Bill Cosby’s fall tarnishes any feel-good memories His early stories were our stories, his downfall my pain
“There’s a gap between people knowing what I do and really believing that I still do that — and wondering what it is I really do.” — Bill Cosby
I must have been 10 or 11 years old when I began investing emotionally in Bill Cosby, a man I’ve never met, a man I used to love.
For decades, that investment grew and grew dividends. His comedy albums made me laugh. Among other tales, he told stories of black boys, who, like me, roamed Philadelphia streets, playing made-up city street games. And he made those boys and their games and their stories seem as all-American as Huck Finn rafting on the mighty Mississippi River. And they were.
Further, I deeply admired what I think of as Cosby’s public blackness: He celebrated jazz, what pianist Ahmad Jamal called “America’s classical music.” He collected black art and promoted black artists. He funded black colleges. And 30 years ago in New York, I saw Cosby ask an audience to clap harder for Sammy Davis Jr. The audience had come to see Cosby, or more correctly, they had come to see Heathcliff Huxtable, the father on then immensely popular The Cosby Show.
Although Davis put on a fine show, much of the audience was just biding its time until Cosby came out. When Cosby asked the audience, his audience, to better show their appreciation of Davis’ talent, he was asking them to respect the entertainer’s past greatness, to celebrate the good times.
For years, I’d been hearing rumors about Cosby’s womanizing, a trait he apparently shared with other mainstream American favorites like Bob Hope. I was willing to dismiss those rumors because of the many good times Cosby had given me and those close to me. After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, my wife consoled herself by watching one of Cosby’s concert videos.
In 2006, the womanizing and the pain Cosby admits to causing in his 52-year marriage, was cast in a new and more disreputable light. He settled a civil suit brought by Andrea Constand, who had maintained that, in 2004, he’d drugged and assaulted her at his Pennsylvania home. The two had met when she was an official with the women’s basketball team at Temple University. Cosby was a prominent booster at the school, his alma mater.
On Tuesday, a Pennsylvania judge ruled that Cosby, 78, must stand trial for that alleged assault, the only criminal jeopardy he faces despite dozens of women accusing him of sexual misconduct they say stretches from the mid-1960s into the mid-2000s. Cosby is due back in court in July.
I don’t presume to know that Cosby is guilty. I don’t presume to know that he will be found guilty in a trial. But I do know most women are not inclined to falsely accuse men of sexual misconduct. I know assaulting women is a disgusting and soul-defiling crime. I know that allegations of such crimes can’t simply be explained away as gold diggers trying to cash in.
And I know that the very funny fellow I loved, but never knew — the man who played Alexander Scott in the 1960s TV series I Spy, shilled delightfully for Jell-O and was known best as the father on The Cosby Show — wouldn’t be accused of such a thing, not once, let alone dozens of times.
Cosby’s defense against those allegations amounts to this: For decades, the private Bill Cosby, the real Bill Cosby, was a wild and crazy guy, acting out Playboy magazine sexual-encounter letters with anyone who’d have him, and many did. The accusations, Cosby’s sordid defense against them and his vile attacks against everything from the way some black people dress to what some others name their children have wiped out my emotional investment in Cosby. At least, I thought so.
The 10-year-old boy in me wants to run up behind Cosby and beg him to say it isn’t so. It’s naive, I know. After all, Cosby’s claims of innocence have resulted in some of his accusers lodging a defamation suit against him.
Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president and author of the Declaration of Independence, and slaveholder, once said, “Actions will delineate and define you.”
But which actions and who gets to do the defining? Despite the efforts of historians that have lasted decades, the struggle to define Jefferson’s life and reconcile its contradictions continues.
The struggle to define Cosby’s life and career and their meaning has just begun. Some have sought to separate Cosby the comedian and philanthropist from Cosby the philanderer and alleged rapist. Others, Cosby’s sharpest critics, say that an alleged rapist, no matter what good he has done, must be shunned and punished, his money flung in his face, a stunning rebuke in a society whose charities have often depended upon the kindness of robber barons.
Cosby has not been a robber baron. And it remains to be seen whether he will be convicted of sexual misconduct.
Still, it’s clear that in his private life Cosby has fallen far short of the public man so many have admired and loved. There is no crime in that, but there is much pain and sorrow.