Bill Cosby: Fallen Idol
The dishes from our Sunday BBQ had been washed and put away. The smell of brisket and strawberries hung in the air. It was Phoenix in 1964. The summer heat made outside entertainment undesirable, so our neighbor from down the street gave my father a record to play on our homemade Hi Fi system.
“You’re going to love this,” he said as he settled onto the couch next to his wife.
The grownups had all of the comfortable seats, but I had a good listening spot on the floor next to my dad’s chair. I loved comedy records, and my dad had several. Jack Carter, Vaughn Meader, and the original Bloopers record were my favorites. My dad placed the record on the spindle and then activated the play switch. The turntable dropped the record, the armature swung over, and then the familiar hiss of steel needle tracking through dust and dirt trapped inside the record grooves came through the single eight inch speaker.
“I started out as a child.”
The room erupted in laughter as I heard my first Bill Cosby routine.
Yes, I know. Bill Cosby is a serial rapist of the worst kind. I don’t need to wait for a jury to decide. The evidence is overwhelming and even in his own words. I hope he spends the rest of his life in jail. And yet. . . .
In 1964, I was a middle class suburban white boy. So white I made a slice of Wonder bread look like a Sherwin Williams color wheel. There was one single black kid in my 7th grade class, but my only real exposure to blacks or black culture was Disney’s The Song of the South and television’s Amos and Andy. Or the nightly news, which showed blacks being beaten and arrested on a depressingly regular basis. I had observed these encounters between southern police and civil rights protesters ever since we got our first TV in 1955. I didn’t know what to think of it. I had been taught to always respect police and the authorities. But it seemed incredibly unfair that black people couldn’t get a milkshake at the same Woolworth’s lunch counter I sat at.
Bill Cosby changed all of that. All of the racist shit I heard from grownups about blacks being different, smelly, or untrustworthy went out the window. Cosby spoke truths about family life that proved, without a doubt, that blacks were no different than whites. He was also hysterically funny. My foster brother and I copied his routine about his brother Russell, and we killed in our high school cafeteria. Soon, I sought out other black comics: Nipsey Russell, George Wallace, Doug Clark, and best of all Richard Pryor.
It wasn’t just my comedy inclinations that changed. So did my musical tastes. I abandoned overly produced pop music and started listening to the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and the Animals. Liner notes on their albums led me to Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, and B.B. King. Pretty soon, my record collection had as many black artists as white. More importantly, I didn’t care. I only wanted culture, black or white, that was real. It didn’t matter whether it was music, comedy, books, or movies. Anything fake was “plastic,” the worst possible insult to us wanna be hippies. Being authentic became the ultimate goal for me as a human.
Some might accuse me of giving Cosby too much credit. Certainly it’s true that Elvis and the Beatles probably did more to bring black music into popular culture. And black athletes also played a role. But I grew up listening to white parents telling their kids that they weren’t allowed to listen to “n****r music” or decorate their rooms with pictures of black cultural icons. Cosby changed all of that because everybody wanted to laugh along with him at the absurdities of family life. Exhibit A is that when he co-starred in the hit show I Spy, cultural racial barriers started falling faster than Olympic track records. Several TV stations in the South tried not broadcasting the show but quickly gave in to viewer and sponsor demands. American Television became integrated. More hit shows, emphasizing the humanity of us all, followed. Being black became acceptable, even cool, to many young people at the same time that racism expressed itself throughout the country in riots, assassinations, and coded political messages. But without Dr. Huxtable, I am convinced there would be no President Obama.
The dark, evil side of Bill Cosby cannot be ignored. The horrible nature of his sick sexual predations are not only a stain on him but on all men. However, I think we can reject his terrible private actions and still acknowledge the tremendous good he did publicly in the area of race relations. There are precedents for accepting the duality of Cosby’s life. Thomas Jefferson stands as an icon of liberty and freedom for the common man all over the world even though he owned slaves. And his reported quasi marriage to Sally Hemings must be considered rape since a slave has no true ability to consent.
Other great men in the history of civil rights, such as Dr. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, displayed moral ambiguity in the sexual arena. I’m not equalizing anyone’s sins or contributions to humanity. What I am saying is that even the greatest heroes have complicated lives. While we rightfully condemn the slave-holding behavior of the Founding Fathers, we can still acknowledge and even celebrate their commitment to the Enlightenment. We should, and are morally obligated, to condemn the disgusting drug assisted rapes perpetrated by Cosby on so many trusting women.
If we are honest with ourselves, though, we must also accept that history should give Cosby a significant role in breaking down racial barriers in Twentieth Century America. Even though racism remains an issue, Cosby’s ability to create a narrative about the shared humanity of black and white America opened a flood gate of cultural mingling that can never be undone. That was a precious gift to us. The tragedy is that he didn’t see the same humanity of the women he violated.