So now the cliché is complete. Phylicia Rashad, Bill Cosby’s TV wife, has come to his defense. In an interview last week, Rashad dismissed the stories of 23 women who have come in recent years alleging that Cosby is a serial predator who assaulted them. After significant backlash, Rashad commented that she was misquoted as saying “forget those women,” but added, “What I said is this is not about the women… this is about the obliteration of a legacy.”
Unfortunately for Rashad, these kinder comments were equally unwelcome by many, including those who coined the hashtag #ByePhylicia. In classic wife-in-denial form, she is suggesting that her TV-husband’s shining legacy should take priority over sexual assault allegations against him. Cosby’s best-known work, The Cosby Show, encapsulated the middle-class African American fantasy of success in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. I would argue that, rather than destroying the legacy, the revelation of Cosby’s sexual violence has revealed a twisted and violent shadow of the middle class that is far-too-often ignored.
Slavery has been over for nearly a century and a half. But the trauma of white supremacy has never ended, and we African Americans, as a community, have never had a chance to heal. From the daily Ku Klux Klan terror of late 1800s reconstruction to ongoing police shootings of Black youth to last week’s bombing of the Colorado NAACP, Black Americans, as a group, continue to be deeply affected by the legacies of forced servitude, personal humiliation, group disempowerment, unpredictable terror, and sexual violence. Many of us cling to the notion that education and economic success can cure all our community’s ills and exorcise our demons. But the Black middle class, in mimicry of the white middle class, wears a smooth pretense of triumph and perfection, while our struggles and pathology happen in shadow and are fiercely denied.
For the Black community, this is part of a strategy to rise above our subjugated past through the politics of respectability. This ideology dictates that Black women should get into a middle class or upwardly mobile heterosexual marriage and that will lead to the good life. Anyone who acts otherwise is considered not only to be making poor choices for herself, but to be bringing the whole community down. Adherents to the politics of respectability consistently pressure women to take on these roles and target any women who don’t conform: to have sex outside of a committed heterosexual relationship, to be queer, to be a sex worker are all threats to this respectability. To come forward as having been victimized by a pillar of the community is equally threatening; Respectability advocates will viciously defend anyone who represents this dream of success. Instead of listening to the women who say, over and over, that he abused them, Cosby’s defenders reposition him as the victim.
Essayist Daisy Hernandez puts Cosby’s work in historical context in her recent memoir that takes on race, class, and sexuality, A Cup of Water Under My Bed:
“Bill Cosby was on television in the 80s… He was making me laugh, charming me and the country with the story that skin color didn’t matter anymore, community didn’t matter, a person could buy anything in this country now, all they needed to do was to work for it.”
Everyone invested in the dream of Bill Cosby as a shining example of a respectable Black middle-class man can turn their attention to the accusers, and paint them as women who want to destroy something special. When in reality, it is the rapist who destroys the dream.
The Cosby Show was our community’s fantasy not only of success, but of an utterly unrealistic ease of life at every level. Black people could be homeowners who never had mortgage worries or busted pipes. We could have marriages without fighting, infidelity, or abuse of any kind. We could work high-paying, professional jobs that didn’t cause stress, require long hours, or interfere with family life. We could raise five children and not be physically exhausted, economically overextended, or even raise our voices. We could have a lovely, spotless house that we never spent any time cleaning. We could bring up Black children in the city and never worry about drugs, unplanned pregnancies, AIDS, crime, gangs, jail, or violence. We had even escaped genetics: we could be brown-skinned and have improbably light-skinned children that conformed to TV’s beauty standards, played by actors with one white parent. But above all, in this vision, we could be Black and totally escape racism.
Bill Cosby—Comedian Actor, Author, Philosopher, Educator, and Family Man. Photo via Classic Film.
Watching the show in the 80s, I welcomed a break from racism. It was lovely to see Black people having funny, relaxed home lives. The show was a comedy and a fantasy, and needs to be understood as such. It wasn’t Bill Cosby’s job to reflect the difficult, nuanced, painful reality of Black people in the Reagan/Bush years. He had no obligation to include the dumping of crack into Black communities along with the meteoric rise of street violence and the prison industrial complex or the resulting devastation. Let us note, however, that his decision to ignore these brutal institutions dovetails well with his later attacks on less privileged Black people.
The Cosby Show was a vision of ease, but Cliff Huxtable is the fantasy. Bill Cosby is the reality.
In 2014, I accepted that I am moving into the middle class. My mom, the daughter of an immigrant, was raised in the projects. I was raised working class, but my family had always been educated. I worked as an artist until I got a university teaching job, settled down, and started a family. I am married to a man who is starting to make a decent salary in the tech industry. Our kid goes to a private (albeit cooperative) preschool. Today, we have a car that is less than a decade old. I finally have a computer that’s not always crashing. I can now pay bills when they come in and not push ‘til the last possible moment. I’m not interested in middle class values overall, but I am learning that some of my working class behaviors from my mom’s childhood of poverty don’t make sense in my current life. I’m learning about how middle class people live, and choosing among their practices for the ones that work for my family. My family has a shadow side. Even after many years of different kinds of therapy, my partner and I have lots of fights and power struggles. They are all deeply linked to early challenges in each of our lives that were a direct result of legacies of poverty, slavery, immigration, and colonization. We have one of the best Black marriages I’ve seen. And yet it’s not easy.
When I think about the reality of Bill Cosby’s life, I think of R Kelly and Chris Brown—men who complete a cycle of violence inflicted on them by dishing it out themselves. The Village Voice recently unearthed Cosby himself, in a 1969 comedy recording, discussing his fascination with the idea of drugging and raping women. According to Jenny Kutner at Salon, “In the routine, Cosby describes his childhood fascination with a drug, ‘Spanish fly,’ that supposedly makes women go crazy (or renders them incapacitated) if slipped into a drink.” Of course, this is a comedy routine. We don’t know if any of it is true. Cosby says he was thirteen when he came across this information. I wonder if he could have been younger. Did his father’s heavy alcoholism play a role in his fascination with something you could drink that would render you crazy or incapacitated? Was he heavily impacted by the tragic death of his older brother when he was a kid?
I’m not excusing Bill Cosby’s behavior. He sounds like a rapist to me. But a desire to rape is not inherent to any human being. Rape is a sexualized response to some form of trauma or disempowerment, when a healthier form of coping is not available.
What’s clear now is Cosby’s predatory behavior. But our association of him with the middle class character of Cliff Huxtable obliterates Cosby’s real-life difficult childhood, which included racial and economic victimization and undoubtedly underlies his sexual violence. Chris Brown talked about being in a childhood sexual situation that was, by any legal definition, him being raped. In Cosby’s 1969 set, what is the comedian trying to tell us about sex, power, and substances from his own childhood? If we want to stop rape, we need to stop abusing boys and promoting a culture of violent hazing among boys during childhood. We need to stop filling them with rage and terror and then damming them up with violence and ridicule if they show sensitivity. We need to intervene in this kind of abuse that that leads them to take out their fury in sexual violence against women and girls. We need to stop allowing them to get away with it, and stop blaming women and girls for violence they suffer. And we need to stop apologizing for and covering up the sexual violence of powerful and famous men.
A mural of Bill Cosby adorns Ben's Chili Bowl in Washington, DC. Photo by Ted Eytan.
Bill Cosby is not Cliff Huxtable. Nobody is Cliff Huxtable. Cosby created a fantasy, and many who grew up on that fantasy have a powerful nostalgia for the show. If it was part of your early years, if you got through rough patches by imagining that they were your family, then nothing can take that away from you, not even the revelation of Cosby’s alleged sexual violence.
Recently, I publicly encouraged everyone to boycott R Kelly. I don’t feel the same way about The Cosby Show. R Kelly’s Black Panties album was practically celebrating his abuse of young girls. Cosby’s show is a cultural artifact of a fantasy he created of a safe, loving family. While I’m glad that he is losing current opportunities for new shows and syndication, his body of work exists and is part of our cultural legacy. Phylicia Rashad is wrong. These accusations don’t tarnish the Cosby legacy, they complete it. The light is revealed, as is the shadow. He made creative breakthroughs and he violated women’s bodies. He gave millions for scholarships and ruined lives. He is the testimony that the Black middle class fantasy won’t rescue us. He is the legacy of slavery, all our brilliance and all our woundedness, distilled into one man’s life.