Cosby viewed with tan­gled feel­ings

Even be­fore the trial, re­ac­tions among African Amer­i­cans were var­ied, com­plex.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Greg Brax­ton

A Philadel­phia jury has been dead­locked on reach­ing an an­swer to the ques­tion that has been hov­er­ing over Bill Cosby for more than two years — his guilt or in­no­cence in the sex­ual as­sault of a for­mer Tem­ple Univer­sity bas­ket­ball staffer.

But their dilemma and ul­ti­mate de­ci­sion — or non­de­ci­sion if it’s a hung jury — may do lit­tle to il­lu­mi­nate an­other ques­tion that has long shad­owed the en­ter­tainer:

Dur­ing the lat­ter stages of his five-decades-long ca­reer, the en­ter­tainer has had a love-hate re­la­tion­ship with black Amer­ica, where he is re­garded as:

(a) A beloved, heroic fig­ure who broke down sev­eral bar­ri­ers as an artist, ed­u­ca­tor, phi­lan­thropist and cre­ator of “The Cosby Show,” which rev­o­lu­tion­ized tele­vi­sion with its por­trait of an af­flu­ent, ed­u­cated black fam­ily. And/or: (b) An out­spo­ken scold who chas­tised poorer blacks on is­sues rang­ing from bad gram­mar to the squan­der­ing of op­por­tu­ni­ties pro­vided by the civil rights move­ment.

“In terms of how black peo­ple feel about the ver­dict, I think it will be split,” said co­me­dian Dar­ryl “D’Mil­i­tant” Lit­tle­ton, au­thor of “Why We Laugh: Black Co­me­di­ans on Black Com­edy.” “There will be some who re­ally will want him to re­tain his legacy. But I think those will be in the mi­nor­ity.”

Added Dar­nell Hunt, di­rec­tor of UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Cen­ter for African Amer­i­can Stud­ies: “There has al­ways been this am­biva­lence with blacks when it comes to Bill Cosby. On one hand, he’s the Sid­ney Poitier of TV. He’s def­i­nitely been a ma­jor con­trib­u­tor — his phi­lan­thropy alone has been very im­por­tant. But he’s also rubbed some peo­ple the wrong way by this ‘pull your­self up by your boot­straps’ ap­proach. He talks down to some peo­ple at


Some ob­servers of the pro­ceed­ings have drawn com­par­isons be­tween the Cosby case and the mur­der trial of for­mer foot­ball star O.J. Simp­son. In­side that court­room, race took cen­ter stage in sev­eral in­stances, par­tic­u­larly when Simp­son de­fense at­tor­ney John­nie Cochran main­tained Simp­son had been tar­geted by Los Angeles Po­lice Depart­ment Det. Mark Fuhrman, who had been taped us­ing racial ep­i­thets in the past. And the not-guilty ver­dict ex­posed the sim­mer­ing rift be­tween whites and blacks who felt the jus­tice sys­tem had treated African Amer­i­cans un­fairly.

Although the 12-mem­ber Cosby jury has just two African Amer­i­cans, ex­perts rang­ing from en­ter­tain­ers to schol­ars claim the Cosby case lacks a sim­i­larly sharp racial edge, largely due to al­le­ga­tions by more than 50 women who say Cosby drugged and sex­u­ally as­saulted them.

“It’s not a black-white is­sue with Cosby,” said Lit­tle­ton. “There are just too many women in­volved.”

Other fac­tors sep­a­rate the two cases. De­spite his mas­sive pop­u­lar­ity, Simp­son was not com­fort­able em­brac­ing his cul­tural iden­tity and failed to demon­strate an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the sup­port of African Amer­i­cans fol­low­ing his crim­i­nal ac­quit­tal. Cosby was the op­po­site — although he aimed for a main­stream au­di­ence through­out his ca­reer, his black­ness was a ma­jor part of his per­sona. He con­stantly showed his love for jazz, do­nated mil­lions to his­tor­i­cally black col­leges and fea­tured African Amer­i­can art and cul­ture in “The Cosby Show.”

Gen­er­a­tional di­vide

Some ob­servers pointed out that African Amer­i­can sen­ti­ment to­ward Cosby when it comes to this trial is much more lay­ered.

“These charges are his big­gest prob­lems,” said vet­eran writer-pro­ducer Larry Wil­more (“black-ish,” “In­se­cure,” “The Bernie Mac Show”). “If they didn’t ex­ist, it would be that black peo­ple don’t like things he says. But there are a lot of black peo­ple who agree with him too. Some of that is gen­er­a­tional, some of that is class.”

Ground zero of Cosby’s long-fraught re­la­tion­ship to African Amer­i­cans is a 2004 cer­e­mony at Howard Univer­sity cel­e­brat­ing the an­niver­sary of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education de­seg­re­ga­tion de­ci­sion.

Dur­ing an ad­dress at the event, Cosby is­sued a strong re­buke to young blacks.

“These peo­ple marched and were hit in the face with rocks to get an education, and now we have these knuck­le­heads run­ning around,” he said of what he per­ceived as young peo­ple dis­re­spect­ing the legacy of civil rights ac­tivists. “I can’t even talk the way these peo­ple talk: ‘Why you ain’t,’ ‘Where you is’ ... and I blamed the kid un­til I heard the mother talk. And then I heard the father talk . ... Ev­ery­body knows it’s im­por­tant to speak English ex­cept these knuck­le­heads. You can’t be a doc­tor with that kind of crap com­ing out of your mouth.”

He also knocked their fash­ion sense: “Are you not pay­ing at­ten­tion, peo­ple with their hat on back­wards, pants down the crack?” Even when sev­eral prom­i­nent blacks ex­pressed dis­plea­sure with the re­marks, Cosby did not back down.

While some in the black com­mu­nity praised Cosby for his blunt­ness, say­ing his state­ments were painful but on tar­get, oth­ers felt his tone and some of his words were harm­ful and eli­tist, par­tic­u­larly younger blacks.

“What ir­ri­tated a lot of peo­ple is he didn’t take any overt ac­tion like get­ting out into the com­mu­nity,” Lit­tle­ton said. “There’s a cer­tain kind of in­di­vid­ual that once they get over, they look down on peo­ple we used to dwell with. Cosby gave so much to col­leges, but he was not an ac­tivist like [for­mer NFL player and film star] Jim Brown, who worked at the fore­front of gang vi­o­lence. Cosby could have done pub­lic ser­vice and gone out into the com­mu­nity.”

Firestorm sparked

Among those up­set was co­me­dian Han­ni­bal Buress, who found Cosby’s pro­nounce­ments hyp­o­crit­i­cal, par­tic­u­larly in the swirl of ru­mors about his al­leged sex­ual mis­deeds. His comedic riff on Cosby, filmed on a smart­phone dur­ing a club gig in Philadel­phia and posted on YouTube in 2014, was the spark for the firestorm and was a ma­jor fac­tor lead­ing up to the cur­rent le­gal pro­ceed­ings.

In the pro­fan­ity-laced rant, Buress said that Cosby had the “smuggest old-black­man pub­lic per­sona that I hate. He gets on TV, ‘pull your pants up, black peo­ple, I was on TV in the ’80s. I can talk down to you be­cause I had a suc­cess­ful sit­com.’ ”

Said Todd Boyd, a pro­fes­sor of crit­i­cal stud­ies at USC’s School of Cin­e­matic Arts: “Cosby emerged into the pub­lic con­scious­ness in the 1960s. When I was a kid, Bill Cosby was a celebrity, a star, and there were a lot fewer African Amer­i­cans celebri­ties at that time than there are now. For peo­ple in the younger side of the gen­er­a­tional di­vide that is am­pli­fied by the In­ter­net, so­cial me­dia and the dig­i­tal age, it’s dif­fer­ent. It’s hard to get peo­ple of a cer­tain age to have any ap­pre­ci­a­tion for Cosby or any­one else of that era. It’s not what they iden­tify with, so they’re dis­mis­sive.”

He added that Cosby’s im­age also plays a role in the dis­con­nect with younger blacks.

“Bill Cosby cul­ti­vated an im­age that ap­pealed to the main­stream, an im­age that over time proved to be false,” he said. “From the ad­vent of hip-hop go­ing for­ward, there are a num­ber of African Amer­i­can celebri­ties that have not cul­ti­vated that main­stream im­age. In fact, they’ve done the op­po­site and have been suc­cess­ful, so they don’t un­der­stand why Cosby would act the way he did.”

Last year, “The Jer­rod Carmichael Show,” an NBC fam­ily sit­com that has taken on sev­eral top­i­cal is­sues con­cern­ing African Amer­i­cans, tack­led the nu­ances sur­round­ing Cosby’s im­age.

In the episode called “Fallen Heroes,” Carmichael, a co­me­dian who plays a fic­tional ver­sion of him­self, sur­prises his girl­friend Max­ine (Am­ber Stevens West) with tick­ets to a Cosby con­cert. But she is hor­ri­fied by the al­le­ga­tions and re­fuses to go.

As they ar­gue, other fam­ily mem­bers weigh in: His father, Joe (David Alan Grier), says Cosby is in­no­cent un­til proved guilty. His mother, Cyn­thia (Loretta Devine), is a Cosby fan. His brother Bobby (Lil Rel How­ery) com­plains that Cosby is too crit­i­cal of young peo­ple. Bobby’s ex-wife Nekeisha (Tif­fany Had­dish) points out how Cosby and his wife con­trib­uted more than $100 mil­lion to More­house and Spel­man, two his­tor­i­cally black col­leges. And Jer­rod chas­tises Tif­fany for go­ing to see Woody Allen’s “Blue Jas­mine” when the film­maker’s adopted daugh­ter Dy­lan Far­row res­ur­rected her ac­cu­sa­tions that he mo­lested her when she was a child.

So, it’s com­pli­cated. And these con­ver­sa­tion are not limited to houses of peo­ple of color but can be more heated within them.

Co­me­dian Franklyn Ajaye said that no mat­ter what the ver­dict is, he hopes that black Amer­ica sees that Cosby’s crit­i­cisms were “a des­per­ate call for black peo­ple to get more education, and con­duct them­selves with more dig­nity and self-re­spect if they want to nav­i­gate more suc­cess­fully through the racially hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment that Amer­ica is. It was done out of love — tough love to be sure. The mes­sen­ger was flawed, but not the mes­sage.”

Ed­i­tor’s note: This ar­ti­cle went to press on Fri­day af­ter­noon while the jury was still dead­locked.

Luis Sinco Los Angeles Times

BE­YOND tele­vi­sion, Cosby, left, was vis­i­ble as the lively, long­time host of the Play­boy Jazz Fes­ti­val.

Al­lied Artists / Michael Ochs Ar­chives / Getty Im­ages

BILL COSBY, right, is tele­vi­sion’s Sid­ney Poitier. Here both are in the 1975 film “Let’s Do It Again.”

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