I was part of that generation of young people who arguably got to experience Bill Cosby at the best possible time; Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids was still in reruns when I was in my earliest years, and the first years of The Cosby Show started right when I got to watch prime time television on a regular basis. My parents already owned a couple of Cosby’s comedy albums on vinyl, and I kept picking up more of them on cassette tape when I could. Like a lot of children with less-than-ideal biological fathers, Cosby was almost a surrogate father to me back in the day, and even though I stopped watching The Cosby Show years before it ended its run (and never bothered to check out his CBS show), I still held him in high regard. He put a lot of smiles on my face at a time when it felt like most of the rest of the world was trying to kick my teeth in, and that’s only made everything that’s happened since then with Cosby all the harder for me to deal with.
It was only after I left the abattoir of a “school” I was attending when The Cosby Show first aired that I began hearing criticism of how Cosby portrayed success on the show, and how realistic (or even desirable) the life of the Huxtable family really was. I tended to brush off those criticisms not only because of my personal love for Cosby, but because I really couldn’t comprehend that criticism all that well. It took me years to understand where those critiques were coming from, and I think it was only after Cosby made that one graduating student cry that I finally started getting it. His speeches in later years really drove home how the man I’d idolized in my earliest years held abhorrent views of those who couldn’t meet his standards, and then, of course, the revelations that landed him in the prison cell he presently occupies eclipsed everything that came earlier, and for damn good reason.
I’ve been thinking about Cosby as a political figure a lot this past week, though; on top of reading a book critical of Cosby’s stances on African-American culture and education, I also taught the film Lean on Me in one of my classes last Thursday, so I’ve had Joe Clark on my mind (even more than usual) as well. The similarities between the two almost go without saying at this point, especially as Clark’s life has been reexamined after his passing a couple of months ago. Especially as I keep researching my next book (and you can get exclusive updates on that work by subscribing to my Patreon, in case I haven’t mentioned that enough these past six months), it becomes clearer to me on a daily basis just what influence these two people had on not just how African-American youth are trained in their schools, but also regarded by American society writ large.
After then-Secretary of Education William Bennett helped elevate Clark to national prominence, echoes of Clark’s philosophies began springing up in many quarters of American culture. (Lean on Me likely played a huge role in that, because it’s hard to look like anything less than an angel when Morgan freaking Freeman plays you in a film about your life.) Even if the efforts of these kinds of school “reformers” weren’t as splashy in the media as they’d been before, they were still definitely going on, as witnessed by President Clinton harping on school uniforms instead of giving schools the money they needed to improve conditions for their students. When Oprah Winfrey started featuring these issues on her television show in the late nineties, that seeded the ground for the astroturf corporate “reform” movements that would result, and once Bush 43 uttered his infamous “soft bigotry of low expectations” line, that created a level of acceptability for white people to start using a lot of the same language that only people like Joe Clark and Ward Connerly were using earlier. With Oprah using her national platform to sanctify a lot of these efforts, the movements blossomed, and we’re still dealing with them today.
If anything, Bill Cosby seemed to enter these efforts a few years too late, but even if he wasn’t a major television star at that point of his career, he was still such a cultural legend that he was going to make a splash regardless of when he decided to speak his peace. Cosby’s remarks generated a lot of criticism at the time, but even with the research I’ve been doing for my next book, I’d largely forgotten about them until recently. Maybe his recent conviction and imprisonment had a lot to do with that — it literally pains me to think about him these days — but as I’ve read through books about American education that were written before his arrest, I have to think about how differently those books would have been if they’d been published after we found out the things we now know about Cosby.
On the one hand, it’s hardly like Cosby was the only person to ever articulate these views about culture and education. At the same time, though, a lot of the people who felt similarly to Cosby went out of their ways to attach themselves to him, which was a very smart rhetorical move at the time. It’s not like these ideas were just going to die after Cosby’s arrest and conviction, but it feels like Cosby’s politics have been swept under the rug since then, and I’m not sure if that’s the best way for us to handle them.
As the pandemic has gone on, and Cosby has remained imprisoned, it’s hard to hear about the high rates of COVID-19 fatalities in America’s prisons and not wonder if Cosby will soon be among them. Dealing with Cosby’s actions and legacies is difficult enough right now, but that task will become even more complicated when he finally does pass away. Even if we aren’t comfortable handling him as a person, though, we can still deal with the political and cultural views he espoused before his imprisonment, and maybe, given the state of America right now, that might be the best thing for us to do right now.