Last night, that episode of The Cosby Show came on when Rudy spots a snake in the basement and Cliff and Theo go downstairs in their puffed-up tough mannishness to catch it in a pillowcase, except Theo is scared and Cliff is skittish himself and it becomes a whole big thing. And I, sitting cross-legged on my living room floor, laughed like it was 1987 and it was my first time seeing it because watching reruns of The Cosby Show always defaults me back to childhood happiness and that familiarity that made Heathcliff Huxtable feel like a TV dad to me.
Many share that same endearment, and I suspect that’s why Bill Cosby, the man who gave life to Heathcliff Huxtable, keeps getting airtime to let loose what are now becoming his signature tirades. But Bill Cosby is not Heathcliff Huxtable. The latter is a nurturer who dresses his wisdom up in empathy and hilarity before he dispenses it to his family, friends and patients. The former publicly barks frustration-fueled insults about certain segments of Black America to stay somewhat relevant. Same man, two completely different characters. Same man, two completely different agendas.
Mr. Cosby is once again on the warpath, taking more names and kicking around more blame for the current state of our community. He’s tired of y’all lazy, no count Negroes using up all the Blackness and doing nothing good with it. This time around— ecause he cyclically goes off every 6-8 months — he published his thoughts in two pieces in the New York Post, where he griped about our self-induced health disparities, paused to blame the families of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston for failing to cure them of addictions to their respective drugs of choice, and took Christians to task for not being proactive enough in our neighborhoods. Apparently God is not pleased and neither is Mr. Cosby.
As an actor and comedian, he’s earned the right to be respected for his body of work and the longevity of his career. As an elder, he’s inherited the privilege to levy an opinion and as someone who was involved in civil rights activism, he’s witnessed a disheartening deterioration of family, community and our overall autonomy. But any good intention he may have is overshadowed by his maddening habit of oversimplifying the systemic issues that root our ongoing problems.
We’re all aware of what they are — Lord knows African-Americans are the subject of some statistical study even as I type because we are researchers’ absolute most favoritest group of people to dissect and analyze. We also know, however, that those challenges are bigger than a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps scolding by a man who has, for at least the last 30 years, led a very privileged life. That gives him a platform that few have access to, but he’s not using it right. At least not in a way that would be helpful to anyone besides himself.
His brand of “tough love” may garner applause from a few for its boldness and directness, but does little to change the circumstances of the many he holds in disdain. Read: poor folks. Uneducated folks. The bottom rung. The lower echelons. Not the people you’ll see on the campus of anything even close to Hillman. For at least the past 10 years, he’s been a ranting, raving, finger-wagging, broad-stroke generalizing, not-altogether-coherent and sense-making bully.
With his checkbook, he and his wife have demonstrated the most awesome acts of philanthropy. With his mouth, he tears down the same community he’s financially pouring into. Not everything he says is wrong or off-base. But it’s the intent behind it and the solutions that don’t come with it that makes it elitist, classist white noise. And a lot of it.
The reality is that some of our people are suffering and they don’t even know it. I live in southeast Washington, D.C., in a community where college education is not the norm, where young women brandish their bodies as their most valuable asset, where boys barely into their teens hang out on the sidewalks during school hours. Some want better. They do. But others — a lot of others — are content to unconsciously repeat the mistakes of their mothers, fathers, siblings and neighbors because there’s no impetus not to. The bottom line is this: if you don’t know better, you don’t care about doing better. And that goes for everything from using a condom to ward off unplanned pregnancies and HIV to expecting anything besides a hand-to-mouth existence.
Somewhere in him, I’m sure Mr. Cosby has something worthy to sow into the conversation about any one of the 10-20 issues he regularly cocks back and fires off on. But while the media houses his commentary (because crazy sells) and event planners book him for the keynote (because we can’t wait to hear who he’s gonna dis next), people who are actually doing the work to facilitate change are unheard. The power is not in pointing out the problems. It’s in finding a way to fix them. For everybody.
Janelle Harris is a writer, blogger and editor, and the owner of The Write or Die Chick , a boutique editorial services agency. She’s also a single mother, a proud Washington, DC girl and a longsuffering Kanye West fan. Chat her up on Facebook or Twitter.