Full disclosure: I am a huge Woody Allen fan, I’ve loved a lot of Roman Polanski’s films, and I’ve even enjoyed an R. Kelly song or two. All three are male celebrities accused of committing heinous acts against underage women. And yet the recent allegations against comedy legend Bill Cosby have hit closer to home for me, both as an African-American and as someone who grew up idolizing “The Cosby Show.”
Gathering as a family each Thursday night to watch that iconic sitcom is one of my earliest and fondest childhood memories. The show was purely aspirational to some, but it was the closest reflection of my own life I’d ever found in any medium. Was my father a doctor and my mother a lawyer? No. But the warm family portrayed on that show resembled the childhood I lived and cherished. And still do.
At the time I had no idea the show was a broad cultural phenomenon. I remember thinking only black people watched it, because I couldn’t imagine white audiences embracing something so steeped in African-American culture. It was only later that I came to appreciate the show’s groundbreaking crossover appeal – an accomplishment that was just one part of its star’s remarkable legacy.
In “I Spy”, Cosby also held the first black lead role in a mainstream drama series and his work was critically acclaimed. His early stand-up comedy remains some of the most influential work in that medium of all time. And his considerable philanthropy can’t be overlooked.
Cosby hasn’t been charged with a crime and has denied claims that he drugged and raped several women, including former model Janice Dickinson, who first alleged an assault by the comedian in her 2002 memoir and reiterated the claims on “Entertainment Tonight” on Tuesday. But if the allegations are to be believed, his positive contributions may be diminished and his reputation destroyed.
Cosby has stubbornly refused to “dignify” the most recent allegations with a response – a position that becomes more absurd and pompous with each passing day. Aside from pointing the finger back at purported victims, it trivializes what may have occurred. Cosby may not want to address the op-eds and online chatter, but their substance is too important to ignore.
Whether you believed Woody Allen, Roman Polanski and R. Kelly or not, all have defended their actions or had their day in court. Cosby has reportedly reached a settlement with at least one of his accusers and has never made a statement or given an interview to explain why so many women have made these accusations. A new Cosby biography doesn’t even mention the issue, and some have used the fact that the alleged incidents took place years ago as an excuse to dismiss them.
Related: Another Cosby accuser comes forward
The Internet trolls making Jello pudding jokes aren’t adding anything substantive to the debate, either. Instead of looking for a chance to wring subversive jokes out of Cosby’s previously upstanding public image, we should be asking how such a revered performer could for decades have sidestepped questions about alleged brutality toward women.
The black community in particular will face a familiar conundrum with Cosby. We’re used to our icons being targeted for ridicule and contempt, whether deserved or not. We’ve largely forgiven departed artists like James Brown and Michael Jackson for their problematic personal lives, and many of us rushed to the defense of Chris Brown and O.J. Simpson when seemingly no reasonable person would.
This closing of ranks will surely happen with Cosby, even though he’s spent the better part of the last 20 years waging a campaign of shame against lower income black youth. This less-than-cuddly version of Cosby has been a much more divisive figure than his superstar persona of the 1980s. Cosby has won plaudits from many conservatives for taking on his own community, criticizing black people for blaming whites for their lot in life and suggesting sagging pants were the bane of black existence.
Cosby’s chastisement of black youth has created a strong generational divide among African-Americans. For every young person who has scoffed at the audacity of a graying multi-millionaire lecturing them on how to carry themselves, there was an older generation of black people nodding their heads in appreciation.
Cosby’s tough love approach and often erratic appearances on late night television have marginalized him as the allegations of rape have surfaced. It was a far hipper, younger black comedian, Hannibal Buress, who ultimately retriggered the conversation about Cosby’s past.
Cosby’s holier-than-thou act has turned off a lot of his core audience (presumably which may have once included Buress) and put something of a target on Cosby’s back. I, like many fans, always suspected he had a darker side than his stage act suggested. But few saw this coming. Now, his upcoming Netflix special, “Cosby 77”, has been postponed, and any future projects could potentially be cast under a shadow of doubt.
For years now, Cosby has called on black America to clean house and answer for its sins. The question remains: Can Cosby heed his own advice?