Bill Cosby is nothing like my father, and I am relieved.
In a Facebook post where I shared New York Magazine’s riveting profile of thirty-five women Bill Cosby is accused of raping (with one empty chair, because we may never know all of his victims), a friend asked if I can still enjoy The Cosby Show. He wondered if I could separate Cosby’s ‘humanness’ from his genius contributions to American culture, and particularly black American culture. These are questions he asked himself through me, I believe. They are questions that many 80s babies are grappling with, not because of whom Bill Cosby is as a man, but because of whom he has been as an ideal, as a model of respectable blackness and as a kind of father figure to many.
When I first heard rumors about Bill Cosby being a rapist, it was years before Hannibal Buress’s now viral comedy routine and sometime after his infamous Pound Cake speech given at an NAACP awards ceremony in 2004. The answer I gave my friend, and anyone who asks, is ‘no’. No, I cannot separate Cosby the rapist from his portrayal (both on and off camera) as America’s favorite dad. It has not been an easy ‘no’, but it is a steadfast one.
After all, I had loved Bill Cosby since I was a child; since my Saturday mornings were filled with Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids and Return to the 36th Chamber; since my brother and sister and I would try our hands at being Kung Fu masters before immediately being scolded by our mother for keeping up too much noise; since seeing African Americans on television seemed an anomaly. Cosby’s Fat Albert, even if only an animated series, reinforced valuable social and moral lessons for me; lessons that were more important than I could imagine as five year old black girl, because they came through characters that both looked and lived like me. I didn’t know that my story and likeness was missing and how it might affect my sense of self. African American leaders met with the head of NBC in 1975 to have the conversation that Fat Albert was having with me through my TV screen—how important it was for black actors to be casted in lead roles in film and television. It is a conversation the black community is still having, some 30 years later. This idea of having black people star in leading roles was also important to Bill Cosby, as he not only created Fat Albert, but wrote his doctoral dissertation on using the show as a tool to teach elementary school students.
This desire, from Cosby, to guide us was present, also, in the hit series The Cosby Show, which debuted when I was eight. The show shifted my television viewing experience, offering me, for the first time, a vision of a life I might want (and believed was greater than my own)—one without poverty; or drug dealers who scouted the neighborhood for new clients and new employees daily; or men my father’s age whose lustful stares and comments about my developing body, which made walking to the corner store a traumatic experience; or parents who were too busy working and trying to survive to read to you or talk to you about what ails your pre-pubescent heart. I wanted to be Vanessa, who was the middle child of the Huxtable clan, and in some ways I was already a lot like her. I, too, was awkward and talkative and a bit too concerned with the business of grownups for my own good. Class and the privileges that class carries as a prize, however, separated Vanessa and me, and even my tiny mind understood that fact back then. Vanessa was much more like my classmates in the gifted and talented program, whose parents were college professors or computer engineers or nurses, whose parents were not poor and struggling like mine.
My father was no engineer. He was no professor. He was no fancy OB/GYN with a lawyer wife who was paying his daughter’s tuition at Princeton out of pocket. He was, to me, the antonym of that kind of man; writing this now that he has passed away is painful. My father chain-smoked and probably drank too much. His hands were calloused because he had been working since he was a small boy—sharecropping in the backwoods of southern Louisiana. My father didn’t even possess a high school diploma, let alone some advanced professional degree. But he laughed when he could, and he could sing like Sam Cooke, and he loved his children with his entire body and soul. He was still no Heathcliff Huxtable. He didn’t tell jokes to me and my friends. He never played classic jazz records or fell asleep with books on his chest. And he never got frisky with my mother. As a matter of fact, my parents rarely touched and were probably too tired to consider friskiness between trying to raise three children in the age of Reaganomics and crack cocaine and working double shifts to finance the American dream they really had no authentic access to anyway.
My mother was also nothing like Claire Huxtable. She was not a perfect mother and career woman who balanced always looking flawless, raising six rowdy children, and being a kick-ass, case-winning attorney. Mama was hard and exhausted, I’m sure from having to drink, daily, a cocktail of racism and sexism. Her beauty was present but not polished. She fussed too much and rarely smiled, and she wasn’t a feminist who put men in their place when they treated her as less human than them. I’m sure she didn’t know, even, what feminism was. My mother wasn’t bilingual. She wasn’t Claire Huxtable brilliant, but she was her own kind. She was talented in a million ways, and she used all of those talents to keep us clothed and fed and safe as best she could.
I can write vividly and lovingly about my mother and father now, with a greater understanding of the black American experience, from slavery to today, and how that experience is cultivated by policies that keep many black people poor. But at eight I wanted to be Bill Cosby’s kid, because, even then, I viewed him as one and the same, on set or not. Cosby, through the careful crafting of his character Heathcliff and the other characters that we came to know as Cliff’s family and friends, presented an idea to African Americans of what life might be like if we escaped poverty and became educated, and found a partner who had also escaped poverty and became educated, and raised educated and cultured children together. This presentation of a different kind of black life also interrupted the narrative that was cemented in the minds of many white Americans about black communities—that we were all struggling and lazy and dumb and violent and welfare queens waiting on our next government handout. In hindsight, the idea that Cosby created these characters to eradicate these kinds of stereotypes, yet went on a national tour using the same stereotypes to confront those most vulnerable in the black community, ties directly into the hypocrite we have now uncovered him to be.
It’s quite a shame too.
Bill Cosby (from Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids to The Cosby Show to A Different World), in addition to introducing me to new ideas on what success might look like for me, also presented aspects of a national and global black consciousness that I may have otherwise not known about or been interested in. My parents had no knowledge or monetary access to acquire black art like Ellis Wilson’s painting, The Funeral Procession, which the Huxtables purchased for “a steal” at $7,000 in order to recover it as a long lost family heirloom in one episode. Through these shows I was introduced to Afro-Cuban jazz artists like Willie Colon and Mario Baza (and for the first time ever, I heard a reference to the Cuban spiritual and cultural practice of Santaria). After her appearance on The Cosby Show, I became fascinated with Miriam Makeba, and thus was introduced to South Africans’ struggles against apartheid. Not to mention being able to witness the genius of Tito Puente and Art Blakey, Betty Carter and Lena Horne, Dizzy Gillespie and B.B. King, on primetime television before I could grasp their cultural significance.
A Different World, which was a spin-off of The Cosby Show, further cemented my understanding of black culture in a way that wasn’t readily available when and where I grew up. My hometown of Houston, Texas has come a long way in its diversity and access to black arts and culture, but that kind of access was quite narrow in the 80s and 90s. It was also access guided by education, income, and privilege, which my family wholly lacked. A Different World was where I began dreaming of going away to college, and even a historically black one. I felt solidarity with many of the show’s characters: Denise (who was the second born Huxtable experiencing college life away from home), and especially Freddie (an artistic, free-thinking rebel who introduced me to feminism and black activism in a way I could never imagine). The show discussed everything from date rape and intimate partner violence, to students demanding corporations divest from South Africa during apartheid. It was television, and of course therefore fiction, but it molded me as a young woman. It was like watching my future unfold. It is the hardest of Cosby’s shows to let go.
Beyond the shows, beyond Cosby employing, seemingly, every black actor we’ve come to know and love, Bill Cosby and his wife Camille gave generously to many causes that have aided black America and America as a whole—from their more than $20 million gift to Spelman College to their inestimable investments in education through the Hello Friend/Ennis Cosby Foundation (named for the Cosby’s son Ennis who was murdered in Los Angeles in 1997). Cosby was, as Professor Brittany Cooper reminds us, “…the most iconic representation of Black achievement and racial respectability prior to Barack and Michelle Obama.”
Today, both inside and outside the black community, we discuss how that man is gone, but the truth is he left us long ago. Even before his “Pound Cake speech”, where Cosby blames poor and disenfranchised people for their awful plight, instead of the harrowing systems of racism that countless studies demonstrate impact their ability to transcend those circumstances. In fact, it’s important to note that it is Cosby’s Pound Cake speech, and him taking the position of “public moralist” and teacher, that moved Judge Eduardo C. Robreno to unseal the 2005 deposition in which Cosby admitted to procuring the quaaludes he would use on women he intended to have (non-consensual) sex with. Yes. Cosby ordained himself as a public moralizer who preached to packed crowds of all races, demonizing and dehumanizing poor black people (like many in my family and my community), without offering one iota of context as to why and how poverty is still such a major issue in the US. He spoke of being poor and black as though it were a crime, all while knowing fully that he was a real criminal—a serial rapist—and not at all the character he played on television and in real life.
In fact, I’d argue that Bill Cosby was never the man, the icon, the protector and illustrator of black culture, the guide, the genius we have created in our minds. As more and more details emerge regarding Cosby drugging and raping an ever-growing number of women over what seems to be the entire course of his career, I keep hearing people speak about his legacy—how we cannot allow his legacy to be overshadowed by these “accusations” of rape, how it’s a shame what these “allegations” are doing to the name Cosby has built for himself. These conversations bring me to a point of rage, because this is what I understand (and what we all must understand) about Cosby’s legacy.
As long as he has pretended to demonstrate what we believed to be black love and black genius, he has been drugging and raping women, starting with (as far as we know publicly) with Kristi Ruehli in 1965. When Cosby was pretending to teach black girls like me the value of friendship and honesty and kindness through his character Fat Albert, he was drugging and raping women. When The Cosby Show hit the airwaves, and I secretly wished that my father was more like Heathcliff Huxtable (and by proxy Bill Cosby), Cosby was drugging and raping women. When Cosby appeared on screen always championing women’s rights and supporting his clearly feminist wife as his equal, he was drugging and raping women. In all the times he exposed me to parts of black culture that I had no idea existed, in all of his shows, he was drugging and raping women. As he positioned himself, time and time again, as the culmination of black dreams and black success and black generosity, he was drugging and raping women. And when he decided to shift his career towards social commentary, and go on a national tour to tell mix crowds how disgusted he was with poor, struggling Black people—like the ones he grew up around in his hometown of Philadelphia—he was most likely still drugging and raping women.
Bill Cosby’s legacy reveals only that he is a serial rapist, a narcissist, and a fraud. He used me and my community to build an image of him that made his countless victims seem like liars and moochers, and any battles for justice on their behalf mostly impossible. And as celebrated author Roxane Gay writes, “…by even considering Cosby’s legacy or what he meant to me or anyone else focuses the conversation on him and the possibility of redemption instead of where it belongs–the women he hurt, the hypocrisy, the culture that allowed his criminality to thrive.” In fact, he still has many in the black community defending him, most likely a number of whom Cosby would look down on as an improper representation of respectable blackness.
But he is a lesson, a lesson on being mindful of what we admire and wish to emulate. Cosby is the epitome of the lesson James Baldwin tried to teach way back in 1962, and that is outlined in his essay, A Letter to my Nephew, written to his namesake and really to all of us. Baldwin pleads, “Take no one’s word for anything, including mine, but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go.”
I come from a mighty people who endured slavery and Jim Crow, and who went from sharecropping land they couldn’t fathom escaping to owning their own farms. I come from men with hard hands and soft, humble hearts—full of great morals and a love for their families and communities. I come from powerful women who would never sit idly by as men like Cosby terrorize generations of women, the kind of women who were feminist in the most ancient ways, a feminism forged through collective work and collective love.
I come from good stock. I am ashamed that I was ever ashamed of that stock and believed some fictional characters created by a real-life monster, to be somehow better than it. I suppose our lives are filled with cautionary tales that bring us, prodigal sons and daughters, back home, and for that we should be grateful.