Bill Cosby was the product of an era when many prominent blacks engaged in what might be called a politics of representation: While the black religious left took to the streets to march and a younger generation of activists bided its time, Cosby waged his battles in fine suits, nice sweaters and impeccable diction. But Cosby’s schtick was as important as any Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee sit-in. He brought black humanity into white America’s living rooms through his appearances on variety shows and the television series “I Spy” even as the brutality directed at black humanity was being broadcast on the nightly news in those same living rooms. By the early 1970s, the kids were loving Cosby, too, courtesy of his brilliantly conceived “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.”
The level of universal popularity that Cosby reached in the 1980s, via his various platforms (including his role as a Jell-O Pudding Pop pitchman) was not unprecedented — the Michaels Jackson and Jordan were legitimate rivals in this regard. But no one else did it with Cosby’s gravitas. “The Cosby Show” was not just the highest-rated show on television. Cosby and his doppelganger Cliff Huxtable were collectively America’s — not simply black America’s — favorite dad.
Those times are long gone. Despite the hung jury in his sexual assault trial in Pennsylvania, America’s No. 1 Dad remains accused of sex offenses (accusations that he has denied) and perhaps will always be remembered for this, however any retrial might play out.
But the onslaught of reporting of Cosby’s “final fall from grace” is classic media hyperbole. This is not to deny that the sheer number of his accusers (and even if it were just one) made this a newsworthy case; we must continue to confront all incidences of sexual violence, regardless of the profile of the offender. Cosby, though, hasn’t mattered in the way he once did for at least a generation.
Cosby’s relevance to black America began to wane even as his television son Theo Huxtable was walking across stage at his college graduation. As “The Cosby Show” came to a close in spring 1992, Los Angeles was afire over the acquittal of four police officers in the Rodney King beating. Voices like Ice Cube and Tupac Shakur — symbolic sons whom Cosby symbolically rejected during the eight-year “Cosby Show” run — would be far more relevant to young African-Americans going forward.
There would still be a connection, however. To the extent that Cosby and his family were subjected to the kind of random urban violence that defined so much of the lives of the black poor — when Cosby’s only son, Ennis, was killed — he was no longer above the realities of race, no matter how famous and influential he was. The middle-class lives of the Huxtables be damned, he was one of us.
And perhaps that was the rub. With his infamous “pound cake speech,” Cosby seemed to turn on us by adopting a narrative from the right that our struggles and the broader problems of the welfare state were rooted in a culture of defeatism rather than structures of inequality. When Cosby seemed to legitimize the police shooting of unarmed blacks for a crime like stealing a pound cake, he came off as painfully out of touch. For the many who, years later, would be tweeting the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, this was their most powerful memory of Cosby — and it was there to be reawakened when comedian Hannibal Buress’s righteous takedown set in motion this final chapter of Cosby’s public life.
That’s why the intense recent debates about Cosby, including a reevaluation of his cultural and financial contributions — “The Cosby Show” was pulled for a time from syndication, Spelman College discontinued an endowed professorship funded by Cosby and his wife, Camille — have seemed so out of line with his current level of relevance.
And therein lies one of the tragedies here. Cosby mattered so much, in part, because his image of middle-class black respectability carried moral authority for whites, of all political persuasions, seeking to compel less-fortunate blacks to fall in line and keep on the grind. In the past two years, it was as if the artifice of Bill Cosby had to be rehabilitated solely for the purpose of tearing it down. And what has been torn down in the process is not just Cosby the man, but the very truth of the representations of black excellence and aspiration that Cosby so dutifully invested in throughout his career.
Cosby hasn’t mattered since long before the movement for black lives picked up the baton of the black protest tradition and carried it onto new moral ground. But in his reappearance as an old accused sex offender, he has restarted battles we thought had already been safely won.
Mark Anthony Neal, a Duke University professor of African & African-American Studies and English, is the host of the “Left of Black” webcast and author of “Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities.”