Bill Cosby, Himself: Fame, Narcissism and Sexual Violence By Max S. Gordon
“People who die bad don’t stay in the ground”
---- Beloved, Toni Morrison
Let me begin by saying this: I am prepared for this essay to be a hot mess. It can’t not be a mess - how do you talk about Bill Cosby’s being accused of raping and drugging women, and not talk about stardom, and power, and racism, and sexism, and the news media, and black men, and white women, and fear, and slavery, and Jell-O, and childhood memories, and The Cosby Show, and class privilege, and rage at the first black president, and icons, and heroes, and fathers, hypocrisy, heartbreak and genius?
I’ve been trying to figure out for weeks what to write about Bill Cosby, as I listened to friends and strangers express their opinions, read articles, watched the news. I questioned those who think he is guilty, others who believe he is innocent, and asked both why. I’ve spoken to many people, but I’ve been particularly interested in the opinions of black women (the one I most wanted to hear from was Camille Cosby, until she released that horrifying statement in support of her husband). Black women stand at the intersection of race and gender politics in this country. And I’ve been surprised by women and men, white and black, who continue to defend Bill Cosby. Regardless of whether we are “for” or “against” him, I’ve assumed that there was one thing we could all agree on: if he is guilty, he should pay for what he did. I was wrong in that assumption. Not everyone feels he should be punished, even if the allegations are true.
Yet for those who believe Cosby is guilty, wanting justice doesn’t necessarily address the emotional turmoil we feel about him and our relationship to his art, our bewilderment over the loss of an icon. For some, it is the pain and horror of watching a black man “eviscerated” in the media. People use the word “lynching” and even “rape” to describe what they feel is being done to Bill Cosby. Some feel they have lost a best friend, while others protect Bill unreservedly, rabidly loyal as if to a family member.
In fact, there is so much talk about what Cosby is going through, that the real issues at hand become obfuscated or dismissed. What is happening in our conversation about Bill Cosby isn’t just about his downfall, although that is an important part of it. It’s about our attitudes towards women, rape, victimization, and sexual violence. It’s about a group of women who claim they were violated by a man, a man among many men in our culture who rape women every day, and who just also happens to be a comedy legend.
Bill Cosby is a man who has achieved greatness in his lifetime. Those in the public eye who soar to such heights become archetypal, mythological gods in their relationship to us. While their achievements can inspire us to reach great heights, they may also reveal a great shadow, which can inspire us in a different way; to look at ourselves, our beliefs, our assumptions.
Writers always fear that by the time they collect their thoughts on a subject and are finally able to write them down, the story will no longer be relevant. But this story isn’t going away, as women are still coming forward. This essay took time for me to write not because I was on the fence about the allegations: I believe the women. It took time because I realized that I couldn’t write about Bill Cosby without looking at the history of sexual violence in my family, my own experience with violation, and exploring whether I had at any time violated. Perhaps more than any other story in the media about rape, this one has the power to shake us to the core. And Bill Cosby isn’t the only one being accused of betrayal; for not believing these women decades ago when the allegations first surfaced, for not insisting on justice for them sooner, for desperately clinging to myths, when the truth is staring us in the face, to some extent we all stand accused.
In other words, you can’t deal with Bill Cosby now without at some point dealing with yourself and your relationship with the truth. In L’affaire Cosby, yes, Bill Cosby is in seriously deep shit, but you will also be defined.
The truth. Queer people have always had an interesting relationship with the truth. When we come out of the closet, we risk everything. Many of us deal with physical or emotional violence, the loss of family, often because of religious intolerance. We may even face death.
There are those who would argue that things are different now, that there is more acceptance in our culture. And in some places that may be true. But in the city where I live, New York, and in too many cities in America, the homelessness of gay youth is still a major crisis; gay teens are being put out onto the streets every day; having to prostitute themselves, and risking their health or lives in order to survive, to eat, to have a place to sleep at night. Saying to your family, “I’m lesbian, I’m gay, I’m transgender” can still be a terrifying experience, and still have devastating consequences.
But another thing is true: coming out can be an exhilarating, life-affirming experience, one that is filled with joy and enormous relief. You are saying to the people you love, “This is who I am. I’m not going to hide anymore.” Even today, despite all the progress we’ve made, coming out is still an act of enormous bravery.
So when you see someone else come out of her closet (and there are so many closets), you feel a sense of exhilaration. And the rape closet is overcrowded too. When someone says, “I am a survivor, this happened to me”, you feel liberated, you feel inspired, and the lock on your closet, whatever kind of closet it is, is loosened that much more. Courage is contagious, and hearing a truth finally told is the ultimate rush.
Some people who tell the truth get to stand with others who welcome them. Others face a firing squad and stand alone. But whatever happens, one thing is promised: truth can never be untold, and nothing is ever the same.
Women can't add, he once said, jokingly. When I asked him what he meant, he said, For them, one and one and one and one don't make four. What do they make? I said, expecting five or three. Just one and one and one and one, he said.
--Margaret Atwood, A Handmaid’s Tale
There is a black woman who works security in our building. Leaving for the day a few weeks ago, I skip our morning salutation and jump right in: “Oh, chile, Bill Cosby. What are we gonna do?”
It may be a cultural assumption on my part, but as we are both black, and Bill Cosby is a black hero, I take for granted that this is as big a crisis for her as it is for me.
Karen doesn’t miss a beat. “I don’t think he did it.”
I envy her a little. Her tone suggests she doesn’t believe it, won’t believe it, never will, and that’s that. Denial is very satisfying –I don’t want to believe it either, even though the minute I heard the first woman come forward, I felt it was true. Unexamined loyalty like Karen’s would definitely make my day a lot easier, and would mean I didn’t have to question all my dreams, and opinions, and admiration for Bill Cosby.
On some level, I’m frightened by what is happening. Cosby was supposed to have achieved the level of status that the rest of us blacks can only dream about in this country: the impenetrable power of a rich white man. Now he’s in trouble, he’s vulnerable, he’s black-in-America again - brought back down to mere mortality like the rest of us. For those who believe in his innocence, he’s the escaped slave that everyone dreamt reached north, only to be brought back to the plantation, head down, in chains.
And Bill Cosby isn’t just any black hero: he and his wife Camille, because of their generosity to black institutions, their commitment to education, and their wealth, exist in that stratosphere of black prestige with Oprah and Dr. Maya Angelou bordering on, in some people’s minds, sainthood.
And while I genuinely acknowledge their achievements, it can get to be a little tiresome having “black prestige” thrown in your face when you’re having trouble paying the light bill. Or when white America sees your black failure and wonders why you can’t be more like Bill Cosby (including Bill Cosby, himself.)
Karen buzzes the UPS guy in. When he’s gone, I clarify, making sure I heard right: “So, you don’t believe them at all? None of them?”
“No.” Her face is resolute. “I think he’s innocent.”
At this point nine women, maybe ten have come forward. I think at first that she is kidding, but neither of us is laughing. I wait for some qualification, even the slightest suggestion of doubt, but there is none. I’m having O.J. flashbacks.
I mention to Karen what I’ve read in the paper, the similarity of the stories, the fact that the women have nothing to gain, and in some cases, everything to lose. Yet, I know that I’m in that part of the matrix where for some of us actual facts or evidence probably won’t matter, either. As TV crime programs have made us all amateur investigators, team Cosby demands: “Well, if he’s guilty, then where is the DNA?” Yet, there is the unthinking person who will say when the DNA comes back positive from the lab, “I bet you it’s not even his. They snuck in at night and changed the slides.” It’s the fundamentalist belief system, self-mesmerized and unassailable. You can only nod, smile, and back away slowly.
When I ask why she believes he’s innocent, she says her biggest problem is why now, why did the accusers wait so long, why didn’t they come forward sooner, and if they were raped, why didn’t they go to the police when it happened?
I know where these questions come from. And even as more women come forward and corroborate each other’s stories, the questions don’t change. I’m not saying the accusers shouldn’t be challenged. I just wonder how many women would have to accuse Cosby for us to change our minds. Fifteen? Twenty? Forty? One hundred? A thousand?
At the time of this writing, over twenty women have come out publicly with stories about Bill Cosby - ranging from sexual impropriety to sexual assault. Still there are those who feel, and may always feel, that Bill Cosby is being framed. Maybe a mob of women could come forward and say Bill Cosby raped their whole town and still we wouldn’t believe it because, much like the black codes of the Antebellum South that once prohibited a black man from testifying against a white man in court, a woman’s accusations against a man don’t matter. A man’s denial and silence is more powerful than a woman’s assertion, no matter how many women come forward because, in the public’s eye, each of those women stands alone.
For many of us, it is impossible to imagine Bill Cosby is guilty, because he is, or was at one time, considered to be “America’s Dad.”
He may still be, but not in the way we originally intended. If we look at our own extended families and consider which ones have been touched by rape, incest, or inappropriate sexual touch of girls (all of them), “America’s Dad” may be a more accurate moniker than we realized.
Personally, I never saw Bill Cosby as “America’s Dad”, but then that name was given to him after playing Dr. Cliff Huxtable, an obstetrician, on The Cosby Show, and I hated The Cosby Show. Actually, that’s unfair: I didn’t watch it enough to know whether I actually hated it or not; let’s say I found something about it repulsive and tried to avoid it.
I found an old episode on YouTube recently where Cliff Huxtable has to go back to the store on a stormy day to get some forgotten items for Thanksgiving dinner. I laughed, and if I watched the series now, years later, I’m sure I’d appreciate it more than I did then. During the Eighties, however, I remember feeling there was something wrong with it, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
I may have had a very specific blind spot when it came to The Cosby Show: Bill Cosby, himself. After years of loving him, in this show I found him intolerable to watch. With his little dances and spaced-out grins to the heavens, he was trying to “out-cute” the kids on the show. I found his mixture of giddy silliness and stern pontificating ugly and oppressive. (When his son Theo brings home bad grades, Dr. Huxtable warns, “I brought you into this world and I’ll take you out.”) After speaking a nasty little line like that, Cosby still insists that you find him adorable - like a 50-year-old black male Shirley Temple without the lollypop.
Still, I knew better than denounce it outright to any of my friends. The Cosby Show was too successful, and to criticize a black man or woman when they are making that much money in America is considered sacrilege; it’s like saying you aren’t happy that Tyler Perry’s movies earn millions of dollars in profit, knowing that no matter how crowd-pleasing they are, they are also deeply regressive, hypocritical and full of shit (a black man in a woman’s dress holding a gun, in a film preaching evangelical Christianity).
I knew that The Cosby Show was “good for the race” in a Talented Tenth, Black History Month, Kwanzaa, Rosa Parks, Dr. King sort of way, so I kept my big black mouth shut. But I felt guilty for being annoyed by it and even questioned my own “blackness” for resisting it. The comedy felt strident to me and I didn’t completely trust why all the white kids I knew at school “just loved it”. What was white America watching on their TV screens about black life that was going down as smooth and as satisfying as Jell-O pudding pop? Was it the absence of poverty, frustration and racial anger that is an integral part of the black experience in America?
I supposed the idea was that white people were finally seeing us for who we “we really were” and not as stereotypes, but I knew that I came from a middle class family, my parents were professionals, and yet we weren’t the Huxtables. For some, one of the greatest accomplishments of The Cosby Show was the absence of the “coon”: no J.J. from Good Times saying, “Dyn-O-Mite”, no “What you talkin’ bout, Willis?” mugging by Arnold on Diff’rent Strokes. As I recall, the Huxtables were dignified, a class act, blacks that would never cuss you out, or act too loud in public, blacks you could have in your home every week. The Huxtables were perfect for the Reagan era, and while I was proud of Cosby’s accomplishment, that a black man had the number one show in America, I often found the Huxtables self-righteous, annoying, and predictable as hell.
Maybe I should feel guiltier for loving my black shows of yesteryear (shows, I’m aware, that had white producers and, mostly, white writers). But no matter how much I read the criticism, and the controversies behind them, I will always love What’s Happening, Sanford and Son, Good Times, The Jeffersons. While it cannot be disputed that, yes, some cooning was definitely going on, the coon has an interesting place in American culture; it is often hard to tell where white racist ridicule of blacks, and the enthusiasms of black American culture begin and end in the legacy of the coon. Perhaps whites were laughing a little too hard at J.J. Evans, or George Jefferson’s waddling “jive” walk, Fred Sanford’s “Elizabeth, I’m coming to join you” malingering, or Aunt Esther’s Holy Ghost shout; but some of the humor, coon or not, has its roots in authentic, black culture and vaudeville, and I recognized those people, their dilemmas and their humor in my family.
Part of The Cosby Show’s strategy was to drive “black wretchedness” (some of which is the effect of the trauma of slavery and economic violence on the black community) underground, to show America “good blacks”, a doctor and a lawyer (a set up that many white families would be lucky to have.) But it seemed at times that by throwing out the black wretchedness, we also threw out the black self-love and the authentic black experience. I make my apologies if anyone can recall any episode of The Cosby Show where anyone knew someone who was incarcerated, who had been beaten up by the police, called a nigger, or put hot sauce on anything. I mean, damn, even Diff’rent Strokes dealt with racism: Arnold and Willis were blocked from attending Mr. Drummond’s childhood prep school, Digby, and Mr. Drummond tells his own racist mother where she can go when she doesn’t at first accept his adopted black sons. Strokes, a show hardly known for pushing the political envelope, even dealt with sexual predators. Arnold and his friend Dudley are sexually targeted by a man who owns a local bicycle shop. (Gordon Jump from WKRP in Cincinnati - a real mind-fuck at the time if you were young and watched both shows.) Even Tootie had her black-identity meltdown on The Facts of Life.
I have a conversation with a man at the gym about The Cosby Show. We are the same age, black, gay, grew up middle class. As we look back fondly, we both know the black shows we loved were problematic at times, but still recall that on Good Times, for example, J.J. Evans was an artist; and despite his buffoonery, the family was fiercely protective of and believed in his talent, and - most importantly - J.J. believed in himself. Roger Thomas on What’s Happening was a writer. (In one episode, he refuses to sell out his talent to producers of a stereotypical black TV show: "I got to tell it like it is or I can't tell it at all.") George Jefferson owned his own business, lived on the East Side, but never forgot his roots. In the episode “984 W. 124th Street, Apt. 5C” we discover that George is the secret Santa for a struggling black family who lived in the Harlem tenement where he grew up, providing them with money during the difficult holidays. Isabel Sanford’s Louise Jefferson was generous and loving, insisting on equality in her marriage, and Esther Rolle’s Florida Evans on Good Times reminded her impoverished family on more than one occasion that keeping their personal integrity was more important than money. Both characters had been maids, and were proud of their work. Black creativity and integrity were celebrated.
My friend laughs as he recalls how relieved his parents were when The Cosby Show first aired. He remembers being grounded and told he wasn’t allowed to watch Good Times anymore after repeating in the company of his family’s friends some “jive” phrase he’d heard. We agreed it was probably something said by Sweet Daddy Williams, the neighborhood pimp and loan shark, or Lenny the Pickpocket - not exactly paragons of admirable black life.
I ask the reader’s forbearance with the time I’m taking here, but I believe analyzing The Cosby Show is essential to deconstructing the Cosby legacy, and the assumption that the show filled a black cultural void. It is “black wretchedness” that Cosby's show challenged and that he would later go on to attack, as he lectured black people to get our economic and moral shit together. It was the success of The Cosby Show that gave him this authority.
Cosby himself, it must be said, wasn’t exactly a stranger to “jive niggerish” portrayals, hanging from a hotel window by a sheet with his eyes bugged out in his collaboration with Sidney Poitier “Let’s Do It Again”. He was already a major star in the Sixties and Seventies, but something changed with The Cosby Show. And it is his contempt for what I’m calling “black wretchedness” that got him in trouble with the comedian Hannibal Buress in the first place, or we wouldn’t be talking about rape and Bill Cosby at all.
Discovering that Bill Cosby was being accused of rape wasn’t that shocking to me when I considered The Cosby Show. This wasn’t the Bill Cosby I loved. My Bill Cosby led me each week through the Philadelphia neighborhood where he lived, narrating his TV show from a junkyard. In a “Hey, Hey, Hey” tee-shirt, jeans, short afro combed enough to be neat, but untidy enough to make him everyman, Bill Cosby was father, uncle, older brother, friend. I can still see him dipping his brush into the red paint, then throwing the brush at the fence as it drew an exclamation point after the name of the show. It felt like magic.
I really couldn't give a damn about Cliff Huxtable as America’s Dad. But I may need to climb those holy stairs and call on Jesus for the sense of betrayal I feel when I think that the man who is being accused of serial rape is the man who created my beloved and beautiful hero, Fat Albert.
I loved Fat Albert. Loved Fat Albert. I waited all week for that show. I identified with him. Now, I’m not prepared to make the argument at this point that Fat Albert was a gay child himself, although I think it could be made. I will say that Fat Albert was morbidly obese, which means he was “different” and accepted (he had his own TV show), and for a black gay child watching television in the 70’s, that difference alone was enough.
Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids is me watching cartoons on Saturday morning in my underwear with my sister, fighting for space in front of the TV, eating our bowls of cereal together. I will write about Fat Albert at length some day, but I will say this: Fat Albert had a sensitivity (which many gay boys have) and vulnerability, and awareness, and a real moral authority that was rare on TV. If any black TV character gave me self-esteem growing up, it was Fat Albert. He genuinely cared about people and did what was right, regardless of what people thought about him. Fat Albert could feel great empathy for others.
In the episode “Spare the Rod”, Fat Albert finds out that the gang’s friend Patrice, who is white, is being beaten by her mother. Patrice, an athlete, is exercising outside when Fat Albert sees bruises on her arm. “I want to see those marks,” he says. Suspecting child abuse, he goes and tries to confront her mother, but she closes the door in his face. Fat Albert talks to his parents and they insist that he encourage Patrice to tell what is happening to her, even if she has to go to the police. Fat Albert finally says to Patrice she has to tell someone. When Patrice replies, “Why don’t you leave me alone? This isn’t any of your business”, Albert is firm: ”It is my business. It’s your business. It’s everybody’s business.” From the junkyard, Bill Cosby talks to us kids at home: “[Fat Albert] has decided that Patrice’s parents are wrong. And he’s right...abuse is a lot more common than we think. I know, you’re wondering why we don’t hear more about it. Fear. That’s why. The victims are afraid to talk about it.”
In my mind, I can hear Fat Albert saying in his trademark growly voice, ‘Hey, Hey, Hey, Are you okay?” (If you’ve never heard Fat Albert, try and do an impression of Louis Armstrong and you’ll sound like Albert.) I remember thinking often as a kid, and a few times as an adult, “What would Fat Albert do in this situation?” I think about him now and consider the allegations against Cosby. Fat Albert would believe the women who have come forward.
Later on in the show’s run, Bill created the character called the “Brown Hornet”, a superhero that looked suspiciously like…Bill Cosby. Maybe this was the beginning of the end, the Cosby narcissism intruding on the show. Didn’t Cosby realize that Fat Albert was already the hero? Now, suddenly, halfway through an episode of Fat Albert, the kids would run to an abandoned shack and turn on a television to watch episodes of The Brown Hornet. I remember thinking at the time it was odd: here I was, a black kid watching a TV show about black kids who turn on a TV show. Whose idea was that? I was bored because Albert was eventually marginalized; Bill Cosby couldn’t resist upstaging his own best creation.
Yet nothing can change my love for that show. I can still see those kids, hear the stale jokes (“I ought to call you ‘School on Saturday.’” “Why?” “No Class!”), and the music from their junkyard band; a harp made from the tightened springs of an old bed, a drum from a trash-can lid. I saw the inventiveness of black life from watching Fat Albert. These weren’t children with money or privilege, but who used their imagination and loyalty to each other to survive. And as I write this I realize that Cosby was more of a dad for me than I realized. I consider his boys, and wonder whether he thought about Fat Albert, Rudy, Mushmouth, Bucky, “Weird” Harold, Dumb Donald and Russell when he was talking down to poor blacks, to children trapped by economic circumstance, the ones who are still playing in the junkyards of America.
I have a memory from the year before my grandfather died. I was about ten, maybe eleven. My grandfather was sick in the hospital, and he and my mother were having a conversation at his hospital bed. My cousin had taken her son and my sister to the cafeteria, but I stayed behind. The door was open and my mother was crying. I don’t remember the exact words but they were something like, “I remember what you did, Daddy. And I know you won’t talk about it, or admit it. But I want you to know. I remember.” She confirmed years later that she had been sexually abused by my grandfather.
I knew that my mother had been raped in college, because it came up in a fight between my parents. My father said something about “Atlanta” with the look of someone who plays the trump card in a game, and left the room. When I asked my mother later why she was crying and what happened to her in Atlanta, she told me a man had come into her room when she was in college and sexually assaulted her. While I sometimes felt overwhelmed by this knowledge at a young age, it helped me to understand my mother and parts of my childhood better as an adult. It would never be my intention to subject my mother or her memory to further violation. But from our conversations and the work I had published as a writer before she died, I know that she would allow her story to be told if it helped others. I believe she wanted me to understand her experience, specifically what she had overcome, and what her professional work as a child advocate meant to her, protecting children in a way she hadn’t been protected.
There is a lot of talk about a man’s legacy being destroyed as we discuss Bill Cosby, but what isn’t always discussed is the legacy of rape and incest for a woman who is a survivor; the fear, the post-traumatic stress, the night terrors, the addictions, the depression, the suicides. When a woman is raped, it isn’t only her body that is raped, but her future; her children and her intimate relationships are affected. I can see the legacy of the men who raped my mother, in my own life. When a woman is raped, it affects her whole community. As women predominately raise the children in this country, the implications of rape and the silence that we maintain and demand from its survivors, are profound.
We’ve seen twenty women come forward, which means: there are many, many more. How many others out there are too terrified, or humiliated, feel they have too much to lose to be able to say, This is my story, this is what happened to me?
I watch The View with horror as they discuss the allegations on November 17; except for Rosie O’Donnell who grasps for a genuine conversation about rape, there is a strange hush from the other hosts, almost a fear to make any strong statement of culpability, of any kind. But why? There seems to be no dialogue on The View about the effects of rape, the reasons why victims often hesitate to come forward, or any real empathy for the accused that I find when I watch random clips from The Talk.
I know that The View isn’t exactly Face the Nation, but at times The View may get at something deeper and more subversive because one can underestimate its hosts and audience (John McCain certainly did when he was a guest during the 2008 election). I watch Rosie Perez talk about the frenzied response and rush to judgment of Cosby on social media, but that is all she has to say; Nicole Wallace says that whether it was a group of women victimized or a man whose reputation is being destroyed, it is a tragedy either way (which means absolutely nothing to anyone), and Whoopi says, now infamously, that she is going to “reserve my judgment because I have a lot of questions” for Barbara Bowman, one of Cosby’s early accusers. Some weeks later, Whoopi is followed by singer Jill Scott in defending Cosby, much to the shock and dismay of her fans.
I have deeply admired Whoopi’s talent at times, particularly during her early career on Broadway doing her own material. But like Cosby, Goldberg is a brand now. And it seems she is creating a disturbing legacy of her own: every time I turn on The View and there is an abuse controversy, it seems too often that Whoopi offers a kind of apology or defense for a man accused of violation. Roman Polanski accepted a plea bargain for unlawful sexual intercourse after he was charged with rape by use of drugs, perversion and sodomy upon a child under thirteen. Whoopi explains "I don't believe it was rape rape." Her co-host Sherri Sheppard asks, "If he were not famous, would we be protecting him as much as we are?" Whoopi then deflects the conversation from Polanski's guilt to the responsibility of the girl's mother for not protecting her.
In 2010, Mel Gibson, according to a police report, said to a female officer, "Fucking Jews, the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world." Whoopi said of Gibson at the time: "I know Mel and I know he's not a racist. I have had a long friendship with Mel...I can't sit and say that he's a racist having spent time with him in my house with my kids." Whoopi, charismatic and powerful, comes across as that lone voice of reason, the woman or black who isn’t “hysterical” like the rest of us. She, like Camille Cosby, turns the conversation about Cosby back on the victim’s credibility.
What is particularly odd is that Goldberg played our archetypal rape survivor, Celie in The Color Purple. Celie is raped as a young girl and has children by the man she thinks is her father and who turns out to be her stepfather; she is later violently abused by the man whom she marries when she is little more than a child herself. Celie later stands up to her abusive husband. I know Whoopi remembers all too well when the N.A.A.C.P called for boycotts of the film when it was released because of its depictions of black men and rape – only to present Whoopi with an Image Award as best actress that year for her portrayal in the film. Goldberg acknowledged the hypocrisy at the time, as the organization praised a movie they once tried to ban and destroy.
It’s the “airing dirty laundry” argument that is used to shame black women into silence and keep them in the black rape closet. It’s not that we don’t know there is sexual abuse and pathology in the black community, but as there aren’t enough positive representations of black men in our culture, it is seen as a betrayal to make it harder on them by talking about, and demanding an end to, their sexual violence. (And the acknowledgement of rape during slavery by white men, evidenced by the various skin tones in our community, or the racist oppression of black men, doesn’t let black men off the hook.) So the set of The View has an awkward, funereal silence when talking about Cosby, and the prevailing sensibility isn’t horror or sadness for the victims, but mortification and embarrassment.
Surely Whoopi remembers the moment in The Color Purple where Celie finds her voice, and is finally able to tell Shug Avery, her friend, about the sexual and physical abuse she has endured. What the hell kind of story would the book and movie have been if, in the moment when Celie confides to Shug that her husband, Mister, “beats me for not being you”, Shug had replied, “Well, I’ll reserve my judgment because I have a lot of questions”!
The Color Purple would have ended right there and the book would have been the size of a pamphlet. Instead, Shug’s response is instructive. While she acknowledges and is truthful about how she feels about “Albert/Mister” (she has enjoyed their sexual relationship in the past) she takes Celie’s accusations seriously, validates that her experience has been one of violation (“Why, Miss Celie, that mean you still a virgin”) and eventually aids in her escape.
The Color Purple is a black film classic and a great American novel (I don’t know many black Americans of a certain age who can’t recite lines from the movie verbatim), but there was a time when many tried to suppress the influence of the book and the movie for their portrayal of incest and rape in black families. Alice Walker, despite winning the Pulitzer for her work, paid a price for bringing out the truth, as one of many black female writers who have helped us begin a conversation about the sexual abuse of black women, including Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Louise Meriwether, Ntozake Shange, Gayl Jones. It takes great courage, in the face of public outrage, to stand firm and say: this is what happened, I won’t be silenced. There are some people so busy being worried about how black men are portrayed in the media, they don’t give a damn that girls of color continue to be victimized by them. (Calling all R. Kelly fans.)
Whoopi should know better than anyone that the Celies of the world (in Detroit, Lagos, Bombay, Hong Kong) need to know that their hero (Whoopi) believes that what is happening to them is wrong, that when they speak out they will be believed, that these girls are Celie’s and Whoopi’s archetypal daughters.
I remember attending a party in my last year of college. I got very drunk, someone had made a rum punch, and I was still fairly new to hard alcohol. I made a fool of myself at one point while dancing, and was so inebriated I had trouble speaking. I remember someone offering to drive me home, a man close to my age who was also gay (I knew his boyfriend). I sat in the front seat while he drove, I knew it wouldn’t be a long ride; I lived on campus about ten minutes away. Sitting in the car, away from the party, I realized how drunk I was and put my head back, just to sleep for a moment. When I opened my eyes and sat up, I realized we were parked on a dark street I didn’t recognize. My pants were around my ankles and he was fellating me.
I would be lying if I said I expressed outrage or screamed, “What are you doing, take me home, this instant!” I might have even let him continue for a little while. It felt good, sort of, and I was attracted to him, but I felt strange that he’d taken my pants down without asking me. I know now I wouldn’t have felt comfortable letting him know I was angry with him even if I was, because being out as a gay man was still new to me, and I didn’t want to offend other gay men, or rouse their anger, I so badly wanted their acceptance. Besides, I reasoned, it was my fault for getting that drunk and letting that happen to me. When he sat up and saw the look on my face, I remember him laughing uncomfortably, and saying something like, “Sorry, I just couldn’t resist. I’ll take you home now.” He started the car, I pulled up my pants, he dropped me off and said, “Goodnight.”
When I saw him again, he was friendly as always, but he didn’t really look in my eyes when we spoke. I let it go, and never mentioned it to anyone. As I write about it now, I feel dissociated from the experience, and it is interesting to me that I hadn’t really thought about it over the years, not even when I read about the Cosby allegations. But I hadn’t been drugged. I thought, maybe I gave him permission somehow and just couldn’t remember. But if I had given him permission, why hadn’t I taken off my own clothes? And what kind of permission could I give when I was that drunk? I wasn’t a stranger to anonymous sex at that point in my life, and I felt a lot of shame about that behavior, too. It was just a blow job, anyway, and not a very good one at that, so what was the big deal? Still, I wondered what the pleasure was, having sex with someone when they aren’t responding at all? Isn’t having them conscious part of the fun?
A female friend of mine, exasperated by the men who continue to defend Cosby, said in a recent phone call, “You men know what other men do.” I know she’s right. And I also know that there are some men who defend Cosby because they don’t want the conversation to stay on the table, they don’t want their own “rape” cards pulled.
As a gay man, I have been on the other side of male attention and violation. In anonymous sexual encounters, I’ve often evaluated how strong another man looks, and determined whether I felt he could overpower me physically. I know gay men who have been assaulted in their homes. I’ve come to appreciate bathhouses as a way for gay men to have casual sexual encounters and still be safe, because if anything crazy goes down, security and other people are usually a shout away. And yet, gay men have still been raped in bathhouses.
I remember being young and not wanting to hurt a man’s feelings if he kept touching me even after I’d said no. I knew from campus politics that “No Means No”, but wasn’t always sure if that applied when two men were concerned. I’d sometimes endured unwanted flirtation and touch, and would say, “Sorry” with an obsequious smile as I walked away, bearing the shame of the encounter because clearly the person who ignored my no was shameless.
It was only after several years that I started getting frustrated and then angry at the audacity and entitlement of men. And it was even more complicated with white men: were they not taking me seriously because the black body, still on the auction block, wasn’t sacred, was still considered common property?
I came up with a plan: If a man touches me once and I’m not interested, I smile and move his hand. Sometimes, if I’m in a good mood, I may even say no a second time and walk away. But for the man who forgets his manners repeatedly, I take his hand and whisper in his ear, “If you touch me again, I absolutely will embarrass you in front of everyone here. Now from here on in it is your choice.” And I’ve kept my promise and cussed some motherfuckers out; I let one group of guys have it because I watched a young gay man tell the three of them five times or more to please leave him alone. The guys just wouldn’t back off. I finally said, “How many fucking times does he have to tell you assholes he’s not interested!” One man, in particular, looked like he could have killed me, but the younger guy thanked me later.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had to explore what my responsibility is towards young gay men in their twenties; I’ve never forced myself on anyone sexually, but I know I can be manipulative at times. Sometimes a gay person may not feel comfortable articulating a bold no, but there is a certain tension in the way they respond to touch, or an uncomfortable smile that says no, if you are aware and not only interested in your own gratification. These are the gray areas of assault, where you may not go to jail for something illegal, but you know something is wrong, and damage is done. (Even if one believes him innocent of child sexual abuse, I maintain that some of Michael Jackson’s behavior existed in this category.) There is a wonderful poster I saw in a safe-sex clinic once that lists all the different ways someone can say no, without actually verbalizing the word ‘no’; as men, as women, we have a responsibility to listen to all of them.
No means no, but when someone can’t even say no because they have been drugged, deprived of any agency because they are unconscious at the time of the assault, that’s a whole other conversation, and probably why so many people may summarily reject the Cosby allegations: when considering our beloved Dr. Huxtable, they are just too goddamn funky to be believed. Sometimes I wonder if the Cosby defenders are even clear about what they are defending.
In her November 23, 2014 piece in the Daily News, “He Said, She Said, She Said, She Said,” Caitlin Flanagan argues that a man of Bill Cosby’s fame and influence would have no trouble finding women for consensual sex whenever he wants (she’s right: stars, especially at the height of their fame, order male or female “ass” the way the rest of us order Domino’s pizza), which means that if a man on that level is drugging women, he doesn’t just want sex, he wants a woman who is completely incapacitated, suggesting a deeply pathological level of control and perversion. Flanagan argues that a drugged woman being undressed and raped suggests a necrophiliac impulse. For the victim, it is a violation on every level imaginable. At least in most cases of stranger-rape you see the perpetrator, you know something has happened, and you can experience your rage. But being drugged by someone you trust before being raped, and waking up unsure if it even happened, takes things to a phantasmagorical level; all rape is a violation of the body, the mind, and the spirit, but in this case someone is fucking not only with your body but with your relationship to reality. You’ve been “gaslighted” and now have to deal with some Sybil shit; hours pass, clothing is off, and the man who was offering you a drink ten hours ago or was discussing your medical chart is now standing in a bathrobe or a lab-coat, sharing a conspiratorial smile, offering to call you a cab, reminding you to make an appointment for your next visit. You have no memory of what happened, the only evidence may be a bra put back on incorrectly, lost time, the numbing sensation below the waist of pressure and pain. Your body tells you you’ve been violated but your mind tells you this man couldn’t be capable of this because he is a famous doctor, lawyer, dentist, surgeon, gynecologist, therapist, singer, actor, TV star.
Using your influence in the entertainment business, promising someone a part in your hit show to get her to go bed with you isn’t rape. It may make you a jerk, but it isn’t assault. But to drug someone, not knowing what drugs she is allergic to, whether she has been drinking or taking medication that might react to the drug you’ve given her, to sexually violate her while she is incapacitated, knowing that given your money, power and influence, not only will she probably never tell what happened (if she even remembers), but if she ever tried no one would believe her, is a crime so thoroughly reprehensible, some people find it hard to wrap their minds around it. So they don’t.
And because we are addicted to violence against women in this culture; because you can’t turn on a episode of CSI, or Stalker, or Cold Case or Criminal Minds and not see a woman burned, stabbed, cut, beaten, or raped; because we are addicted to pornography as a society, and hope that the woman we are watching in the video is there consensually, and hasn’t been enslaved, kidnapped, or coerced; because rape is so endemic in our culture it is almost a rite of passage and a form of social control, we are numb as a culture to women’s pain (except when it entertains us.) We watch, letting our myth about Cosby stand, and respond to the accusers with venom: angry that they are offering us the ultimate downer about someone who is generally perceived now as a flawed, but nice old man.
“Are you going to believe me, or your lying eyes?” – Richard Pryor, Live on the Sunset Strip
I run into a friend while waiting for the train at 59th Street. She’s coming home from work and visibly tired after a long day, but is still fierce in her coat, Hermès scarf, and handbag over her wrist. Carla works as a gourmet chef. West Indian by descent, she has met kings and paupers, and is kind to everyone, but I have seen, in person, that she doesn’t take shit from anybody. I have affectionately called her - and to her face - a bad bitch.
When I bring up the subject in question, she says in an ironic tone, “I wonder where all those white men are that he made rich during the 80’s. He made someone billions of dollars. Why aren’t they returning his calls and helping him?”
As we enter the train together, we have a conversation about wealth in America. Not just having a little extra money in your pocket, some stocks to play around with here and there, or even a few million, but the power of real money in this country. What money and power can do. Truman Capote, who understood wealth and society, described in his unfinished novel Answered Prayers the power of the rich to make things they don’t want to deal with simply disappear. In the book, he recalls a story (based on an actual account) of a woman who murders her husband, claiming she thought he was a prowler, and he describes the cover-up that ensues. Capote writes that they (high society) “have the power to brainwash cops, reweave minds, move corpses from shower stalls to hallways, the power to control inquests – David’s death was declared an accident in an inquest that lasted less than a day.”
We’ve read about Cosby using his influence to block The National Enquirer from posting a second account from a victim in exchange for his own testimonial, because he feared it would corroborate the account of the woman who was suing him at the time; we watched him manipulate an AP interviewer after an interview but while the camera was still rolling - unbeknownst to him. Cosby, now “America’s grandfather” plays the star diva as he suggests that the question about the allegations be excised from the interview, instructing the interviewer and the producer to go up the chain of command in order to protect him. (This is one of the reasons, I imagine, that Cosby is horrified and exasperated by Twitter and Facebook. They are too free. He can’t call someone and say, “The piece you are about to run is going to upset my wife. Kill it as a personal favor. See you at golf on Sunday.” )
In his stand-up act, Paul Mooney, legendary comedian and writer for Richard Pryor, has often referred to what he calls the “nigger wake-up call.” (I used not to get Mooney’s humor; lately I value him as a black male voice of social conscience right up there with Baldwin, Ellison and Wright.) A nigger wake-up call is when a person of color is under the delusion that he or she is "white" in this country, because of money, wealth or status. It is the moment when truly powerful white people wake you up and remind you that you aren’t really white at all, although you might have been given a temporary pass, and it doesn’t matter how light-skinned, or exotic or famous you are, or how much wealth or power you think you have; not even when you have done their bidding, becoming the spokesperson for conservative intolerance, voicing outrage towards an out-of-control black community. The outrage that fueled Hannibal Buress’ stand-up, which is considered the firestorm that brought the Cosby allegations back into the public light, was as much about race and class hypocrisy as it was about rape.
The problem with black exceptionalism is that the black achiever can begin to believe his or her own press releases; that success is only a product of one’s achievements, and that luck, opportunity, support, community, family, and timing have nothing to do with it. There is nothing wrong with critiquing the black community, or offering moral guidance, and Cosby may have genuinely felt the need to offer some advice and felt he was the one to do it. But it was the way he did it.
Black exceptionalism is used to silence other blacks who try to challenge racism, because if one rich black person has achieved despite oppression, then so should everyone else. And if people aren’t rich or successful or “making it”, it’s because they are lazy and it is their own damn fault. Exceptionalism, black or female, has no critique or analysis of institutional racism or sexism, of economic violence, of opportunities denied through social injustice. It’s the fascist side of the self-empowerment movement. Just think positively, believe in yourself. True words: but a woman who makes seventy cents to every dollar a man makes for doing the same job doesn’t need a lecture on self-esteem. She needs an end to gender inequality.
“Will someone please hospitalize Bill Cosby?”- Nikki Giovanni, Miami Book Fair International, 2007
And then there’s Cosby himself. He continues to leave us guessing, as he has written no extended statement and given no mea culpa interview with Oprah. He hasn’t called Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton for a press conference. Whether it is his narcissism or complete bewilderment, he remains, except for a few cryptic statements here and there, almost mute. Usually when stars are in big trouble, from Michael Richards to Paula Deen, they issue a statement, they deny, they apologize, they defend; but they engage. Except for repeated denials from his lawyer, a recent admonition to black media, and a statement that he won’t respond to “innuendo”, Cosby maintains his silence while continuing to make public appearances and to perform. And weeks ago, he came out on Twitter, thanking both Whoopi Goldberg and Jill Scott for defending him.
Others may have had a different reaction but I found his acknowledgement of them creepy and uncomfortable. It had a “daddy’s little girl” vibe to it, like Mommy making Daddy sleep out in the car because he’s been thrown out of the house for infidelity, but his daughter brings dinner out to the garage anyway because she feels sorry for him. Glenn Beck came to Cosby’s defense, suggesting that Cosby was being raped in the media, and he didn’t get any acknowledgement. Cosby is singling out women again.
Scott’s reaction and loyalty to Bill Cosby are deeply disappointing. Perhaps she sees in him a victim of white women specifically ("Miss Anns"}, and a white society in general, who want to bring a black man down. We are reminded that “black men are an endangered species,” but I’ve never seen a tee-shirt that says, “Sisters are Endangered too.” The fact is, there are very specific ways that black men and women are undone in a racist society, and it is not a competition: we need to acknowledge the nuances and support each other. Yet too often, the “endangered” argument seems to suggest that black women have had a pass of some kind, when in fact they are dealing with racial prejudice and sexual bias. It just doesn't make sense.
A close friend insists that we need to have a conversation about how black women are socially conditioned to put a black men's needs above their own, often in the name of "progress." Our families are often complicit in this. (She recalls how soon after she was raped as a teenager by a family member, he found himself in legal trouble and in jail. Ignoring her own needs, she immediately came to his defense.) As Jill Scott has built her own brand on the self-empowerment and self-love of black women and ostensibly all women, it seems incomprehensible that she would so unequivocally support Cosby at her own expense.
Some speculate that if the accusers were all black, instead of white women, the reaction would be different. But I don’t remember any stampede of black support for Anita Hill when she accused Clarence Thomas of harassment, nor do I remember any tidal wave of encouragement for the black girls and women who came forward about R. Kelly. What I do remember are the defenders, some of whom consider allegations of sexual abuse to be a distraction or annoyance, not because they have truly evaluated the facts but because it interferes with our star worship to think that the person accused of being a pedophile also wrote our “jam”.
We turn our aggression on the one who accuses, demanding answers knowing we will never interrogate the perpetrator: “If he was raping you, why did you go back, why did you stay?” Don Lemon of CNN asked Joan Tarshis during an interview why she didn’t bite Cosby’s penis when she alleged he forced her to have oral sex, obviously ignorant of the fact that if a man is crazy enough to drug a woman for sex, he’s probably not going to take too kindly to teeth marks left on his junk. Lemon’s question puts the emphasis where it doesn’t belong in a conversation about rape – on the sex act. Sex is merely the weapon of choice; rape is a crime of violence. And it isn’t only insensitive men who are the problem - women are also leading the pack.
It speaks to our times that our enemies and allegiances may surprise us. Camille Cosby has finally broken her silence, a chess move by Cosby lawyers to check the power of supermodel Beverly Johnson, who has recently come forward. Still confident and beautiful in her sixties, Johnson described in Vanity Fair being drugged by Cosby and then thrown out of his house when she resisted his advances. Johnson claims she knows several women abused by Cosby who are afraid to speak. She speaks of her own silence, of why she came forward and of her fear of being seen as criticizing black men. For the conspiracy theorists who believe it is the plot of a bunch of crazy white women and the Tea Party to bring Cosby down, Beverly seems sane, absolutely clear about what happened to her, and can’t be dismissed because of race. Her story is a game-changer.
Dr. Camille Cosby ends her prepared statement, after defending her husband and reassuring us that he is still “the man we thought we knew”, with the following sentence: “None of us ever want to be in the position of attacking a victim. But the question should be asked – who is the victim?” This may be the most blatant example of Stockholm Syndrome we’ve ever seen.
Whoopi (again!) on The View challenges Johnson’s account when she is a guest on the show, showing no real empathy for Johnson’s experience, but wanting to know if Johnson asked her doorman about her condition after it happened and what she was thinking at the time about the drug she’d been given. Like Tarshis with Lemon, Whoopi has to be reminded that Johnson was under the influence of the drug and was simply focused on staying conscious. Whoopi’s questions seem cold and unfeeling. Johnson responds, “I basically just put my head down and just tried to get out. This is not about Mr. Cosby. He's just a lightning-rod for a conversation about violence against women."
A friend of mine calls me soon after, outraged. She doesn’t even say hello. “Did you see Beverly Johnson on The View? Why are we still interrogating the victim in 2014? Where the hell are Whoopi and Camille coming from with this random bullshit? Don’t they know how hard women have fought to get any public consciousness about rape? Why are they taking us backwards now?” We take small comfort as we imagine Camille Cosby and Whoopi Goldberg facing a tribunal of ghost black women for a trial or intervention: Beah Richards, Audre Lorde, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, Shirley Chisholm, Nina Simone, Sojourner Truth.
At this point so many of us are invested in the racist and sexist patriarchal structure that we fear change and will turn on our own in order to keep the system intact: a mother, while victimized herself, may agree to participate in her daughter’s honor killing, black members on a grand jury refuse to indict a police officer or civilian in the killing of a defenseless black man, even when it is obvious to the rest of the world that it was murder.
I run into Stacey in our neighborhood in Harlem after she has dropped her son off at school. It’s raining and I see her as she’s leaving our local coffee shop, adjusting her umbrella and crossing the street. I’ve admired her for years and told her so; how she is raising her son pretty much alone, with her demanding work schedule, her effortless glamour. When I see Stacey I recall my mother as she was when I was a child, and the way she will be forever in my memory: black, beautiful, independent. We stand under the awning of an adjacent building and seek temporary respite from the downpour. After we agree that it’s been too long since we’ve had a chance to catch up, I say as she releases me from a hug, “Girl, Bill Cosby?”
Opinionated and fearless, she speaks excitedly as if she’s been waiting weeks for someone to ask.“ You know what? Where there is smoke, there is fire. How can twenty people come forward with the same story and there not be something there? Come on. All I can say is, if it is true, you need to lose your residuals and pay the price. I know why we are all surprised, but the truth is, famous people have their demons, too. Stars are just regular people with bigger bank accounts.”
After leaving Stacey, I ask myself: where do we go from here? If Bill Cosby is a sick sexual predator, can he still be a talented artist? Can we appreciate his creative genius, while we hold him one hundred percent accountable for whatever he has done to harm others? I've come to realize, we can believe the survivors, and still feel disappointment and sadness in seeing a successful black man’s reputation destroyed; not by them, but by himself.
Creativity is an act of the divine and human. And while the human may be deeply flawed, we can still continue to appreciate the creative work on its own terms. Richard Pryor is our greatest stand-up comic and one of our great American artists, and yet there is his history of violence against women that can’t be ignored. I believe that Roman Polanski should be prosecuted to the fullest extend of the law, and I appreciate his brilliance as a filmmaker. I might not want to hear another note of Miles Davis if I thought too hard about his marriage to Cicely Tyson, but I refuse to exist in a world without Miles’ music. Southern writer Flannery O’Connor, despite her courage in examining race in her own work, refused to meet James Baldwin in Savannah, Georgia, because, her being white and his being negro, "it just wasn’t done". There continues to be a debate over the anti-Semitism of opera composer Richard Wagner. Art is bigger than its creator. And an argument can be made not to support a living artist’s work financially to send a powerful message of condemnation. (A petition has been sent on Change.Org to cancel an upcoming R. Kelly concert.) Whatever happens in the following months or years with this scandal, I do know this: I’m not giving up my beloved Fat Albert just because Bill Cosby fucked up.
I go downstairs to a convenience store in my neighborhood to take a writing break. It is almost midnight and the store is about to close. I run into one of the guys who works there. We’ve spoken before as I’ve checked out, not about anything serious, just the weather outside, weekend plans. After a conversation about diet, I became “the vegetarian guy.”
Standing together, I imagine what we must look like to his manager who is clearly watching us: I’m wearing pajama bottoms under my coat, he is in his gray uniform and name tag, which I’m noticing for the first time. His name is Will, his hair styled in two thick braids like the horns of a ram. I try and justify the junk food in my arms by explaining that I’m working late. He asks what I do and I tell him among other things that I’m a writer, and I’m writing a piece about Bill Cosby.
The last person in the store is at the counter and the manager is walking around officiously. Will offers me a basket, and leans against the counter as he gives me his view. Like almost everyone I’ve spoken to, his opinion is at the ready. It flows from him, and I try not to interrupt his musing on Cosby’s accusers.
“I kinda wish they hadn’t said anything. I mean, all this time has passed, why would they try to take him away from us now? He’s America’s Dad. Maybe if it was twenty years ago, right when it happened, I could understand it. But after all these years? What good does it do for anyone? I’m not saying he did the right thing. Maybe he did do what they said, but that was back then. That was a long time ago. When that much time has passed, I think you should just let it go. He’s done a lot of good things for people.”
“Can I ask you, and I’m not judging,” I say. “What if it was your sister that said she was raped or maybe an aunt? Would you feel the same way?”
“Actually, I think so,” he says, honestly. “Maybe if it was then, when it happened, I’d feel differently. But now all this time has passed. He’s America’s Dad, he gave us the Cosby show. I watched every episode as a kid. It was a really good show.”
He pauses for a moment and is thoughtful. “Well, maybe it was a little unrealistic at times. I mean, it took place in Brooklyn, and I’m from New York, I grew up in the Bronx, and I didn’t know any doctors that lived next door. It was a good show, it was funny, a good family, I guess, but those definitely weren’t the people I knew growing up.
“Now Good Times, that show was more realistic. Not being able to pay bills, trying to get a job, surviving, we could relate to that. Not having enough money to eat, so you had to make syrup sandwiches. Or sometimes just eating sugar to get energy because there is nothing else in the house. Stealing food when you had to. That wasn’t really on The Cosby Show but that’s real. Some of my friend’s mothers were addicted to crack and didn’t have food in the house and the kids had to steal to eat. That wasn’t really what you saw on TV. I’ll tell you, we get people stealing in here all the time; I caught this woman the other day, she was crying, and said, I don’t want to steal but I’ve got two kids at home and they are hungry. You see it all around. I get off the train and people are asking for me for help, people who are homeless, and you want to help them, but I only have a few dollars in my pocket until I get paid. And there are so many people who need help, you can’t help everyone, even if you want to. This world sometimes,” he shakes his head. “I just don’t know.”
At an academic party last weekend, I met a woman, white and in her fifties, who was very interested that I was writing about Cosby. When I told her my take on the subject, she frowned, took a sip of red wine and said, “I was hoping that you were writing pro-Cosby.” I asked her what she meant by pro. “Well, I just feel that this whole thing is racist. I mean why now, and what seriously important issues is this meant to be distracting us from?”
“Isn’t sexual assault a serious issue?”
“I mean, what’s been happening in Ferguson. What happened here in New York. We should be talking about that, not Bill Cosby.”
“If the allegations are true,” I ask her, “don’t we fall into a different racist trap if we give Bill Cosby a pass because he’s black, shouldn’t he be as accountable as a white man should be?” She doesn’t appear convinced.
We part warmly, but I am left with a feeling of unease. It’s that nagging feeling again and it haunts me all the way to the drinks table: guilt, black betrayal. I should be here as Cosby’s black male ambassador, not throwing him under a bus to impress white folks. And, in some cases, white people are defending him as fervently as any black person would. I am reminded of the man who sold me coffee at a gas station earlier that week. “I think they should just leave the guy alone,” he said, as if continuing a conversation we’d been having for hours, reflecting on the image of Cosby on the cover of the magazine I buy. He shrugged helplessly. “I mean, come on, so he made a mistake.” I felt like reminding him that a mistake is when you forget to call your grandmother on her birthday, or when you accidentally track dog shit from your heel across a brand new carpet. This wasn’t a mistake.
He went on to praise Cosby for all the money he has given to charity and colleges, and how much he’s helped people. The argument is seductive, yet smacks of fast-food companies fucking up everyone’s health daily, and then wanting a pat on the back for sending a bunch of kids once a year to the Special Olympics or gospel camp. The proper response to someone who gives money for college scholarships is “Thank you.” And the proper response to someone who gives money for college scholarships and who then serial rapes is “Thank you” and “Get your ass in that cell. Breakfast at six, Judge Judy at ten, and unpack your shit because you’ll be here for a while.”
It is a white gay woman at the same party who reminds me of the power of Bill Cosby’s contribution to comedy. We talk about black comedians and the chitlin’ circuit and Cosby being one of the first comics to “transcend race” and to go beyond racial humor to stories that everyone can relate to because we are all human. She is speaking to the power of great art to dissolve cultural barriers. She shares with me that Bill Cosby is a hero for her as she is an aspiring comedian. I begin to feel sentimental and wonder if I’ve judged Cosby too harshly when she says that despite the troubling things she reads, she is not convinced that the allegations against Bill Cosby are true.
When I ask her whether being a woman and knowing about sexual assault makes any difference to her opinion, she says, “I actually think it is worse when people project their own histories onto situations like this. I try to remain unbiased.” When I mention that twenty women have come forward and the number seems to be growing, she replies, “I’m not surprised. He’s a very powerful man. A lot of people want something from him.” When I remind her that the allegations have been around for decades, she smiles. “That makes me even more suspicious, actually. It’s so easy to read online what others have accused him of before.”
I eventually run out of arguments. I try and hide the dismay on my face, but now, after weeks of talking to people, I finally get it: This shit is deep. This isn’t a joke. We really don’t believe these women who have come forward. Not even other women.
When we briefly discuss The Cosby Show, as she is a fan, I mention that I recently looked at a synopsis of every episode of the show on Wikipedia, and didn’t see a single one that mentioned race in the treatment. I ask her to imagine a show about a gay couple on TV that didn’t once address homophobia, coming out, violence against gays, religious intolerance, poverty, had no “butch” women or “effeminate” men. Just gay people who were happy, fun and middle class. A show that straight people could watch and be relieved to discover, “Wow, they really are just like us.”
The “just like us” comment may seem like a compliment, but it definitely comes with a price. As we strive to be seen as “more like them”, whether we are black or queer, what is it that we end up empowering in the culture that ultimately betrays and destroys us?
“I’ve been writing about crime for years and I can spot the angle shooters, the shakedown artists and con artists. [These women in 2006] didn’t want as much as a cup of coffee from me. It felt to me like that they were just trying to unburden themselves, carrying this around for as long as they had.” Mark Ebner, investigative reporter, Crime Time, 2014
We live at a time where hidden truths are coming to light. We have a world community looking at the tape of a black man being choked to death, and a grand jury that refuses to indict, we have women coming forward saying, “I’ve been raped by someone powerful” and people who say, “We don’t believe you.” And that is how we are defined, by our denial, by our unwillingness to acknowledge and hold accountable, it seems, no matter how much information is staring us in the face.
There is a movement happening in this country. A new direction. This is the movement that tried to come together after the devastation of 9/11 but was thwarted by a war in Iraq, that believed that president Obama could transform the nation, that fueled Operation Wall Street, and that stands together now protesting the death of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, insisting all over the country and the world that Black Lives Matter. It is a time of overpowering grief, but also a time to be hopeful. We are being forced to acknowledge that the system that we live in doesn’t work, or doesn’t work for enough of us. I don’t consider myself a communist, and I am not calling for an end to capitalism, but we seem to be living in a time of unprecedented greed. There is, of course, spiritual greed (some people refuse to share “God” or their Jesus or Mohammed with queers), and there is intellectual greed as opportunities for education are denied.
Which is one of the main reasons why some people don’t even feel that Bill Cosby committed a crime. For those who see his alleged actions as an extension of his stardom, power, and influence, he did what any good businessman does: he saw what he wanted and he took it. He earned it. Capitalism, taken to its most pathological level without compassion, requires the absolute commodification of human beings at any cost.
You can’t exploit human beings and still stand on the moral high ground without creating an ideology that on some level the person you are exploiting deserves it. Asks for it. You can’t have a sex industry, for example, and make money from women’s flesh without a culture of rape that justifies violence against women. You can’t have a system of exploitation and “legal” slave labor with a barely survivable minimum wage, without police brutality, senseless black death (including gangs) and juries who tell the world that a black American life ain't worth shit. Because for every Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Michael Brown denied justice, there are hundreds, thousands who will pull their shades down earlier at night, stay off the streets, fear leaving their homes, and be easier to control in our system of apartheid. The death of Eric Garner was right on schedule.
And somebody out there knows that if blacks and women and queer people are terrorized, or drunk and addicted, or incarcerated, or depressed by what we watch on the news each night, we won’t have the self-esteem to ask for our “piece of pie”, we won’t even go near the table. If we fight each other over bullshit scraps, if the men abandon the women when they are raped and don’t believe them, and the women dispute the men when they claim racism, and if everyone gangs up on the queers, then we are divided, and someone prospers and laughs, literally, all the way to the bank. The system we’ve created requires these rapes and deaths, because a fully empowered woman whose body belongs to her may not need your mascara, your designer jeans, may not look in the mirror and think she’s fat (there go your diet pills and your eating disorders), a black man whose choices haven’t been circumscribed by racial terror may not want to work at your fast-food chains looking forward to a lifetime of standing on his feet at Wal-Mart, but will remember his childhood dream and go to law school instead.
“These are not political criminals. These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake. And we all run out, we’re outraged, the police shouldn’t have shot him. Well, what the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand? (Audience laughs.)…It’s standing on the corner. It can’t speak English. It doesn’t want to speak English. I can’t even talk the way these people talk. Why you ain’t, where you is....I don’t know who these people are.” - Bill Cosby at an Event Commemorating Brown vs. Board of Education, 2004
"Nobody's free, until everybody's free." - Fannie Lou Hamer, Civil Rights Activist, National Women's Political Caucus, 1971
I take my dog for a walk, and find my friend Sharon in the park. Sharon is a gay woman, black, tall and with long dreadlocks down to her shoulders. A lover of animals, a kind of den mother to many of the girls in the neighborhood, Sharon is, for me, an American success story. I know her past, or the parts she’s shared with me, and despite the cruelty and indifference I know she’s seen growing up, she has emerged a confident, loving woman. Sharon gives off an air of authority, an I-can-be-a-total-sweetheart-but-don’t-even-think-about-fucking-with-me realness that I consider very New York. While it is clear to anyone that Sharon can take care of herself, if there is any doubt, Sharon’s fiercely loyal German Shepherd backs her up. Belle, her big baby, lies down nearby, gnawing on her green ball and observing everyone who approaches Sharon, including me.
Sharon and I always dish the latest when we see each other, and I know I’ll get the truth from her. I ask her what I should call my essay on Bill Cosby. “How about Death of A Childhood?” she says. “Because that’s what it feels like.” Sharon shakes her head and we discuss The Cosby Show, and our hero, Fat Albert. Unlike me, she doesn’t want to look at or deal with any of Bill Cosby’s creations anymore, it’s all ruined for her.
Another woman, Jane, picks up her Jack Russell terrier and mentions that she’d heard rumors about Cosby for years. Originally from Philadelphia, she lived there in the Eighties and Nineties. She claims everyone ganged up on her at work when she used to say she couldn’t stand Bill Cosby. Some thought she had a lot of nerve as an Asian woman criticizing the most successful black man in America. Years later the first accuser came forward.
“That drugging shit has been around a long time,” Sharon continues. “They used to be called “roofies” back in the day. You always had to be careful leaving your drink. But Cosby must have just gone crazy with it. It’s just so sick. And then he’s going to go around telling everyone pull your pants up, stop cursing, this is how you should live your life, and he’s drugging women and having sex with them? Frankly, I can’t even look at him. It’s like being in church and finding out the preacher is a pimp. And he just sits there and doesn’t say anything, no apology, nothing. And people let him get away with it. I know his son died, but that’s no excuse. It’s not fair. Look how these women are being treated when they come forward. It’s always like this. Anita Hill, Monica Lewinsky. Bill Clinton still gets to keep his career, people see him as some kind of mack daddy, meanwhile she’ll always be known as the Woman Who Sucked A Dick.
“Bill Cosby ain’t going to jail, he’s like a hundred years old, but the rest of these Bill Cosbys out here better realize their asses are on alert, because women are getting sick of this shit, and we’re not going to be quiet about it anymore. Those days are over.
“And I know what it is like, not being believed. It fucks your head up. I was in the foster care system since I was five years old. I was considered an old kid in the system at five. You want to talk about abuse? I know what it is like to tell the truth when you are raped and nobody believes you. I trusted a woman in one of my foster families, I told her everything. We were having tea together and I relaxed and she said I could tell her anything, so I told her what happened to me. It involved a man in her family. She looked right in my face and said, I don’t believe you. Cold, just like that. Ain’t that a bitch?
“That shit hurt like hell but it taught me something. I learned to count on my own damn self. Everyone’s looking for a hero out here. We need some of these parents to be heroes to their own fucking kids, instead of just parking them in front of the television and saying, “Here, watch Bill Cosby, he’ll be your hero,” and then leaving them sitting there all day. We all believed what we saw on that show. We needed to believe it was real. Well, guess what? Bill Cosby turned out not to be the man we all thought he was. And if he isn’t who you thought he was, maybe you aren’t who you think you are, either.”
Dedicated to Iyatunde Folayan (LaTrice Dixon) – Survivor, Activist, Sister, Friend
Max S. Gordon is a writer and activist. He has been published in the anthologies Inside Separate Worlds: Life Stories of Young Blacks, Jews and Latinos (University of Michigan Press, 1991), Go the Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of African-American Lesbian and Gay Fiction (Henry Holt, 1996) and Mixed Messages: An Anthology of Literature to Benefit Hospice and Cancer Causes. His work has also appeared on openDemocracy, Democratic Underground and Truthout, in Z Magazine, Gay Times, Sapience, and other progressive on-line and print magazines in the U.S. and internationally.
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