When Images Became Action: What Barack Owes to Virgil, Cliff, Theo, and Other Fake Black People

03/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There they stood. Cliff Huxtable in his multi-colored, fully-textured sweater arm wrapped around son Theo beaming with pride. The grim, tight-jawed David Palmer looking onward wincing a smile. While Virgil Tibbs, in characteristic narrow black suit and tie, old and frail now, let a little stream of tears work their way down his face.

It was Inauguration Day for Barack Obama. You didn't see them? Well, no surprise. Granted, they didn't endorse him. Or contribute funds. Nor head for cabinet appointments. And none of them appeared for interviews on MSNBC (though I'm sure Chris Matthews would have loved to have asked Cliff or Virgil -- both Philadelphians -- how they felt about the race and the race about race and so on).

Oh, and I forgot to mention, they are fictional characters from TV and film. And while no one might put them in the same category of modern influencers as Oprah, or Spike, or Colin, I think they deserve that attribute. They paved the way for the acceptance of a black man for president as much as anyone.

Just think, if some folks hadn't seen the hypothetical black president with "David Palmer" (Dennis Haysbert) in 24, would they have been ready to vote for one? When people saw how easily the little kid "Peter" loved, laughed and wanted to stay overnight at "Rudy Huxtable's" house on the Cosby Show, were suburban swing voters not hoping the same might be true for their children when they saw Sasha and Malia Obama?

We can't be sure. But why does this matter? Well, all too often, and sometimes in the same breath, we disregard and fully embrace the impact of popular culture on our political choices and social acceptances. We want to believe we're deeper than that. And when we do embrace that reality, it is often in third person as if we're all armchair modern anthropologists detached from we watch a couple of hours of TV or film or internet download a day ourselves.

The NAACP figured that out a long time ago. Peep this from their website:

Ideas and images create the belief systems that control our individual and societal actions. When it comes to forming ideas, reinforcing stereotypes, establishing norms and shaping our thinking nothing affects us more than the images and concepts delivered into our lives on a daily basis by television, motion picture, recordings and literature.

This recognition by one of the oldest existing organizations committed to justice in this country, is what led to the creation of the NAACP Image Awards. Hitting its 40th presentation on February 12th, it is, true to form in Los Angeles in awards season, a glitzy affair with stars and productions, and tributes and red carpets. But the idea was for it to bolster what the NAACP was trying to do in the streets and courts for decades.

The idea was to recognize that part of fighting for justice was fighting for its perception.

And so, the cycle went like this: fighting for a different portrayal of black people in film and television (and the employment of black people in doing so) way back then, led to the generation of more images, which led to more audiences, which led to more better role models ("Virgil") that sparked the careers of Sydney Poitier and friends like Bill Cosby ("Cliff") who ran and owned their own productions that made people think "Black President? Why Not?" and put one on TV ("David Palmer"), and now we have one for real.

Now, I'm taking some license and skipping over many other factors that contribute to where we are today, not to mention many negative images sometimes self-inflicted by black folks, but the point remains: popular culture did have an impact on our politics.

If not, we wouldn't be bearing witness to an endless array of constituencies who recognize the impact. Just in the awards world alone, we have the ALMA awards done by the National Council of La Raza, the Environmental Media Association awards and (not a moment too soon for those who'd like to overturn Prop 8 in CA) the GLAAD awards. The more the better as long as perceptions and stereotypes that hold justice back are still around.

So, when little Barack was growing up, so too, was the recognition of images that would allow that age-old refrain "You could be President" to ring true. We now know it must be true. We saw it on television.

Wyatt Closs is a writer from North Carolina recently based in Los Angeles via Washington and New York. He works on social justice, coalition building, and popular media organizing matters for SEIU.