RaceSex & Gender

bill cosby and our reality of a shattered black ‘hero’

October 3, 2018
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By Kierna Mayo, for AFROPUNK


On Tuesday, September 24, William Henry Cosby Jr.—iconic comedian, actor and desegregation pioneer with the his role on I Spy, and legendary creator of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, and most famously, The Cosby Show—was sentenced to 3-10 years in state prison for drugging and raping Andrea Constand. He was then handcuffed, disgraced, and summarily ushered out of the dank Pennsylvania courtroom. At that moment, you could almost hear Black America’s heart make a final crushing break.

This is a new world we are living in, It is one where a #MeToo movement exists (prompted by the salient efforts of Tarana Burk, a Black woman, no less), where a current Supreme Court justice nominee is publicly accused of sexual assault (and the sitting President declares that it is a “scary time for young men in America”), and one where a once-beloved cultural figure now has a jumpsuit with a prisoner number and 9’ x 12’ cell to boot. It is a world rife with personal and communal conflict for African Americans—some of us able to reconcile the many complications around race and gender, some of us unable, and some, in fairness, unwilling. You can see it all across the Internet on sites and social media, my timeline included.

Some years ago, when the deafening height of the cacophony surrounding Cosby allegations—when nearly 40 women (scores more came later) had come forth accusing him of some form of sexual misconduct—I was the Editor-in-chief of EBONY magazine; today a fledgling periodical, but once the most trustworthy and venerable—and even now at 70+ years old, still the longest standing African American-owned and operated national publication. 

In November of 2015, for the “Family Issue” after much internal conversation and debate we went with a cover featuring a classic, Season One press shot of “The Cosby Show” from September 1984 (which included sweet 5-year-old ‘Rudy’) under what appeared to be shattered glass. The “glass” (was it a window? a TV screen?) was pierced (with a fist? a bullet?) directly on top of the image of Cosby himself, and its spider web of cracks spread from that center point in all directions—not just across the faces and bodies of the unforgettable members of the Huxtable family (also real life Black actors) who lovingly flanked his side, but off the cover page. [Don’t miss the metaphor: Cosby and EBONY Founder John H. Johnson were very good friends, and his daughter Linda was still the company’s President and owner. Cosby had appeared on the cover of EBONY many many times before, going as far back as 1966.] Inside the magazine, journalist Goldie Taylor, explored the Black community’s response to the mounting accusations and interviewed nearly 25 subjects for the 3000-word reported piece cleverly titled, “Cliff Hanger.”

Now we are trying to make sense of his imprisonment. For straight-up deniers and rape apologists, the rationale is that Cosby has been railroaded by a slew of mostly white women (for reasons unknown; maybe for trying to buy NBC once upon a time, *shrugs shoulders*) and that his sentencing is the racist, (reverse) sexist outcome of such an attack. Outside of the courtroom, Cosby’s publicist Andrew Wyatt actually let come out of his mouth, “They persecuted Jesus and look what happened.” He added that Cosby and Kavanaugh were victims of a “sex war.”

For Black folk unable to completely deny what has become overwhelmingly evident since the first public accusation in 2005, the year of the ‘Crimes of Cosby,’ but who just cannot digest what is apparent truth, a dangerous “whataboutism” has eerily taken hold. The thinking is that somehow because Woody Allen, Charlie Rose, Harvey Weinstein et al. are yet to be convicted, the world should lay off of the Cos. Because Black [*shrugs shoulders*]. (For those in doubt, I do have a modicum of a clue: I am indeed clear that racism exists and is a key component of the US criminal justice system!) 

Of course, for what is likely the majority of African-American families, Cosby’s sentencing triggered a painful mix of emotional devastation and unfortunate acceptance of the pitiful reality of it all. As one woman wrote on my Instagram, “Am I allowed to feel sad about a childhood icon’s downfall? I don’t condone his actions. But I still feel sad. 81, blind, remanded into custody.”

The problem isn’t that Cosby had a fall from America’s Dad to sexually violent predator; the problem is that America’s Dad, or at least his creator, was a sexually violent predator. It wasn’t ever a matter of either/or, but one of both/and. Fact is, they confusingly coexisted. 

As a cultural witness and longtime lover of Black people, my observation is that, for our community, what makes this Cosby, Humpty Dumpty-style (“…and couldn’t be put back together again”) fall from grace extraordinarily complicated are several things. Here are but a few:

The ingrained “boys will be boys” brand of sexism that excuses bad behavior and actually trains our brothers and sons to fight against their full human potential…

The fact that the majority of Cosby’s alleged and known victims are white women, and the protection and exaltation of white women (and their glory and honor) has forever been a fixation of Americans—always to the detriment of all Black people, and many times, Black men in specific. White women have lied on Black men to the police too many times to count, too many times to know—and it is in the historic and psychic record of the souls of Black folk…

Cliff Huxtable is an American hero; Black people needed him in 1984 and we believe we need him now. For he was so good to us—and too good for the world—fuck that, we must protect Dr. Huxtable at all costs…

Bill Cosby may have once been a young baller, but today he is an 81-year-old, legally blind man, who has “done good for the community” and if nothing else, visually reminds us of our fathers and grandfathers—a generation of Black men (not unlike today’s generation of Black men, frankly) who have often had their means, minds, and dignity stripped from them by the system both literally and figuratively. If we don’t protect him, who will we protect?…

Other people we deeply respect, including the revered Black women who were his wife and “wife” (Camille Cosby and Phylicia Rashad, respectively) say, it’s just not possible…

Thankfully, for many Black feminists—too often dismissed as the least among us (see the particular brand of trolling that public Black feminists and intellectuals receive)—the Cosby matter is black and white, meaning, there is relative emotional and intellectual clarity around the fact of his criminality, and it lends to a somewhat curt and definitive “good-for-his-ass” tearless type of response. Of course, for this group and others particularly sensitive to the plight of Black women and girls, there is acute awareness of the lack of historical justice (on every level) for the female half of Black America long victimized in myriad ways by white women, white men and, surprise, you guessed it, Black men, too. 

(Related: Sometime after the controversial Cosby EBONY cover, a 60-something-year-old, stunningly beautiful Black woman randomly approached me after a mutual friend’s mother’s funeral and told me that she’d wanted to send me flowers. I didn’t know her or understand where she was coming from at first. Then, through tears, she stood erect and said: “He raped me when I was a young model.” Nothing else needed to be said. I knew who “he” was instantly. She went on, however, but mostly to explain how deeply guilty she felt for “turning against the community” by outing him. Imagine. Not long after, there were roses on my desk.)

The notion of modern Black male celebrity criticism and ultimate social rejection based on the crimes of said Black men, has always been wrought with intra-communal strife. Whether the charges were about Miles Davis—author/educator Pearl Cleage bravely penned the seminal short 1990 text, Mad at Miles: A Black Woman’s Guide To Truth, a public outing of Davis’ alleged violence against several women—or Mike Tyson, or Tupac, or Chris Brown, or Russell Simmons, or R. Kelly. Understand that for the courageous women who would publicly take these men and others to task, when the powerful and defiant Cosby finally meets his fate, the sentence is a thing that signals light, not darkness. Sorry not sorry.

In the 1980s, we (as in, Black people en masse), wanted to affirm that there is such thing as a loving, healthy, funny, intelligent, gentle Black patriarch. We do today as well, declaring that our communities also create heroes worthy of being shared by all of America; heroes that happen to come in the form of Black male bodies. One can tell from the jumbled Black national response to last week’s news—and even to that EBONY cover three years ago—that our desire for the late, great Dr. Cliff Huxtable to live today is as strong as it ever was. This is because too many of us either forgot or never knew that he was always alive. Cliff Huxtable’s existence wasn’t as much about truth (Damn Right!) as it was about archetypal representation; perhaps, not enough of us in Black America had seen or remembered this figure before The Cosby Show, and Lord knows, until then, white America was virtually certain he never existed.

Well, Joe Mayo, my own dad and a very proud Black man is also 81. He is also fighting cataracts. He is married to my mother today, still, 52 years after making initial vows to her and, perhaps more tellingly, he has raised powerful, no shit-taking girl children (and a slew of their friends) without ever being the slightest bit inappropriate or violent, sexually or otherwise. Ever. I’ve never even been spanked by him. Joe isn’t a medical doctor but indeed he is a doctor of humanity and kindness. This also isn’t to say that he is a person who didn’t learn sexism from the cradle, as we all do, but is very much to say he is a person who has unconsciously (and consciously) struggled against it. (Mi madre es no joke.) My Army-vet artist dad’s many friends and admirers ranged from the tough-cop types, to the gayest Village queens. He taught me to ride my bike and shoot a lay-up, and let me practice braiding hair on his beard. He carried my bazillion-pound trunk off to college, and walked me down every aisle, marriage and otherwise, that I’ve ever traversed (not ever giving me away, but riding by my side). And I don’t believe—in fact, I know—I’m not the only one who has firsthand knowledge of a real life Cliff Huxtable. 

I know that beautiful Black men like my father who do not abuse exist across generations, and have  through every era of American life. Therefore, I refuse to have my passion and pride for the creative genius and iconography of the The Cosby Show allow me to be the slightest bit confused. I don’t have to ride for the fallen, decrepit Bill Cosby to prove what I know about Black excellence, Black decency, Black humor, Black art, Black colleges, Black family, Black mothers—or Black male heroes.

Because on the matter of Black America’s broken-ass heart, here is the ultimate sobering truth: America’s Dad was never real—but, people, Bill Cosby, the serial rapist, always was. Let us today pick up the pieces of our hurt and get back to the serious business of celebrating those among us who rightfully deserve the accolades be they our beloved “stars” or not. To hell with all the others.