Setting the Narrative Free: Bill Cosby Is NOT Cliff Huxtable


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.


73 Replies to “Setting the Narrative Free: Bill Cosby Is NOT Cliff Huxtable”

  1. As I was reading your blog, up popped a Martin Luther King quote in the ads at the side: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” It seems especially apt in this situation.

  2. I think that this applies for everyone all of the time. We all see or choose to place others in a role and some of us have more or less trouble allowing anything to exist that doesn’t jive with that image. Generally, predators blend and are pillars ect. ect. Sandusky et al. The idea that people require role models and people to look up to makes humans look for other humans to place above themselves so that they can be blind and meet a Hallmark card ideal of what should be, rather than searching out all that is.

  3. Wonderful post. I think you identify and then rip apart the narrative going on in people’s heads. “I liked this man on TV. He was nice. There’s no way he could have done these things because I KNOW him.” You’re right that people need to separate the person from the character.

  4. I remember feeling very similar about Jimmy Savile…the charitable, kind hearted (English) presenter who very often made dreams come true for children just like me (although not me) who watched television on Thursday nights, and watched how Jim could Fix It. When stories came out about rape and sexual abuse (and it was of children in homes in many instances), I had to give up on one of my childhood inspirations who had wanted to make things better for the poor, the ill, the marginalized.

    And yet, to ignore the stories of the people who suffered, and to challenge the people who battle with the public humiliation of declaring what their abusers have done is so much worse, as you say.

    Those are the people who need the true support.

  5. Thanks for writing this wonderful post. I sat reading it with my heading nodding all the way through.

    This is a man I have admired and idolized LONG before Cliff Huxtable was invented. Cliff only added to my admiration for him. My mind is accepting what I am reading about him, but my heart is still struggling. I’m grateful for your efforts at helping me bridge the gap.

  6. Really really interesting for me as a not-American-and-White-and-somehow-always-guilty-German to read! I always loved the show so I can exactly understand what you mean. Somehow. Thanks for sharing!

  7. You said what I was struggling to feel. The Cosby Show also hugely impacted me, but you’re so right. I shouldn’t feel guilty for loving the show because it aired before any of these allegations came forth. It was truly a uniquely revolutionary show in ways. Remembering that Cliff is not Bill is crucial in fairly judging the person, not the character we think he has. After all, it was just acting right! Great points.

  8. As a woman who has been asked the same question “why did you wait so long?” I applaud your ability to put across your thoughts in a clear, well-argued and empathic manner.
    “… 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?” –
    What sort of a society continually makes the victim feel bad for being abused?

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  10. I don’t know. I don’t thing the chicks who came forward have any hope getting a guilty verdict on the Cos with it being so long ago and the lacking of evidence. Besides that a bunch (like 15 right?) chicks said he did it what reason be we got to believe the Cos is a rapist? I don’t there is enough to go on to seriously attack the guy legally or even verbally. One of the chicks who said she was raped should just get a gun and kill Cosby or at least hit him with a brick or something. Not saying I don’t believe them but I’d believe more if a couple of them got together and went Death Wish on Cosby’s ass. This is America, if you have a problem the least you can do is shoot up a movie theater or somewhere else crowded why not kill a rapist.

  11. Thank you for articulating your ambivalence so well. I really relate. I have been deliberately avoiding articles about the Cosby mess, because I don’t want to hear about it, but something made me read your piece. It sounds as though you and I are about the same age. I loved the Cosby Show. I think it was very important for the white community. We (or at least I) needed to see the Huxtables week after week in order to develop an understanding that black families were the same as white families. That they went to dinner together, got into trouble for fighting with siblings, wore Espirit sweaters, and were visited by grandparents. It seems ridiculous to me now that I didn’t instinctively assume/understand that, but I was white, southern, and born in the 70s, and I got a lot of messages to the contrary. However this pans out, the talented writers and actors on the show changed the world in as much as a sitcom could.

    1. Hi Ginjuh… I didn’t think the author was ambivalent. I think she was pretty firm in her conclusion and the bold print, about letting go of a fictional character regardless of how beloved that character was to all of us, in order to embrace the reality of what Bill Cosby the man did to girls and young women.

      I’m not really trying to argue with you and I’m not the author clarifying, of course, but my take away from the post was more about how she was recognizing a solidarity of sisterhood that surpassed defending one of our most popular black “images” not to mention father figures, in this instance. And this is a big deal in the face of systemic racism… which we felt Bill stood against… as much we believed he stood for multicultural bridges and encouraging smart women.

      The original talent and contribution to television or art is not gone, in that we benefited from it when we did, in our own time. But in our current situation, Bill Cosby can not rest on his laurels and no one needs to be particularly reverent to his legacy.

      The urgency (rather than ambivalence) I felt from the post was how we need to take rape seriously and listen to the voices that explain the way they were disbelieved and hushed.

      Anyhow, thanks for allowing my perspective. Peace.

  12. Reality television exaggerates our society’s already skewed sense of reality. But I would argue that the though the Cosby Show offered validation for some black families, it also pointed out to other black families just how far they were from television perfection. The Cosbys were not the norm for black families in America then and they aren’t in today’s world either.

    I grew up loving the Cosby’s too, but I grew up in a mixed race family in a safe suburban town. I had no idea how the vast majority of blacks live in this country until I moved to teach in inner city Baltimore. The kids I taught wouldn’t have been able to imagine themselves as honorary members of the Cosby family. Very few had two parents present in their lives, let alone two professional parents. Their school had roaches, mice, and lead and was not a stepping stone to college.

    I can only hope that the main message to come from this is that anyone who is abused should have the confidence to step forward, whether the abuser is a member of the clergy or Bill Cosby or the man or woman next door. It has to stop. But also we all need to take a closer look at the reality television and advertising is selling us. Lift up the pretty rugs and deal with all that is scary underneath.

  13. That was such an objectively written piece. My head understands, but my heart refuses to acknowledge. I have a hard time separating Bill Cosby from Cliff Huxtable. The struggle continues ….. for me.

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