Is Bill Cosby's legacy more important than the truth?

When America’s dream, black dad is accused of sadistic, multiple rape, it’s an American dilemma. What’s more, it is a black dilemma.

Ree X
23 March 2015
 Shutterstock/Eugene Parciasepe.

More than 30 rape allegations have been made against Bill Cosby. Credit: Shutterstock/Eugene Parciasepe.

By now at least 30 women have made rape and/or drugging accusations against Bill Cosby.

The myriad, detailed accusations of rape, dating back as early as 2000, began to flood mainstream media in late 2014, some days giving rise to as many as four separate accusations.

On top of this, Frank Scotti, a previous employee on The Bill Cosby Show, has admitted to acting as a middle man during the programme's shooting. He escorted women to and from Cosby’s dressing room, sending them cheques on the comedian’s behalf. 

Phylicia Rashad, Cosby's onscreen wife, came to Cosby’s defence in early 2015. To explain away the 30 plus accusations, Rashad put forward a case of conspiracy; someone - she wasn’t quite sure who - was out to get Bill Cosby. 

For her this story was “not about the women” or the multiple accusations of rape; it was an attempt at “the obliteration of legacy”: "What you’re seeing is the destruction of a legacy. And I think it's orchestrated. I don't know why or who's doing it, but it's the legacy. And it's a legacy that is so important to the culture."

The Bill Cosby Show was a situational comedy, starring a predominantly African-American cast. It was centred around the Huxtables, an upper middle-class African-African family living in Brooklyn Heights,  New York and was the biggest comedy show of the decade.

For a long time, Cosby’s legacy clearly embodied the many ambitions of black America; it was the black struggle for the American Dream. So when America’s dream, and black, dad is accused of sadistic, multiple rape, it’s an American dilemma. What’s more, it is a black dilemma.

In the face of mounting allegations, many still insist ‘we need more proof’, as if the collective voices of more than 30 women isn’t proof enough. Others state that Cosby is “too tired to fight” or that these supposed allegations took place so long ago that, even if true, Cosby should be left alone.

Behind this rhetoric lies the belief that one man’s legacy is more important than the collective and compelling stories of these women. This belief has gained wide currency. Yet as formidable as his career was, we have to ask ourselves the question whether Cosby’s legacy really is the most important thing.

If so, what would this mean for the future of black liberation, indeed any sort of real liberation? 

For a long time, Cosby served as a perfect example of black success. His legacy was the promotion of education, the mainstreaming of the black middle-class, big philanthropy, and the nurturing of black talent. He managed to achieve all this in a deeply racist society.

Throughout his career, Cosby espoused American middle-class values of meritocracy, college education, and self-reliance. The Bill Cosby Show raised the profile of the African American middle-class, something embraced by all sections of society. By avoiding the topic of race in his comic work, he posed a new alternative for African-American success. The ‘no race talk’ policy also kept him in favour with the white ruling establishment. In 2002 he was duly awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then President, George W. Bush.

The Cosby approach is reminiscent of race uplift and talented tenth ideologies, which espouse ‘trickle down’ and ‘leadership from above’ ideals. These approaches date back to the early twentieth century, following America’s failed attempt to fully integrate recently freed slaves into society, and the deaths of influential Abolitionist leaders, particularly Frederick Douglass.

After the successful dismantling of the Reconstruction Project by white supremacists, the black community found itself having to re-think the possibilities of its future in an increasingly hostile and regressive society. Race up lift and talented tenth ideas came out of this period. The idea was to differentiate between blacks on the basis of class, in order to establish a legitimate elite that could educate, lead and represent the needs of the recently freed black population. But it would mean mirroring the white establishment, not changing it. 

This approach, however, needed financing, which only the white establishment could provide. In return for funding, radical reforms, like those proposed during the Reconstruction Era, would be dropped.

This model of black leadership was never seriously contested until a group of school students in Moton High School organised a walkout in 1951, demanding fully integrated educational facilities. This historical event marked a turning point in black struggle, and would not only launch the fight for integrated education in America’s South, but also lay the ground for what would become the civil rights movement.

This renewed period of black struggle witnessed a time when the fight for truth, justice and equality seemed possible, and was made on the streets. It was a time when the success of the individual was clearly bound to the success of the whole, as in the fight for the abolition of slavery. This success was not defined by and limited to a representative elite; it was the preserve of a whole movement. 

The surge of political struggle in black America was followed by the assassination of key leaders, i.e. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and an increase in state brutality, and surveillance.

These events shook the confidence of a politically thriving community and inevitably led to a shift in approach. The ideals of equality, truth and justice were swapped for job offers on equal opportunity boards, in government posts and in other areas of public service. Neighborhoods were flooded with drugs. The black community was hoodwinked, once again, into championing an elite.

In present day America, where success, money and celebrity are among the most rarefied of things, reasoned judgement can all-too-often often give way to unquestioning adulation. And in the face of a deepening of racism and the absence of a radical alternative movement, a dangerous level of Groupthink can emerge.

So when the individual success/legacy of a black figurehead is threatened, as in the case of Cosby, the instinct is to defend, regardless. Cosby called on this instinct recently in a quote for the New York Times, stating: "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."

The only time Cosby discussed race before the rape allegations came to the fore, was when he gave lectures in black churches around America in the early 2000s. In his famous Pound Cake speech, he lectures black people for not speaking English properly and getting shot at by the police for stealing:

“Looking at the incarcerated, 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 then we all run out and we’re outraged. 'The cops shouldn't have shot him.' What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?" 

Many influential figures in the black community, like Whoopi Goldberg and Jill Scott, have withheld judgement, claiming ‘neutrality’ in the face of the mounting evidence against Cosby. Skepticism is understandable. We know the particular ways in which a still deeply racist society like America treats black men in the judicial system, and the current workings of the country’s prison complex. Very few believe in the principles of a fair trial and equality before the law when police officers can walk away from murdering defenceless black bodies. 

Supermodel Beverley Johnson spoke most clearly to this in her Vanity Fair article: “As I wrestled with the idea of telling my story of the day Bill Cosby drugged me with the intention of doing God knows what, the faces of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and countless other brown and black men took residence in my mind.”

The pressure to keep quiet in these situations is all too great. Telling black America that one of its greatest comedians, main donors and nurturers of black talent is a rapist is a near impossible task. 

If you’re a black woman the stakes are higher. Poet and educator Jewel Allison explained it best in an article for the Washington Post: “As I debated whether to come forward, I struggled with where my allegiances should lie – with the women who were sexually victimized or with black America, which had been systemically victimized.” 

Having already decided to pay off the only woman who could take him to court and having refused to answer any more questions on the new rape allegations, Cosby has made clear his position. But there is still an opportunity for those in America who believe in the basic principles of truth, justice, and equality. Speaking the truth not only requires calling a racist a racist; it requires calling a rapist a rapist. 

Is Bill Cosby’s type of legacy worth fighting for? We have to differentiate between the legacies of those who championed the success of the whole and those who championed themselves. As Allison reminds us: "Our nation’s greatest African American heroes have been on the front lines of Civil Rights efforts, not in our television sets. They are in the mothers and fathers who fought real-life challenges to raise us and in the teachers and professors who worked long hours to educate us. Bill Cosby did not lead the March on Washington, and “The Cosby Show” didn’t end racism."

Those of us who truly believe in equality, that it’s something worth fighting for, need to break ties with the Rashad mantra of 'legacy at all costs'. How can we fight for truth and justice for ourselves if we're not prepared to have the same done for others?

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