This has been a post that has been months in the making, mostly because I had to go through a period of reflection and, in a way, mourning, for the entity that is (or was) Bill Cosby’s Career.
Cosby has recently given a confusing, meandering statement to ABC News, not really declaring himself guilty of at least 39 alleged rape and sexual assault crimes, but not really denying them either. It’s difficult to say what his thinking was when speaking to ABC, but if I’m acting as a couch therapist, I’d say that this is Cosby’s way of reconciling his past catching up with him.
As hard as it was for him to give up just that bit of guilt to the public, it’s hard for people who have grown up in the midst of Cosby’s legacy to watch it, much less watch the literal parade of women coming forth to say Cosby has stolen parts of their lives.
Speaking for myself, when I first learned about Cosby’s alleged crimes, I was shocked. But the next emotion wasn’t disbelief, per se; I’ve never not believed the women who have come forward. My next emotion was sadness. Then anger.
As I’ve cultivated a pop culture critique-geared mindset, I’ve studied Cosby’s career as a roadmap towards greater acceptance for black actors and actresses in television. I’ve written about Cosby’s legacy in essays and articles, including the one I’d recently wrote writing why Fresh Off the Boat is the way it is (before Eddie Huang really made a mess of things for himself on Twitter). The show follows the tradition of the “idealistic family sitcom” in the vein of The Cosby Show. Cosby’s influence is so great that the setup of The Cosby Show can’t be relegated to just non-POC family sitcoms; all family sitcoms, including white sitcoms like Step by Step, Full House, and Boy Meets World, all owe a debt to the Cosby Show formula.
Cosby’s influence didn’t just start in the ’80s; he really made his mark on I, Spy, playing one of the coolest (if not one of the first) black characters on TV that didn’t rely on racial jokes or negative stereotypes to be accepted by his peers. In fact, it was often shown that Cosby’s character Alexander Scott was the brains of the operation. Combine that with his prolific comedy career, movie stardom, The Cosby Show and A Different World, and you can see just how much clout, respect, and love Cosby built up from his peers, his fans, and especially us 20-to-30-somethings, who grew up watching his vision of the classic black experience.
But now, things are different. The Cosby that was getting ready to come back to television just roughly a year ago has now become a pariah. Many don’t know what to do with him. Everyone feels duped, but the ones who seem to be the most confused are those of us who grew up with Cosby as a TV dad or TV uncle. What are we to make of Cliff Huxtable, this parental figure that taught us about jazz and gently steered his children in the right direction? What are we supposed to do with this feeling of being lied to for our entire lives?
For me, these feelings have the hardest for me to wrangle. As a journalist and a pop culture critic, I felt I had to write about this months ago. But personal feelings got the better of me; I honestly didn’t know how to write about a person I had viewed as a staple in my TV-viewing life. But while my internal grumblings of not writing something about this issue grew louder, Cosby’s own rambling statement sent me over the edge. It became time to write about this.
I don’t know if anyone is still trying to figure out how to come to terms with Cosby in light of these horrific allegations. I don’t know if anyone is still in denial about what Cosby is alleged to have done. I especially wonder how many black people, notables or otherwise, are in denial about the man they knew possibly not being the man they thought he was. But if I had to give any advice, it’s to learn from Cosby’s contributions to black Hollywood and the civil rights fight for better representation of black characters. It’s annoying that we can’t just write Cosby off completely, because he’s been so entrenched in black Hollywood. But if we can just look at his legacy from a purely educational standpoint, then maybe we can come to terms with his career and the figurative doors it opened to others.
However, we’ll just have to leave Bill Cosby the Man behind. Even with what I just wrote about putting Cosby’s legacy in its educational perspective, I still haven’t seen an episode of The Cosby Show since the allegations. I literally can’t watch it since I know all I’ll see is Bill Cosby the Alleged Rapist, not Bill Cosby the Lovable Dad. Sure, some people might be able to separate the man from the character Cliff Huxtable, but to me, Cliff Huxtable and Bill Cosby are one and the same; Cliff is the ideal Cosby wanted to present himself as. But now, he’s tainted it to the nth degree.
I hope the women get the justice they’re looking for. I hope Cosby can find whatever help he needs while also receiving the punishment he deserves if he’s actually raped 39 women. But, while I’m hoping for all of these things, I—along with many Americans—have to work on reconciling my mind to this new reality of Cosby not being Cliff Huxtable.
Bill Cosby on ABC News.