When I was five, my father told me that I was Rudy from The Cosby Show. He probably said this as a joke but I took it literally. And since I believed that my father knew absolutely everything, I watched the series in deep connection to this shell of myself. Despite the absence of any memory of being Rudy and the chronological impossibility of me being a child actor on the show (Keshia Knight Pulliam, the actress who plays her, is four years older than me), I was Rudy and Rudy was me. It wasn’t difficult to take on this identity (especially as a child) because I didn’t understand the spurious line between acting and reality. I didn’t quite get television as a constructed space that may or may not represent the lived experiences of actual people. When I saw something scary on television, I was scared because I couldn’t create a division between these worlds—whatever happened on television could potentially happen to me in real life. In my mind I could seamlessly move from my small upstate New York home into a Brooklyn brownstone and family of six. Rudy’s lessons were my lessons, her triumphs and falls were mine too. I remember watching the episode where Rudy gets her period and how I positively inserted myself into the storyline. I saw the possibility of black girlhood (this was one of few places where I saw black children on television at the time) and I saw my period a link in the chain of womanhood. When Rudy got her period, all women got their periods. The shame of this biological happening was erased from my consciousness. I saw that menstruation wasn’t something I had to be silent about or ashamed of.
This interpolation wasn’t just unique to me; my father did this as well. The two of us were watching television one day when he matter-of-factly stated that the news reporter was Haitian. I remember laughing and turning to him to ask, “How do you know?” My father was having his very own Rudy moment. He was inserting his Haitianess into a space that claimed non-race, class or nationality. I still smile when I remember this moment that seems more like a fantastic act of agency than the passive subconscious at work. We were making television productive for us through our gaze. This ocular practicality was a sort of bending of the gaze that served us as two individuals of color watching mainstream television. Continue reading