Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Pulling Back the Wool

I'm probably one of the few black people in America who was never in love with The Cosby Show.

I spent my childhood in a seriously religious household, and my family not only spent a nice chunk of every Sunday in church pews, but we also gave God time during the week. For most of The Cosby Show's run, I spent Thursday nights in Bible class and invariably didn't get home until well after primetime. So, while other kids regularly soaked up the wisdom and knowledge of Claire and Heathcliff, I was trying to stay awake during an exposition on Corinthians.

It pretty much sucked at the time.

My real introduction to the merits of the The Cosby Show, and its spin-off A Different World, actually came during college. Like most students, I spent an inordinate amount of time watching television and sleeping. In between that, I also learned some more black history, which made it easier for me to appreciate how different The Cosby Show was from it's contemporary mainstream sitcoms.

I became a fan of the images Bill Cosby endorses, and consequently, a fan of him as a man. Sure, I was disappointed when the allegations of his sexual misconduct surfaced and I thought he ruled his sitcom with too hard of an iron fist, but I still appreciated what his show meant to my community even if I didn't love it.

Of course, like many, many black folks, my impression of Cosby changed when he began his now infamous attacks on poor black people. I've had numerous discussions about what Cosby was trying to do and whether his efforts were productive. I must admit that I had to modify my position on several occasions because of these discussions.

This article in The Atlantic made me re-examine my position yet again. The author does a wonderful job of examining the totality of Cosby given the space restraints of his article.

As the article states, Cosby is a representation of a very familiar aspect of black life. Many of us like to marginalize viewpoints like his by assigning them to the crazy uncle who wears leather baseball caps, but the reality is that the streak of conservatism is much more deeply ingrained in our collective culture.

It's probably a reaction to being told for centuries that we were loose, immoral heathens by our loving white brethren, but no matter what the cause, the reality is that way more black folks would be Republicans if they didn't openly embrace racism. Given the importance of religion in our communities, particularly Islam and Christianity, it really should not surprise folks that many of us thoroughly enjoy speeches heavy on self-determination, moral standards and self-segregation.

Truthfully, I find it disturbing how often I found myself nodding along to some of the comments Cosby has made recently, even as I condemned him for others. No matter how much I wanted to chalk up his obvious bitterness to the inevitable disconnect from reality all old people eventually experience, I had to admit that the old fart wasn't that crazy. He was making some sense, and it was clear that certain segments of our society love to hear what he has to say.

And then I read this article.

In some ways, Bob Johnson is a Fun House mirror-image of Bill Cosby. They would seem to share similar views on the world, and given some of Cosby's earliest comments on his priorities in life, they share similar ideas on the "race problem." Granted, Bobby Boy used to promote the one art form that Cosby now despises, but that's why I used the Fun House-mirror label.

Everything is slightly skewed.

What Johnson's comments made me realize is that men like he and Cosby have attained such material wealth that the truly feel they have earned the right to do as they please. Bob Johnson basically admits that he was lying when he claimed that his comments about Barack Obama's past "work in the neighborhood" wasn't related to drug use. He then goes on to claim that Obama is an affirmative action baby, despite the fact that Obama is probably better educated and more intelligent than him. Cosby displays a similar distaste for Obama without even bothering to give a reason for his feelings.

Clearly, Cosby and Johnson no longer care for the rules of engagement acknowledged and followed by most black folks. Instead they have decided that they have earned the right to blaze their own trail, to say what they feel and damn the fallout among the rest of us.

The problem is that the path they have chosen is not only closed to most black folks, but it's not productive for our community as a whole. There is nothing to be gained from making comments that reinforce white stereotypes under the guise of "being honest." Cosby and Johnson do black folks no favors by hypocritically ignoring their own failures to serve our communities when they had their largest profiles, and now attempting to set themselves up as de-facto representative of our race because they've achieved success.

Barack Obama often has been accused of attempting to "transcend" race, to leave behind the muck of oppression and victimhood to ascend to the pinnacle of colorblindness. Yet, I find that it's people like Johnson and Cosby who truly believe they have transcended race, and that this provides them with protection from criticism from both blacks and whites.

They sprinkle their public comments with hateful rants about black folks whose plights they ignored in many ways in their public lives, but expect black folks to accept this tactic because they have succeeded despite white racism. They give white folks cover for their own stereotypical mindsets, but then point to their acknowledgement of the effects of white racism as proof that they are not complete sell outs.

Instead, they hold themselves up as venerable griots, extolling the virtues of our history while promising that they hold the key to improving our current plight. But, it's all a sham, designed to stroke their egos and soothe the insecurities they feel deep in their hearts because they have never received the level of appreciation and love both felt was deserved.

It's a terrible sham.


dewfish said...

very good article. I agree completely.

Temple3 said...

"Good Morning Mr. Cosby:

You've proudly asserted that you are a race man. That's wonderful. Let me cut to the chase. How would you describe your institutional legacy in the entertainment industry? We're well aware of your personal legacy, and thank you. However, the question of your institutional legacy is wide open. How would you describe it?"


If Negro comedians are still carrying Ashkenazic Coon Water, there is a problem and it's partly attributable to the failures of Mr. Cosby on an institutional level. I'm not hating - but I would be pleased if this conversation made its way around to institutional wealth.

Of course there is a $20M grant to Spelman and that's nothing to sneeze at (achoo!), but in his wake have come a generation of essentially unnecessary jokesters who were not left an institutional vehicle to ply their craft or develop authentic cultural material. If mass post-modern media is part of the conversation, this question should be put out there.

Both Johnson and Cosby, with respect to their industries and the question of Black legacy, took the bitch route...straight up. It doesn't mean they did nothing good. I think Cosby's good FAR outweighs his negatives (including the groping) - and Johnson's negative FAR outweigh his positives...but damn if them greasy bastards ain't tryin' to lose it all.

Anonymous said...

I was a huge Cosby fam from his stand up days to his films and tv work. To hear him speak now suggest we've overcame and all obstacles are removed and if we would just get up off our butts and find jobs, we'd have better communities, schools, health, etc. What he fails to realize is that the folks he's talking about are a small fraction of black community. The majority of the folks work morstly at low paying jobs with no benefits, pay taxes, help their children with homework and attend some kind of religious service and are law abiding citizens. To hear him speak you'd think all inner city folks do/sell drugs, wear expensive clothing, uneducated, shiftless and lazy, and the women don't have husbands and a lot of kids by different men and all the daddy's are in prison. I want to know where this community is, cause I live in the inner city and haven't seen that much hell yet and I'm over 50 years old.
Cosby shut the f@#k up!

Big Man said...


You very eloquently explained my main problem with Cosby. (Johnson isn't even worth discussing)

I respect what he accomplished and all the work he did behind the scenes. But, I recognize first that in public he typically avoided racial issues completely, and that despite his many accomplishments he's basically just a rich black dude with no means to empower future generations.

He can't improve public schools, he can't improve police protection, he can't even provide folks with jobs that will sustain them past his own death.

His success is stricly personal, a shining example of achievement in a white man's world, but he provides no blueprint for other people to achieve what he did. If thinks just pulling up our pants and turning off rap music will solve all our problems, then he is sadly misinformed.

The Christian Progressive Liberal said...

I've no comment on Cosby; it is what it is.

As for Bob Johnson, how much "cooning" can a man do before he believes he's assimilated and he really hasn't?

Raving Black Lunatic