Bill Cosby Was Right (and what that says about us)

Tirhakah Love (@catalytic92)

Originally published in Kaleidoscopes Africana Journal as an entry in The Cosby Forum: Ending Rape Culture in Black Communities. Read the original post here.

Bill Cosby and his original character Cliff Huxtable have been right about a lot of things since they were introduced to our television sets. Cliff tried to warn Elvin about exposing his deep-seated notions of traditional gender roles in marriage before his TV-wife, Claire Huxtable, dismantled his entire male patriarchal existence. Cosby, himself, correctly predicted that even in the rigidly segregated viewing audiences of the 1980s, the concerns of black folk were the concern of the nation more generally: work, home, children, play, school, love, and so on. Unfortunately, Bill Cosby was right again when the Associated Press interviewed him on November 6th and he responded to the questions about the serial rape allegations with “No, no—we don’t answer that.” In his silence, Cosby mirrors the silence that his fans have practiced to perfection; it is a silence that has characterized our unease toward sexual assault and abuse. It is a silence that now, finally, been met with the appropriate anger.

Cosby had a strong grip on the minds of young people during his storied career. The Cosby Show introduced us to kids like us: black sons that had difficulty relating to their parents and other authority figures could see themselves in Theo, black teenage girls who had trouble loving their skin, their hair, themselves could relate directly with Denise and Vanessa. Even more telling—and maybe even more frightening—is the cultural influence that his other hit show A Different World had on young black minds. The latter show  played an even stronger, more direct, role in black communities because of its link to higher enrollment rates for black students into HBCUs in the 1990s. For what its worth, we associated these good black communal improvements to Bill Cosby, the person, and not the characters that he created. Cosby must have noticed this conflation and he strategically manipulated whenever his rape allegations popped up in the past, keeping much of the history buried, unbeknownst to black millennials until a few months ago. Older generations have heard of these complaints but were silent about them, leaving both black and white women out to dry. Why did this happen?

The Cast of A Different World

The complicated nature of thinking about Bill Cosby being accused of serial rape is all wrapped up in how the image of Cosby’s purity is in direct contradiction to the reality of his sexually violent past. For black millennials, Cosby stands in as a grandfather figure that has antiquated political beliefs but presumably wouldn’t harm a grape in a fruit fight. We iconized his sweaters, we made fun of his goofy speech pattern and mocked his dancing style, but we still loved him. Cosby not only represented a black man that could be respectable and legible by white audiences but also a paragon in black television fatherhood for black audiences as well. The Cosby Show made huge strides in widening the scope of complex characters that are available for black viewers to see themselves on screen. The show also represented a projection onto a potential black future in which black people could achieve an upper middle class social status without being dangerous to white people, shedding some light on Cosby’s personal politics and their influence on the direction of the show. There is not a functional equivalency between whites and minorities, since many minority viewers look beyond race and can identify with white characters. But white viewers do not identify with minority characters nearly as frequently. Cosby represented an exception that proved the rule.

So then, where does that really leave us? It leaves us thinking that Cosby is a television and comedic genius but a vile human being, one that we let get away with sexually assaulting countless women ranging from different racial identification and socioeconomic backgrounds. It leaves us questioning our commitment to the fictional characters that has loomed so largely in what we consider to be proper black television programming and the extent to which we subscribe to the realness of those characters. I, like many others, cannot watch another episode of The Cosby Show until I can come up with a way to dissociate Cliff from Cosby. Perhaps this is the conundrum that prior generations just couldn’t put enough pieces together to solve, so instead they opted for silence. Millenials have shown that silence is simply not in our Internet-crazed collective DNA and because of that The Cosby Show has been pulled from most of the networks that were still showing re-runs. There is no better time to show our support for black women against a proven manipulator. Maybe then we can start to make Cosby and those like him feel a bit more unsafe.

Silence is not enough.

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