Like many people, I’ve been in turns surprised, disturbed and fascinated by the recent scandals and career collapse of Bill Cosby. In a strange way, however, I sadly have to admit, it provides me with a certain sense of closure. Let me work through this one here.
I first discovered Cosby when I was somewhere around 12 years old, with his classic comedy recordings like “Noah” and “Chicken Heart”. His stuff was both racially identified and completely white bread at the same time, which is part of what I could appreciate about it already in my pre-puberty stage. He spoke of the sort of trouble that poor kids can get themselves into in the process of enjoying life in risky ways: improvised rules for back alley sports, homemade toys made out of stolen and scrap materials, cruel practical jokes backfiring, and humor as a defense against the trauma of living with a violence prone alcoholic father. The thing that made it all funny was the extent to which it endeared all of the eccentric yet familiar characters to us, ranging from Fat Albert to Weird Harold, giving a certain dignity to all of them and without moralizing against any of them. His agenda seemed to be to defend kids against all of the threats that adults brought into their lives, ranging from jungle gyms to lumpy oatmeal, while at the same time working out survival strategies that a kid from a disadvantaged family could get by with.
Much later I discovered the aspect of his career which was in some ways in complete contrast and perhaps even contradiction with this funky Philly home-boy image: his ground-breaking acting role for a black man in the 1960s as the sophisticated sidekick for a would-be American James Bond in “I Spy”. Watching these reruns years after the fact, I was impressed less by the quality of the drama than just the cultural landmark they represented. Cosby played with distinction a role originally written for a white man. This became another aspect of his identity that made for an uneasy mix with the Fat Albert stuff: sometimes he was letting the disadvantages that came with his racial background hang out for all to see, offering dignity to those who shared those handicaps; other times he was playing the role of an urbane sophisticate, trying to send out a message that race really didn’t matter.
In hindsight one of the most telling moments in his acting career, in terms of a role that defined Cosby culturally, would be his lead in the ambulance comedy, Mother, Jugs and Speed. This film was all about letting prejudices hang out to be ridiculed. It explored the ways in which Cosby’s character, “Mother,” the sole black man working for a sleazy white-owned ambulance company, related first of all to the sexy receptionist (Raquel Welsh) whom he alone could get away with calling “Jugs” while leering at her ample cleavage. Enter “Speed”: Harvey Keitel’s character of a Viet Nam vet coming into the company offering radical competitive intensity and questionable reliability. Throw in a cut-throat competition for a municipal contract between their company, “F&B”, and the completely black-owned-and-run “Unity” ambulance corporation.
Besides being the black man working to promote “white interests” in exchange for certain extra privileges within the company, Mother is also a bit of a sexual pervert and general mischief maker with a bit of a violent streak to boot. Mother has a habit of stopping off at erotic massage parlors while he is supposed to be on call, and for personal amusement he likes to try to use his custom ambulance to run down nuns on crosswalks. When the particularly distasteful character played by Larry Hagman makes a crude comment about Mother’s partner who gets killed in the line of duty, Mother calmly beats him into a condition where he has to be hospitalized. Then in the end, when the white-run “F&B” ambulance service is combined with the black-run “Unity” service (to operate under the new name “F&U”), Mother insists on keeping Jugs as his partner rather than accepting any of his new black colleagues’ requests for him to ride with them.Scratch the surface a little bit and all of this starts to look like nothing more than a complex analogy for Cosby’s own life.
Meanwhile Cosby was making most of his living in the seventies as an ad man: hocking poorly made cars and heavy doses of sugar for children in order to secure a relatively comfortable life for himself and his family. The only problem anyone seemed to have with this at the time was that Cosby was representing so many brands at the same time that when you saw his face pop up on TV you could never be sure what he’d try to sell you this time –– Ford Pintos or Jello pudding-pops or Del Monte peaches or whatever.
In the mid-Reagan era Cosby finally found what he hoped would be his definitive role as “Dr. Huxtable” on The Cosby Show: the patriarch of the ultimate successful white-collar black family for whom race didn’t matter any more. The father was a doctor, the mother was a lawyer, and their kids never suffered for lack of attention from either parent due to the demands of their careers. The message was in many respects classic Reagan: Forget about historic injustices and all that. Anyone can succeed if they work hard enough. Society should be structured in a way that those who work their way to the top are fully allowed to enjoy what they’ve earned once they get there, and if some people suffer because they haven’t worked as hard as they should, that’s their problem.
As Cosby has aged this conflict between the different aspects of his public persona–– between being Weird Harold’s best friend and being CIA agent Alexander Scott; between being Mother and Dr. Huxtable –– has intensified. As much as we want to love the endearing qualities of both, Cosby has increasingly shown the most objectionable aspects of both sides of himself. He has responded to the heartbreaks and disappointments that fatherhood has brought his way by implying that his major failure as a parent has been not being tough enough with them… more like what his parents, and the army, were like with him. He has referred to black people who he sees as lacking ambition as “no-groes” and while he holds records in terms of the most money donated to African-American educational causes, he has been increasingly defensive about insinuations regarding other ways in which he could be using his nine-figure net worth to help improve the lives of black kids today who have even fewer opportunities than he had growing up.
Cosby’s conspicuous aging process over the past couple decades has been disturbing to watch. In the nineties he was able to joke about his progressively failing health and the depressing diet restrictions his doctor put him on. He said then that he couldn’t wait to get to be his mother’s age, because her doctor told her that at that point she could eat anything she might want and it wouldn’t really make so much difference any more. Now he seems to have arrived at that age, and he is all the more cranky for it. He is conspicuously blind in one eye and his public appearances have mostly featured him sitting unshaven in front of a camera, looking as though walking across the room to get there was probably a painful exercise for him that he didn’t really want anyone to see.
The best information I’ve been able to come across says that he was born in July of 1937, putting him in his late seventies. So it seems that the rant published in his name last year, “I’m 83 and tired”, loses track of a lot of things about his early life:
I’m tired of being told that I have to “spread the wealth” to people who don’t have my work ethic.
I’m tired of being told the government will take the money I earned, by force if necessary, and give it to people too lazy to earn it.
Then after ranting on against Muslims, carbon emission restrictions, drug addicts, celebrity no-fault public apologies (!) and people with a sense of entitlement, he goes on to say,
I’m really tired of people who don’t take responsibility for their lives and actions. I’m tired of hearing them blame the government, or discrimination or big-whatever for their problems.
I’m also tired and fed up with seeing young men and women in their teens and early 20′s be-deck themselves in tattoos and face studs, thereby making themselves unemployable and claiming money from the Government.
Yes, I’m damn tired. But I’m also glad to be 83. Because, mostly, I’m not going to have to see the world these people are making. I’m just sorry for my granddaughter and their children. Thank God I’m on the way out and not on the way in.
Two questions come to mind when reading this diatribe:
1) Has his mind really deteriorated so far that he would write something like this for himself (including the 8-year discrepancy in his age), or has some Tea Partier anxious to spread anti-Obama ideas attributable to black celebrities written this apocryphally? (ed: This strongly appears to be the case!)
2 Is it possible for a black man to definitively be a douchebag after all?
With all of this in the background then, the recent allegations that for most of his career Cosby has been a womanizer and serial rapist –– but only now, for some strange reason (reportedly having to do with a little known comedian’s accusation against him as part of a stand-up routine) are people starting to take the evidence in this regard seriously –– takes on a whole new light. A tea party conspiracy theorist might claim that it is because Cosby has dared to speak out against “the abuses of big government” that the liberal media is working overtime to shut him down, but that doesn’t really ring true. More to the point, as the elder comic has become more and more aggressive in his absurd right wing rambling as his mind has deteriorated, the threshold for pointing out his personal moral failures has been lowered significantly. People have been forced by Cosby himself to recognize that as a person he isn’t so much like Dr. Huxtable, making it far less difficult for his accusers to point out how much, as a person, he resembles the character of “Mother”.
So with all this in mind how do I now relate to Cosby and his life’s work? Obviously it’s complicated. The most obvious thing for me, however, is to say that his most valuable work, throughout his career, has been when he has stayed in touch with his inner little mischievous poor black kid from Philadelphia. The stories he told about that era of his life are the reason he became famous to begin with, and his ability to slip back into that role at will was key to the most valuable moments of his acting, advertising and stand-up careers thereafter. When he lost touch with that inner black child at times by trying to be the respected operator in the white-skinned world for whom his skin color didn’t make any difference any more, he lost touch with what is most valuable about himself as an artist.
Obviously this is not to say that as a black man he should just “stay in his proper place”! By breaking down barriers in playing the I Spy sidekick, Cosby did indeed play a valuable role in improving race relations in the United States. The sad part is the extent to which his sense of self seems to have got confused in the process. Becoming both a serial rapist and a quasi-teabagger are quite likely symptoms of that loss of a secure sense of value in terms of who he is and where he comes from.
The hard part here is applying this back to my own life. How do I go about remaining in touch with my own formative childhood experiences that made me who I am, which took place in a cultural environment very different from that in which I have been living for the past 25 years or so? How much do I need to make a point of sympathizing with those who are perhaps stuck in a place that I like to think I have outgrown? What measures must I take in order to ensure that I remain honest with myself in terms of staying in touch with what authentically makes me me? The easy part is judging Cosby for his lost personal integrity; the hard part is figuring out how to learn from his mistakes.