In case you have been living under a rock for the last few weeks, Bill Cosby is in a bit a pickle. A couple of dozen women (at my last checking I think the number was up to 24 and it could be higher now) have come forward to accuse the comedian, educator, and philanthropist of drugging and sexually assaulting them. This of course is a devastating turn of events for the man formerly known as America’s Dad.
Bill Cosby built quite a career on a particular image, one that Michael Eric Dyson called Accidental Blackness (a state of race consciousness where race is simply an accident of birth and has nothing to do with the character or personality of people). For decades, Cosby cultivated and protected this image, making himself into an everyman trying hard to understand his wife, his children and his world and doing so in a very funny way. The apex of his creation was the character known as Heathcliff Huxtable on the long running ratings powerhouse known as The Cosby Show. Heathcliff was not just the dad on the show, he became America’s Dad.
The persona of the most non-threatening black man on television (the man delivered babies for a living but couldn’t fix a doorbell) paid off well for Cosby, ensuring him subsequent television shows along with comedy and speaking engagements for as far as the eye could see. Things were looking pretty rosy for Mr. Cosby.
Then came the Pound Cake Speech, May 2004
This is the now famous (or infamous) NAACP speech where Cosby blasted poor black folk for everything from sagging pants to what they name their babies. Cosby brought to the forefront the fullness of respectability politics and told America, “Here is your answer to the problems of race, poverty, and waxy yellow buildup all rolled up in one.” And the country went wild for it.
Respectability politics has been around much longer than Bill Cosby and it has always had a strong following across races in the United States. It had taken some hits in the sixties and seventies in the face of various liberation movements and the rise of higher criticism, but in May of 2004, Cosby proved it was ready for a comeback. White conservatives jumped on the Cosby respectability bandwagon, helped aboard by black conservatives who were already there. America’s Dad soon became America’s Poppa, stern and strict and moralizing everywhere and over everything. After all, this was Heathcliff Huxtable talking. Who could argue with him?
Well, actually, quite a few did. Dozens of articles were written by established and aspiring intellectuals and social commentators. Michael Eric Dyson went further and wrote a book about the Cosby phenomenon, IS BILL COSBY RIGHT? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind? The criticism just endeared Cosby more to his supporters, old and new. Cosby became the darling of right-wing, red state America. Every jab, every shot taken at poor black folk by Tea Party or would-be Tea Party partisans could be defended with the simple sentence, “I am simply saying what Bill Cosby said, and he’s black.” Playing the Cosby Card was thought to win the pot every time.
Ironically, it started with a comedian’s standup routine.
Hannibal Buress, comic and former writer for Saturday Night Live was doing his act back in October of this year. In the routine there is about a two minute bit on Bill Cosby being accused of rape. He had been using the bit for months, but this time it was caught on video, posted to the internet, and it went viral.
Now Cosby had been in the news before over allegations of rape and sexual misconduct. There was a lawsuit that ended in a settlement back in 2006. But that incident, while covered in the press, didn’t stick in the minds of the public like a comic’s bit caught on a cell phone. Oh how times have changed.
Next came the allegations of sexual misconduct, assault and rape from one, two, ten, fifteen, twenty, and counting, women. Cosby, who for the last ten years had spoken repeatedly about the declining morality and character of poor black folk, suddenly fell silent in light of attacks against his behavior. Interviews aired where you could hear Cosby pleading with reporters to cut things out or edit their pieces fairly and most recently a call to the Black Press:\
“Let me say this. I only expect the black media to uphold the standards of excellence in journalism and when you do that you have to go in with a neutral mind,” Cosby said.
Why a special plea to the black press? Most likely because the white press, who loved covering Cosby, Respectability Prophet, and the conservative coalition of pundits, Tea Partiers, and politicians who quoted Cosby like scripture, seemed to have all fallen silent with regard to Mr. Cosby’s current woes.
Perhaps his supporters have all become radical feminists and are now all fighting for the rights and protections of the victims of sexual assault. Perhaps his supporters have all stopped reading and listening to the news and don’t know about his current plight. Perhaps they were all raptured away in prelude to the Second Coming and can’t get a satellite hookup between earth and heaven.
Or perhaps a tarnished angel of righteousness isn’t so righteous anymore. Maybe America’s Dad has morphed in the minds of respectability acolytes into America’s creepy uncle. Maybe when you are of no use in the propaganda wars, the propagandists let you go and move on. Maybe all those colorblind people put their corrective lenses in. Maybe it was never about Cosby to begin with, just how useful he was to the powers that be.
Now this is not to say that Cosby is without any support at all.
Whoopi Goldberg has stated publicly that she has a lot of questions for Barbara Bowman, one of Cosby’s most vocal accusers, and urges caution in passing judgment on the comic. Jazz saxophonist Tony Williams called the accusations lies. Glenn Beck goes further and declared that the media is raping Bill Cosby. And then of course there is Rush Limbaugh who gave a classic line in Cosby’s defense, “It’s not like he did it yesterday.”
Bill Cosby has been accused of rape by multiple women; most of whom cannot hope for redress either from the criminal or civil courts. If there is neither money nor conviction to be gained, why are these women saying what they are saying? Could it be that they are just so crazed for fame that they are just running toward the limelight? Could it be there is some vast conspiracy masterminded by Cosby’s enemies and huge amounts of secret cash are being paid to these women?
It could be that in what they say, there is truth.
As for now, we cannot say for certain if the accusations are true. We can only speculate. But one thing is certain. Cosby will never be the voice of moral authority he once was. The Cosby Card has been taken out of the deck.