her full name?) nephew William Smith (Will Smith) into their Bel-Air home because they could provide him a better lifestyle. The relationship dynamics between Will and Uncle Phil in the first few episodes show Phil coming off as unaccepting of Will’s more street savvy, young, and brash attitude. He doesn’t hesitate to reprimand Will when he does wrong. Later on in the series, we still see the fat jokes cracked by Will, as well as Uncle Phil cleaning up Will’s messes. The love becomes more apparent and Will transitions from a distant nephew into a son. For example, in episode 19 of season 5 “Slum Like It…Not!”, Uncle Phil invests in an apartment complex due to Will’s forced recommendation. It was in need of heavy repair and Jazz, Will’s best friend, was the main tenant making complaints. At the end of the episode after very little progress was made, Will starts beating himself up because he doesn’t want Uncle Phil to see him as a screw up. Uncle Phil then steps in and says “Out of all of my kids, you give me the most grief, but you know what, you’re the one I never worry about.” Why might that be? Is it because Will is more street savvy than say Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro) or Hilary (Karyn Parsons)? Actually, yes, and it’s because Will grew up without a father, with a single mother in the ‘hood and he is still breathing and in college even. Uncle Phil comprehends the idea of treating his children not equal but fair. Specifically addressing the needs of each child is important as each kid has their own problem. It isn’t that Bill Cosby’s character Cliff Huxtable doesn’t do this, but the idea that Uncle Phil does it and considers his nephew one of his children speaks to the concerns of contemporary parenting.
Any person who claims to care about and love a particular group or community should always be mindful towards that respective culture. With The Cosby Show, there were guests such as B.B. King and even a discussion of the March on Washington. For a class paper, Theo (Malcolm Jamal-Warner) asks his parents and grandparents who were present at the March for details. The problem with the description given to Theo was that it seemed highly watered down. We’ve all heard that there were people of all races gathered peacefully for a unified cause. Though I wasn’t present, I am sure that it was more than a Woodstock-like concert gathering of people. It was an address to the US government to implement a concrete change in policy. The underlying question is why a family in that position doesn’t reflect on the 16th Street Baptist Church bombings in which 4 little girls were killed?
Why do some blacks become racially mute and figuratively blind when upward mobility is involved? Why do we have to reimagine our history so that it is easy to digest? If this is the case, then the argument that any black person can make socioeconomic advances in America is negated because in order to become successful in America, a person must first vacate his/her identity as an African American. This is dangerous to teach, but it doesn’t have to be this way. In The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, The Banks family are members of the Republican Party. They live next door to the Reagans, while Carlton often times gives some conservative political satire. Even as Republicans (then and now) are out of touch with the black community, the Banks family never forsakes the black race and culture. Aunt Vivian challenges both Carlton and Will to know as much black history they can. Uncle Phil tells Will of a time he heard Malcom X speak and also tells a former friend to not turn her nose down on him as he fights for black people in the courtroom now. Carlton reaffirms his racial identity and challenges a (nonexistent) black Greek fraternity when they question his ‘blackness’. Even Hilary asks Will how to appeal to African American viewers for her TV show. These values are important for parents because as children grow up their rationale develops, allowing them to form a social identity. Once they enter the realm of pre-pubescence, we, as adults, cannot turn a blind eye nor encourage youth to issues of race, gender, religion, nationality, disabled, and so on. Even if we encounter a child different than ourselves, we must find a way to convey the nature of our social constructs, possibly by discussing intersectionality. These constructs do exist, and there are particular issues with each that cannot be swept under the rug. We should encourage them early on as adolescents to love everyone the same, as they can only see the world within their existential view and interpersonal relationships.
The Village Does Raise the Children
One thing that this generation has revealed is that co-parenting is more fundamental than marriage. Looking at The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Will Smith is co-parented by his mother in Philadelphia, his Aunt Vivian and his Uncle Phil in Bel Air. Whether two parents or more are involved, a clear line of communication is needed as well as an exchange of values which helps to maintain balance in the child’s life. As mentioned earlier, it is the dissolution of harmony between parents which causes problems in a family. Another point to consider is that since the Supreme Court has legalized gay marriage, we ultimately will see parenting in a different way. It may not only be based on a complementary relationship between parents of the opposite sex, but also based on having multiple adults present to guide the child. This can be supplementary in nature to where there are two mothers or fathers, though some may argue that a boy needs his father or a girl needs her mother. Though ‘Child A’ has two mothers (involved romantically) it may very well gain disapproval, but let us not forget that Will (of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air) had two mothers as well- Aunt Viv and his biological mother Vy, and Uncle Phil, as his father. This is where the “village” comes in, as teachers, coaches, and other family members have a hand in setting an example. The coach who has to keep the kids from picking on each other, or the teacher who has to explain who Martin Luther King Jr. was all play a pivotal role in shaping a child’s identity. Whether we like to admit it or not, we are innately role models to children.
The abuse of authority by parents is another thing that is mitigated within the village-raising paradigm. The absolute relationship of parent and child causes parents to subjugate their children from ever having an opinion. Even with talking back, there are times when a child has no other means of expressing his/her anguish, and I believe the parent(s) should listen without threatening punishment. When Will’s mother Vy wanted Will to move back to Philadelphia, Aunt Vivian was the one to caution her about her mistake. Without that external parenting source, Vy would’ve came down hard on Will and his opinion would’ve been void simply because he is the child. Objectivity would have been gutted and Will would’ve been pressured to make a decision that he felt wouldn’t have benefitted him in the long run. Sometimes saying “I’m the parent, you’re the child” completely ignores situations where a child has an adult like experience to the point where the adult should act as a friend in order to level with the child. Let’s be honest, a parent’s authority is definitely not more quintessential to a child’s well-being than a child’s hurt or pain, no matter how it comes out towards you. It’s scary to think about the situations where parents are literally abusive, but we as adults always tell our children to listen to their parents.
All These Boys and Girls Are Our Wills
Ultimately, I wouldn’t suggest that every person in the black community or any other community share the same values or parent in an equal manner. I am saying, however, that we should always consider each child we see as nothing less than valuable and deserving of love. This isn’t just a romantic statement though. A person can belong to a certain social construct and still deviate from the popular mode of operation. The same goes for parenting- it truly is a social construct. If you raise a child, you are a parent. If you do it for a short period, you parented for a short period of time. But if your sex cell mingles with the sex cell from the opposite sex, then creates a baby with your genetic code, then you are not a parent. Children with one or no parents are already skating on very thin ice with one skate and maintaining a balanced lifestyle can be very difficult. It is our job to consider options like adoption, as well as make sure that any children we give birth to are placed in the best situation that can foster a loving environment; even if that means taking the protective measures to prevent childbirth until a later date. That way, just like Uncle Phil did with Will, we can give children another skate to skate with.
Last but not least, rest in peace Uncle Phil…for real