His 1980s TV sitcom arrived at a crucial moment. Unfortunately, so too did the recent reemergence of rape allegations against Cosby. How do we reckon the man with his work?
The dawning of the 1980s in the United States ushered in the era of Ronald Reagan and a reinvigorated global war on Blackness that stretched from the streets of South Central Los Angeles to the corners of Harlem and beyond to Apartheid South Africa.
When Reagan left office in 1989, he left communities ravaged by crack cocaine due to his backroom deals with Nicaragua’s Contras. He embedded the virulent virus of Reaganomics into our politics, the economic ideology which insisted that the American Dream is attainable for everyone as long as the rich get richer, then trickle the wealth down to the rest of society. Reagan’s legacy also consists of a Black unemployment rate that peaked at 21.2 percent in 1983 and trended downward to 11.8 percent—which sounds great until a closer examination reveals that the gap between Black and White unemployment rose from 2.18 percent in January 1981 to 2.57 percent in January 1989 when he left office.
During these tumultuous times, DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Fab Five Freddy would continue to helm the Hip-Hop exploration into the heart of Black America that began shortly after Reagan’s failed 1976 presidential stump speeches about Chicago’s “welfare queen.”
And Bill Cosby’s The Cosby Show would elegantly emerge on the scene in 1984, taking spins around Black America’s metaphorical ballroom, one littered with crack pipes, decorated with political duplicity, and emanating the stench of poverty.
Even then it felt groundbreaking. There are many nuanced and necessary critiques that have been levied against The Cosby Show, but it cannot be denied that he captured lightning in a bottle. Cosby was at once inspirational and aspirational in ways more subversive than meets the eye. It wasn’t just that they were wealthy. Black America’s emotional connection with the “Huxtables” flourished as they consistently and unapologetically privileged Blackness within a 1980s, White supremacist framework. More often than not, “Cliff,” an obstetrician, and “Clair,” an attorney, were in authoritative or enviable positions over White colleagues and friends. They privileged the fictional Hillman College over Princeton University; Ellis Wilson over Pablo Picasso; and Lena Horne and Sammy Davis, Jr. over Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven.
The Huxtables made success materially Black in ways that we could see on their walls, in their kitchen and hear coming from their stereo. And it felt good. For decades, on and off the air, Dr. Bill Cosby reigned as America’s Dad, which makes the fact that he’s an accused rapist that much more difficult to process for ’80s babies across the country.
When the horrific allegations against Cosby reemerged this past February, many people hearing them for the first time, the confluence of racism and nostalgia made it impossible for some in Black America to tackle the story. With the attention-grabbing title, “Who Wants to Remember Bill Cosby’s Multiple Sex-Assault Accusations?” Gawker’s Tom Scocca dredged up the story in an obvious attempt to deflect from sexual abuse allegations levied against Woody Allen by Dylan Farrow—his daughter with ex-girlfriend Mia Farrow—who revealed that she was molested by the iconic director when she was 7 years old.
There were those among us grappling with disbelief, defensiveness and uncertainty who were intensely protective of Bill Cosby. Many people simply refused to play the “Save the White man from scrutiny by shifting the burden to a Black man” game and the story struggled to stay afloat as mainstream media salivated over Allen’s story. Even when the accused, serial rapist is America’s Dad, the salacious nature of the Allen story—White Hollywood, incest, child abuse, wealth, power—kept the heat off of Cosby as buried allegations continued to be exposed.
Scocca’s report was quickly followed by Barbara Bowman, one of 13 women to accuse Cosby of sexual assault, repeating her story to writer Katie J. M. Baker.
The first time I was drugged for sure was in New York, when [Bill Cosby] invited me to dinner at his apartment. There was a chef, a butler; we had dinner, it was all fine. I had one glass of wine and then I blacked out. I woke up throwing up in the toilet, and he was standing over me, pulling my hair out of my face. I was wearing a white t-shirt that wasn’t mine, and he was in a white robe.
I think the final time I was assaulted by him was in Atlantic City. He took me there for a show and got me very drunk. Later, [the hotel] lost my luggage, so I was on the phone with the concierge and [Bill] had an absolute fit that I was on the phone, and went ballistic. The next morning, he summoned me into his room and started berating me and calling me names and yelling at me, telling me I had embarrassed him, and he threw me on the bed and blocked me with his elbow and got on top of me and started taking his pants off and I was screaming and crying and begging him to leave me alone and I fought so hard and I was screaming so loud that he got mad and threw me aside and got away from me, and that was it.
The interview, which can be read in full here, is as devastating as one might expect. Still, like most stories involving female, sexual assault victims, this one with the additional hurdle of the accused being a beloved public figure, it faded away as it was replaced with other headlines. The allegations recently gained traction in the media once again when comedian Hannibal Buress mocked Cosby for his sanctimonious hypocrisy in light of his history of violent acts against women.
“It’s even worse because Bill Cosby has the fuckin’ smuggest old black man persona that I hate,” Buress said. “He gets on TV, ‘Pull your pants up black people, I was on TV in the ’80s! I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom!’ Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches.
“I guess I want to just at least make it weird for you to watch Cosby Show reruns,” Buress says later. “I’ve done this bit on stage and people think I’m making it up … when you leave here, google ‘Bill Cosby rape.’ That shit has more results than ‘Hannibal Buress.’ ”
Cosby’s elitist patriarchy, evidenced in both his real life pathologizing of Blackness and in his television alter-ego Cliff Huxtable, has dovetailed with his proclivity for sexual violence against vulnerable Black women, bringing his reckless narcissism into stark relief.
Similarly to Woody Allen, Cosby also had to see himself, expose himself through his work. From Manhattan to Stardust Memories, Allen purged himself of his demons through his art in ways that both exorcised and immortalized them. Early on, Bill Cosby decided to change Cliff’s occupation from driver to ob-gyn, and Clair’s occupation from plumber to attorney and that shift from working-class to middle class represented more than an increase in income and cultural impact.
We have read time and time and time again about ob-gyns who have sexually assaulted sedated patients. There have even been instances where drugs were not involved, but the doctor’s position of authority and trust allowed them to transform patients into victims with impunity. Cosby’s victims, some alleged and others with whom he settled out of court, seem to have at least two things in common with the victims of the ob-gyns mentioned above: They were all physically and emotionally vulnerable and/or felt dependent on their abusers for their livelihood.
By giving Cliff intimate access to countless women who trusted and depended on him, it can easily be read that Cosby knew that he was placing himself in a position to gain intimate access to countless women across the country who trusted him as well. Each and every Thursday night, he made his home, 10 Stigwood Avenue, with its tasteful displays of wealth, feel appealing, inviting, desirable, and safe—and he held the keys.
Raise your hands if you believe that you’d have been safe in Bill Cosby’s home at the height of The Cosby Show.
Some critics have argued that a rejection of Bill Cosby means a complete rejection of The Cosby Show and its characters because they sprung from the mind of a twisted sexual predator. I do not believe that Cosby should be feted in the way that Hollywood insists on groveling at the feet of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen. Like those two, I believe he should be in prison. But once we sink into the corners and crevices of the show, there is appreciating value there if only for the brutal lessons it provides.
Common sense dictates that we examine the motivation of the artist when attempting to gain a deeper understand their art, but we cannot retroactively rescind the impact the show had on Black America. The Cosby Show was groundbreaking and life-affirming for many of us who saw our families and friends reflected in the Huxtable home, particularly in its matriarch.
I know Clair Huxtables. Sexy, sensual, smart, accomplished, strong, feminist mothers who love their fathers, mothers, husbands, and children with abundance while staying true to who they are as women. Women who give themselves space to be angry, frustrated, irritated, and insecure. Women who, like many of us, extend over and beyond for our families, but who try never to forget the importance of self-care. Never once in Phylicia Rashad’s depiction of Clair Huxtable did I forget that there, too, was Clair Hanks and that she would have been a force with or without Heathcliff Huxtable.
With this in mind, the issue lies not in Cosby’s characters, particularly Clair, but in who she is within the framework of his patriarchal and misogynistic ideals. Black men who hate Black women often use the same line when challenged: “My mother raised me, how could I hate Black women?” These are the men who scream out “bitch,” “slut,” “ho,” or even kill women if they aren’t given the attention they feel they deserve, but who will cut someone over their sisters and daughters.
That being said, Clair Huxtable should not serve as an indictment of whom we aspire to be, rather a warning against whom we aspire to love.
When Theo Huxtable graduated from New York University and Cliff and Clair danced out of our living rooms in 1992, the Los Angeles Riots were in full-swing. Four LAPD officers were acquitted after being captured on video savagely beating Rodney King within inches of his life and Black people were tired. They were tired of being beaten and tired of being murdered by those sworn to serve and protect. They were sick and tired of being sick and tired. Scores of protesters took to the streets calling for justice in a fiery action that lasted six days.
After much discussion concerning the appropriateness of doing so, KNBC decided to air the Cosby series finale after these words from anchor Jess Marlow:
“Today Mayor Bradley urged us to stay home, stay off the streets and watch ‘The Cosby Show.’ We believe we need this time as a cooling-off period . . . to remember what our Thursday nights were like before this all began. If major events dictate, be assured that we will return immediately.”
Coincidentally, the allegations against Bill Cosby have reemerged during #FergusonOctober. A nation is on fire seeking justice for slain Ferguson teen Michael Brown, who was unarmed when he was gunned down by police officer Darren Wilson on August 9. Protestors have faced down tear gas, rubber bullets, sonic grenades, tanks, and dogs. The rage has bubbled to surface and overflowed as we continue to seek justice for John Crawford, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, and countless others in a judicial system crafted for Black life to exist at the margins, in prisons, or in cemeteries, while this nation gets rich off our backs.
President Barack Obama, who has “Cosby-fied” the White House, continues to expect us to ignore his war crimes while he continues to ignore police brutality—in policy if not in reluctant rhetoric. Instead, we should focus on how cute Sasha is, how much Malia has grown, and how awesome it is that Michelle knows how to #TurnIp.
The allegations against Cosby have resurfaced as the POTUS continues to dismantle federal support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Black literary icon Toni Morrison announces that her papers will be housed at Princeton University. There is tragic irony in the fact that, despite all the lip-service given to the importance of privileging Black culture, Heathcliff Huxtable’s oldest daughter Sondra also chose Princeton, the flower of the Ivy League, over HBCU Hillman College.
Even more damning is the fact that during a time of increased street harassment against Black women, when we are more likely to be raped and assaulted than our White counterparts and when we are the fastest growing prison population in the U.S., Obama’s gender-based, racial justice initiative “My Brother’s Keeper,” further suppresses the narratives of Black female victims of racism and sexism in this country, just as Cosby’s victims have been ignored for all these years.
Though Bill Cosby’s significant, cultural disruption of the Republican terrorism of the 1980s provided immeasurable relief, The Cosby Show’s exceptionalism hinged on the embrace of Black respectability in a nation that doesn’t respect us and never has. It hinged upon an adherence to patriarchal norms that places Black women and by extension, Black families and Black communities at risk. And now, Cosby veers between blatant disregard and disdain for the very people who hoisted him upon the pedestal he so desperately clings to today.
“Yes,” Cosby said when asked in 1992 should the Cosby finale air during live coverage of the L.A. Riots. “At first, I didn’t really feel that this would be a part of what was going on in real life. However, I do recall that when Dr. [Martin Luther] King was shot, when John F. Kennedy was shot, I wanted something to take me away from the horror.
“So I was happy they decided to go with it because there was a family in the show that for eight years had given people a good feeling about themselves.”
In 2014, many of us are holding on to the good feeling that The Cosby Show gives us. But that feeling doesn’t take away the horror of the sexual abuse allegations against him dating back 30 years; nor does it excuse the paternalistic condescension with which he engages Black America in the present day. And there is a disturbing arrogance in the logic that it ever could. Bill Cosby, and by extension, Cliff Huxtable, relied on charisma, wealth, and power to gather victims. He counted on society’s dismissal of the painful lived experiences of Black women to protect him from shame and criminal prosecution. And he stood there, hidden in plain sight behind festive sweaters and a speculum, serving as a shattered window through which we could view (Black) America, particularly its maltreatment and violation of Black women while maintaining a façade of reverence and respect.
While many observers have challenged the authenticity of Bill Cosby’s Heathcliff Huxtable, he is not a lie. He is at once an uncomfortable and familiar truth, a reflection of the ever shifting sociopolitical landscape upon which Cosby’s tainted legacy is drawn.
There’s never been a more important time for quality journalism. You can help by supporting DAME’s reporting, commentary, and cultural criticism. Because it matters who covers the news. And it matters who covers women’s issues in the news. Become a supporter today.
AN INDEPENDENT FREE PRESS HAS
NEVER BEEN MORE IMPORTANT.
Your financial support helps DAME continue to cover the critical policies, politics and social changes impacting woman and their allies.