While the natural inclination is to separate Bill Cosby’s television character from his real life persona, the show we remember so fondly was not called The Huxtable Show. It was The Cosby Show. We did not really welcome Heathcliff into our homes. We welcomed Bill.
It is Cosby, the accused serial rapist of 15 women from whom we await an explanation. He has the time: His planned NBC project was just pulled in the face of these resurfaced allegations. He won’t be cashing any residual checks from shows streamed on Netflix because like any contagion, everything Cosby is associated with is now contaminated.
This reckoning particularly stings because of Cosby’s decades-long campaign of respectability politics within the black community. For years he has offered a socially conservative critique of certain elements of black culture, where he has emphasized individual responsibility and a pull-yourself-up-by-your-
To be sure, there are kernels of truth in his analysis of the plight of economically disadvantaged black folks. Wearing baggy pants is probably not in the best interests of black youth who have to contend with racist stereotypes about their appearance. Learning how to change one’s language while moving from informal to formal settings, code switching, is an important skill that facilitates upward mobility.
However, there has always been something about Cosby’s sweeping indictment of black folks who are disproportionately poor, uneducated and underemployed that has felt self-righteous and condescending.
So now we (almost) know.
The Cosby matter is complicated by what some believe to be the racially motivated and disproportionate media attention of a black celebrity. Comedian Tommy Davidson, also African-American, observed that the media have made this into a much larger story than Woody Allen’s misdeeds, which include nude photographs of the adopted daughter he eventually married.
African-Americans have long been fiercely protective of black celebrities because of negative media coverage and beliefs that double standards are used when judging and reporting on the bad behavior of blacks versus whites. Consider crack-smoking former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, caught in an FBI sting. Or Mike Tyson, convicted of raping beauty queen Desiree Washington. In each case, black leaders such as Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan, publicly defended these men and, in Barry’s case, accused the government of having a double standard and of specifically targeting a black leader to discredit. The protectionism of black male misbehavior by some in the black community (remember O.J. Simpson, R. Kelly, and Chris Brown to name a few) is disturbing.
While there is little evidence suggesting black media or major black celebrities are conspiring to protect Cosby, their relative silence is unsettling, save for occasional commentary or the obligatory mention on the Tom Joyner Morning Show. Why aren’t prominent black media and celebrities more publicly critical of Cosby about these sexual allegations? Why hasn’t Tavis Smiley, whose withering criticism of President Barack Obama has been relentless, taken Cosby to task? Smiley has made it clear black politicians and public figures should be held accountable.
Why did it take a relatively unknown black comedian, Hannibal Buress, to bring attention to what has long been speculated about Cosby’s sexual proclivities and more seriously sexual assaults? After all, Cosby is the individual who inserted himself in public discourse as a cultural critic of black behavior. He was a lightning rod of controversy when he made his “Pound Cake Speech” during an NAACP dinner commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Educaction Supreme Court decision. In that speech, Cosby offered a blunt assessment of the state of affairs of blacks by criticizing poor parenting and, wait for it—promiscuous behavior. His message: Individuals need to take responsibility for their behavior, and stop blaming white people for everything.
For so long, Cosby provided African-Americans the positive image of blacks many of us longed for: a successful (and present) black father—and one who was also America’s favorite TV father. That a prime-time show about an educated and financially privileged black family would be the biggest American hit during the ’80s was as remarkable as it was improbable, an American fairytale.
But in the stark glare of reality, we don’t need another story; we don’t need his lawyers saying these are “decade-old, discredited allegations”; we need truth and transparency. We need Cosby, the husband, the father, the social icon to take his own advice.