Bill Cosby, once lauded as America’s dad, and revered as the pristine embodiment of purity (“I will not curse in my routines”) was given a sentence of 3 to 10 years for the sexual assault of a college administrator. She and dozens of others told, tearfully, of being “drugged” with a substance that left them virtually unconscious, unable to defend themselves against Cosby’s advances. There were traditional and social media formats spilling the story. By way of six degrees of separation, someone knew the details; hopefully the truth. Although he adamantly denied the many allegations leveled against him and, with the exception of one, contends that he did nothing wrong, the pressure-packed voices and ravenous want for justice loomed large and effective. Any persons who found the matters of Cosby’s impropriety questionable did so, it seems, out of an effort to hang on to the 50 plus year image of the man they really, for the most part, never knew. He became the first; he would not be the last.
According to testimony and reports, the incident occurred several years ago. The allegations erupted into an immediate divide, cuffing the country in a gender and, in many unfortunate ways, racial headlock. Regardless of the seething universal familiarity of men taking sexual advantage of women, the color of Bill’s skin played a role, if subtly. Historic lore painted the Black man as a sexual pariah, insatiable, sexually ravenous, especially for white women (Bill’s accusers and victims were of all races). It was a stigma that has existed for several hundred years as an attempt to further denigrate and dehumanize the Black male, building fears of a virulent caricature. It worked, to a degree. Even to this day, the presence of unfamiliar Black men encourages white women to clutch purses, speed walk to their destinations, or engage them in meaningless conversation to keep their minds off of a certain, as they see it, genetically programmed assault. Although this is applicable across the racial divide, Black men are the principal wearers of this disparaging veil. Because of the social stigma, whether admitted or not, Bill Cosby was no longer Bill Cosby when the accusations flourished. He became the stereotype.
Bill Cosby was accused of drugging his victims and sexually assaulting them, usually in his home. There came an almost immediate outcry. African Americans huddled together reminiscing about what this man, this icon, meant to them, appalled by the act and then by the dragging of Cosby. We felt, at that moment, sorry for him, his wife, and their children. We were a part of them, invited into their quiet public lives, breaking bread when they did. We were certain that there must have been some mistake. But reality has a way of awakening even the deepest of truths. After a while, there was no more denying. William H. Cosby, America’s Dad, was found guilty. He was a sexual villain.
Looking back to the early years, listening to his squeaky clean routines, Cosby gave the image that America needed. Alas, there was a Black man who was lauded by a racially diverse public and did so with minimal buffoonery. His characters, even those that were over the top (see Uptown Saturday Night), bought us comfort. We knew that in the end we would laugh and quote his lines as if we had written them ourselves. He sold us Coca-Cola, Jell-O Pudding and Pudding Pops. He epitomized style and the unique jazz infused coolness so large it couldn’t be duplicated. We loved him, and we believed, he loved us back. But, as the Spinners sang, “Love Don’t Love Nobody.”
The end result of this decades-long egregious infraction was already known. Beyond public shame, beyond the portrait of an old man with an unreliable gait and fading eyesight was, in the antiquated shell, Bill Cosby. What was happening to him began as a downward spiral long before the flurry of accusations, as his crown began to tarnish with African Americans. He crowned himself, perhaps with the best of intentions, the self-appointed spokesman for Black correctness; focusing on a community whose circumstances were dire, criticized and generational. His book, “Come on, People!” written with noted psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint, met mixed reviews and an outcry from those portrayed in the book and those learned enough to understand the underlying reveals. We understood what he was trying to do, but the adage of airing dirty laundry was gospel, still, the dirty laundry was aired from every bookstore in the country. Sadly, Cosby was right. The Black community was viewed through a cameraman’s lens, only able to capture the mired images, broken dreams, poor schooling, emotional indifference, impoverished conditions, and despair. He and Poussaint felt that the existing circumstances could be altered or altogether changed. They had the theories but they didn’t provide the foundational methods.
The MeToo movement, founded by Tarana Burke, herself a victim of sexual assault, brought women out of their unspoken place and into the spotlight, unified for justice against men who violated them. The movement was founded to empower women at a time (and decade) when empowerment shouldn’t have been a necessary issue. A barrage of men, mostly white, were accused, shamed and judged. From immature politicians to actors, musicians, law enforcement, and corporate executives. There were no surprises. Some of the accused and accusers were believable and others were questionable. Were women seeking revenge against men who had done them wrong? Were the actions of these men simply a case of the ridiculous but acceptable ideology of ‘boys will be boys?’ Was Bill Cosby the sacrificial lamb in a cause célèbre? The answer to each question is a resounding ‘no!’ He became the first; he would not be the last.
Women have fought for decades to be heard, to be recognized. Finally, by way of the MeToo movement, their stories became a fortified web, boldly told and universally heard. Bill was ensnared in this web for reasons that only he and others accused of this heinous violation would know; entangled so completely that his fans and admirers hoped that the punishment he would inevitably receive would be merciful. Mercy was not in the cards, and at 81, a frail William H. Cosby became the first for lacking control of his, let’s say, pudding pop.
Callers to “For the Culture, ” Morgan State University’s (WEAA) radio program had varying views. One caller referred to the incident as “cannibalistic racism,” a term he coined to describe how rich Black professional (athletes and others) prefer white women because they have the financial means to “chose.” The caller attempted to parallel the issues of the many white women accusing Cosby of inappropriate physical behavior (remember, the accusers were of all races). It was obvious what he was trying to project but in his attempted verbal acrobatic feat, the point was lost, although the potential to make a pivotal and provocative abstract was looming. Few callers defended Cosby, expressing disappointment in the man who was a familiar voice on their early lives. There was a Cosby who was ineluctable. Ultimately, the only escape necessary was from himself.
“How well do you really know anyone; really?”
Disappointment became the running theme with mortality a close second.
Disappointment was met with anger. Cosby became a hypocrite. “What would Cosby say,” became the buzz.
THEORETICAL COSBY: “Are you STUPID? What in the hell were you thinking? I don’t think you were thinking, at least not with your big head. This is the dumbest and most ridiculous thing you have ever done. Haven’t you learned that NO means NO?!”
These were words he couldn’t hear and actions he couldn’t control. His warm smile, sure stroll, and inviting demeanor were reduced to a pale facsimile; a man with a cane timidly stop-stepping as if the world was moving unsteadily beneath his feet. It was.
Bill Cosby was iconic, and for several generations will always be viewed sans the accusations and consequential sentencing. He was for decades, an “asexual” demigod, a fatherly figure, a moral protector, if only in our memories. He was our childhood, growing with us, embracing our dreams and coaching us through our difficult decisions. He has suffered a plethora of personal blows, certain to be overlooked because of the waltz of his personal demons. We cried at his loses, reached out trembling hands to grasp at his aging fingertips and heard him whisper, “I’m so sorry.” We will miss that Bill. I think we already do. But we cannot dismiss what we didn’t know or the man behind the curtain.
So, now the years will pass slowly. Those three to ten years will feel like another eighty-one. It pains us to silence, but years of silence was what kept Cosby safe. We pray to the God of our understanding that he will one day be forgiven. We pray that the Bill we knew can one day forgive the Bill he really was.