This week, a judge ordered that depositions given by Bill Cosby in a 2005 lawsuit be unsealed. Those depositions reveal that the actor/comedian admitted to drugging women as a prelude to raping them. Given more than three dozen accusations from Cosby’s victims dating back to the 1960s, his confession merely confirms what we already know – America’s favorite TV dad is a heartless predator who used his power and prestige to prey on women for the better part of the 20th century.
Cosby’s spectacular fall from grace has been particularly jarring for a broad, cross-generational swath of African-Americans. Some have been familiar with Cosby since the days of "I Spy." Others know him for his most iconic roll as Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable on "The Cosby Show." But the ignominious nature of his crimes has ironically conjured exactly the kind of shame about violent, dangerous Black male sexual predation that Cosby has so vehemently preached against. Bill Cosby has been ashamed of Black America for the better part of the 21st century. Now Black America is ashamed of Bill Cosby.
Neo-soul singer Jill Scott, a Philadelphia native like Cosby, and one of his staunchest supporters in social media, was forced to retract that support yesterday, declaring that she was “disgusted,” now that “proof” had emerged about his despicable acts. Beyond her outrage, her tweets also expressed a kind of palpable pain.
To have Bill Cosby, the most iconic representation of Black achievement and racial respectability prior to Barack and Michelle Obama emerge as a violent, sexual predator feels like too much to take. He signals just how hollow the project of racial respectability for achieving freedom really is. Many Black folks have received Cosby’s conservative tirades against Black cultural naming practices, Black educational struggles, and the prevalence of non-nuclear Black families as our brand of a tough-love tinged social gospel. Despite the fact that we vote for liberal politicians, many, many Black folks believe that improving our individual behavior is the solution to what ails us.
We now know that Cosby’s own children were raised by a violent, predatory rapist, who serially cheated on their mother.
I have seen many Black people expressing far more sadness at Cosby’s predatory behavior than outrage on behalf of his victims. For one thing, because his victims are mostly white women, there is less compulsion to identify with them, defend them or stand up for them. As the recent schism among Black and White feminists over Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” video illustrates, feminism is no easy cross-racial unifier. While many white feminists decried the violence of the revenge fantasy depicted in Rihanna’s video, Black feminists like Mia McKenzie argued,
“But here’s what white feminists don’t get (and what has them fucked up): black women often see white women as the same as white men. The harm done to us by white men and white women isn’t vastly different to many of us. White women have been unapologetically violent towards black women for centuries. They’ve used the power of the state, of the police, of the courts, of the media, and of individual white men to harm black people, including black women, time and time again. They are as harmful to us as white men are.”
In this particular moment, I’ve seen far less defending of Cosby’s affluent white victims and far more lament about the kind of loss he is to the community. This is a political moment where it no longer feels safe if you are a Black person to walk down the street, go swimming, go shopping, call the police, or go about everyday life. In a prior era, when these were also the conditions that marked Black life, when state forces were more menaces than protectors, Black people decided that respectable comportment – speaking properly, having impeccable manners, obtaining a college degree, getting married – would provide buffers against unpredictable but sure onslaught of racial animus that they might encounter at any moment. By all outward appearances, this was the school of thought to which Bill Cosby subscribed. It became the text of his sermons, even in the 21st century, when it should have been clear that while over 100 years of the Black respectability experiment had yielded some notable exceptional Black achievers, it still had not done very much for the masses of Black people. Ever the optimists of the American Republic, Black people by and large agreed with Cosby. We internalized the shame that Cosby pedaled over our inability to get our men to act right and marry us, our penchant for having more babies than marriages, and our love for children named sometimes after what we perceived to be top-shelf liquor.
While too many Black folks have been busy trying to live up to the Huxtable ideal, Cosby terrorized countless women, drugging them, raping them, and sometimes trying to buy their silence. That he chose as victims the one group of women that Black men are warned away from almost from birth, because the trauma of lynchings past still haunt us, only added more shame and insult to the injury.
The thing that I am most angry about besides Cosby’s violent, predatory acts toward his female victims is the collective sense of shame and disappointment that rests on the sagging shoulders of black folks in this moment. Cosby was one of our shining stars, the kind of man who could unify soul babies to their soul-loving parents. Now a collective mourning is occurring.
Many Black people feel like they have lost the only father model that they ever had. And while I have never been enamored with Cosby or Cliff Huxtable as a father figure, I can affirm that the mourning for fatherhood lost is a real and legitimate pain. For many Black men, Cosby now legitimates every awful thing that white people have been conditioned to think is true about Black men. If the innocuous, lovable, jello-pudding-pop man can’t be trusted, then no Black man can.
In a movement for Black Lives that has as one of its central concerns debunking the myth of Black male violence and criminality, Cosby has made the struggle that much harder. For those of us concerned about a refusal within Black communities to forthrightly confront and deal with the problem of rape culture, the sense of loss that Black men and women feel over his acts makes the conversation that much harder to have.
Sometimes because the pain is too much to bear and the wounds are too gaping to look at, I rush forward into analysis. Years of academic training make it an often satisfying escape. And my analytic mind says that it has long been time to throw off the vestiges of our belief in a shiny Black patriarchy that will anchor us, grant us stability and save us. That is not the collective Black story. It never has been. It never will be. My analysis tells me that.
But our grief tells me that Cosby was a real father to so many. To people for whom “play cousins” are a legitimate family category and fictive kin is a way of life, that Cliff Huxtable was merely a TV character is almost irrelevant. Real is relative. He and his family represented a particular kind of possibility. That there are other kinds of possibilities that we have the power to dream and make real is not the thing people want to hear in their grief. Instead, we want not to live in a country where white supremacy and patriarchy take everything we hold dear away from us. Hope is in short supply these days. And while most have resolved that we must let Bill Cosby go, the letting go feels like letting go of a little bit more of our hope.