In my younger years, I was always the one down for a protest. I remember causing an uproar in my high school African American History class because I told my teacher I didn’t think she could teach me anything about the subject because she was white. I was wrong. She was one of the best instructors I’ve ever had, partly because she wasn’t upset by my declaration and instead, engaged me in a conversation about why I felt the way I did. She validated my concerns.
In college, it was the OJ trial which was only a few years after the Rodney King case and the L.A. Riots. I spent many days debating guilt, innocence and the power of the upper class in the King Cultural Center at the University of Kentucky.
But after graduating, things slowed down for a while. If I’m honest, I became an individualist. I had my own life to live, right? Injustice wasn’t going anywhere any time soon, no matter how much I protested. Admittedly, there was and is a kind a self-preservation at work here. I have a family to consider. A husband. A daughter. Plus, as a writer, I have learned how to deftly write my protest which feels like the best of both worlds.
But the impetus to stand up and shout is still there. I stood with other Philadelphians in the historic Love Park and protested the kidnapping of hundreds of girls in Nigeria by Boko Haram. The murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown had me itching to go to Sanford and Ferguson and I would have, had I not made the mistake of looking into the big brown eyes of a certain toddler.
And sure, my proclivity for activism, even the lightweight versions of late, is definitely driven by my desire for justice and equality, love and peace in this world. But I also think it was driven by this sense that I should stand on the side of right no matter the cost. No matter who had the power, money, or prestige to make an issue go away, justice had to win. Love had to win.
Then comes Bill Cosby and the mess.
I loved this guy. At least, as much as anyone loves a celebrity whose comedy and roles played an integral part of their childhood. Like many children in the 80s and 90s, I looked forward to meeting with the Huxtables every Thursday night at 8pm and found affirmation in their family. Rudy was like my little cousin. Vanessa, my age counterpart, was like my best friend. Theo was my crush. Denise was my super cool, funky-dressing big sister. Sandra was the intellectual I aspired to be. And Claire was my uber-fabulous, side-eye-giving Auntie.
So when I first heard about the allegations against Cosby years ago, I chose not to listen. I chose to ignore what I was hearing through the grapevine as a writer. Or as a resident of the metro Philly area. I said what everyone else said, “They probably just want his money.” It was easier to say this then to reconcile the iconic image I held so dear with the one that was taking shape. So the recent resurgence of these allegations has certainly created a kind of dissonance for me and many others. Particularly in the African American community. We hope that it’s all a lie even when it increasingly appears likely that it isn’t. And for the most part, we hope it’s a lie because, as a friend so aptly noted, there is this narrative we’ve created that makes Bill Cosby, the man, inextricably linked to The Cosby Show and Cliff Huxtable, the character. The show was wholesome and at its core taught us lessons about honesty and integrity and—dare I say it—faithfulness. To see Bill as the opposite of those virtues, challenges us in a way we weren’t ready for.
And yet, this is not the same narrative often applied to those who accuse a man so revered and powerful of rape. In fact, it’s amazing to me how the phrase innocent until proven guilty is so quickly wielded on behalf of those we have set up on pedestals of righteousness, and yet the victim is often guilty (of lying or worse) until proven innocent. By the way, this is clearly the intent of anyone who dares to say, “Well why did she wait so long?”
So here’s the thing: Bill Cosby is not Cliff Huxtable. The same way Denzel Washington is not Det. Alonzo Harris (Training Day) and Kerry Washington is not Olivia Pope. These are images. Characters who are, by no means, monolithic. The Huxtables were carefully crafted fictions. Sure…maybe Cliff was a projection of who Bill would have liked to have been. It’s possible. We, as creators, do that sometimes. The characters in my books are often minor projections of my best and worst selves. But be clear: we are not one and the same.
Writer Ta-nehisi Coates alluded to this dissonance in an article for The Atlantic. “A defense of Cosby requires that one believe that several women have decided to publicly accuse one of the most powerful men in recent Hollywood history of a crime they have no hope of seeing prosecuted, and for which they are seeking no damages. The alternative is to see one of the most celebrated public fathers of our time, and one of the great public scourges of black morality, revealed as a serial rapist.”
Maybe reality TV has made this issue such a vague, gray area for us. It’s confused our perspectives a bit. Real people are now characters on television whose real lives are very much intertwined with the roles they play on our screens.
And yes, maybe another reason African Americans are so hard-pressed to indict Cosby is because the Cosby Show most certainly filled a void on television. Images of successful black families were rare. The show was either identifiable or aspirational depending on which side of the tracks you lived on. Nevertheless, it doesn’t change the fact that these were actors doing their job, nothing more. Whether their personal character rose to the level of their fictional counterparts is mostly unknown.
Except for Bill. The evidence is mounting that clearly his did/does not.
So yes, I get it. I understand the reluctance to let go of Cliff and by extension, Bill. The unwillingness to detach the fiction from the real in this case. But for the sake of young girls everywhere who need to know that they will be believed no matter who their perpetrators are, we must. We must be resolute in separating the character of a man from the characters he plays, in order to see our way clear to the truth. We must stand on the side of right–no matter who or what is on the opposing side. Even when it hurts. Even when it messes with the well-crafted images and narratives we’ve set up in our minds about a person. Even when “wrong” is wealthy and powerful.
Legacies built on even the most wonderful of lies must die.