“Wallace’s (George) speech – and its delivery – was vehement…mean-spirited…hateful. It’s like a rattlesnake was hissing it, almost.” Wayne Greenshaw, Newspaper Reporter
Hannibal Buress’s comments interest me for three reasons: Calling Bill Cosby a rapist, Calling Bill Cosby a hypocrite, and making reference to Bill Cosby’s 2004-Pound Cake speech on the 50th anniversary of Brown vs.the Board of Education Decision.
Whether Cosby is guilty or not, he has a moral obligation to respond to the accusations and he needs to do it sooner than later. He may not subscribe to the ‘where there’s smoke there’s fire,’ philosophy but surely he can understand why 19 billows of smoke is causing people to at least scratch their heads in wonderment. Cosby needs to step up because he was a welcomed visitor in homes across the country once a week for eight years, and because for some African-Americans, gathering around the TV to see what the Huxtables were saying and doing was a required weekly family affair. He, not his attorney, needs to do everything he can to clear up the smoke. He should not put the same public that bestowed upon him the title of ‘America’s Dad,’ in the position to have to ask about the smoke. If he does not have the courage to do that and it turns out that he is not guilty, it will not matter because he would have given us the finger and that he will not be able to take it back.
If Bill Cosby did what he is alleged to have done, he should have to dance to the same music choreographed for any other person found guilty of sexual harassment, sexual assault or others categories of behaviors related to sexual violation. However, the optimal word is “If.” And, that is one of the things that bothers me about what is appropriately termed “Hannibal Buress’ violent tirade.” He did not say, “Bill Cosby has been accused of rape. He did not say Bill Cosby alleged raped 13 women. He said, “You are a rapist.” This is surprising because Hannibal Buress is recognized as a smart talented stand-up comedian who, according to Comedy Central, is “a brilliant observer of life and its absurdities” and if you listen to his comedy sketches, you may see why Jamie Masada (West Hollywood Laugh Factory) said Buress, “Does a lot of topical stuff.” It seems his style is to talk about people not to attack them. I can only speculate about what made him want to bring Cosby “down a couple of notches” but that is not the purpose of this writing. Masada also said, “I really don’t think he intentionally meant to hurt Bill Cosby.” If Cosby did what he is accused of, hurting him is the last thing that matters. In this case, turn around is fair play so neither him nor his supporters can whine about him being hurt. Buress does not have to apologize for calling attention to something that may have been buried simply because the accused had the money and the help of his peers to make it go away. But, that does not alter the fact that social attitudes about black men and rape requires everyone, including a comedian of Buress’ caliber, to remember innocent until proven guilty is a civil right.
Cosby is according to Buress, “hypocritical” and therefore had no right to present himself as American’s Dad. It’s hard to argue against that if “America’s Dad” was stripping the daughter of other dads of their dignity and self-respect and then strong-arming them to protect his image and his wallet. But, discrepancies between the values associated with a particular kind of work and the behavior of people doing that work is far more common than we want to acknowledge. If these ever become a determining factors in who gets to work, the unemployment line is going to get real, real long.
Buress called out Cosby and because of it at least nineteen accusers who might have been muzzled with money or muffled by fear and shame and “whose going to believe me anyway.” will be heard. And, that is a good thing! But, I wonder if Buress’ advocacy on behalf sexually violated women everywhere will make him regretful about his attitude about rape? Will he think about how his jokes about Date Rape in two of his comedy sketches, Animal Furnace and My Name is Hannibal, were instructional – just what a budding date rapist needs? Will he be concerned that people might ask, “If, as you say, Cosby is guilty of actual rape, are you guilty of passive rape?
Buress also mocked Cosby by using words from his famous and infamous 2004, Pound Cake speech. “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.” Hannibal Buress finished his tirade with, “But you rape women, Bill Cosby. So brings you down a couple of notches.”
The speech to which Buress refers was given on May 17, 2004 at the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. the Board of Education Decision. It is the speech that ten years later is still causing some Black people (not all of them middle class) to treat Cosby as if he is our very own Benedict Arnold. While I can understand how people did not like how Cosby delivered his message or some of the phrases he used. (If he had asked me I would have said, “Maybe you want to leave that one out or say that another way.”) And, I get why some people are disturbed because he did not put his criticism in the historical context of institutional racism. But I do not understand this prolonged anger or the reference to Cosby as betrayer of the race. Nor can I begin to understand the stance taken by Michael Eric Dyson, who seems to have positioned himself as the defender of all things black that might be criticized by the black middle class. In his book, Is Bill Cosby Right or has the Middle Class Lost its Mind, Dyson gives an explanation. “Cosby has refused to explore race in his comedy, rejected the role of crusader or leader on issues of race and resisted bearing the burdens of racial representation in public with grace.”
In Dyson’s thinking, Cosby has not earned the right to speak about the social ills of poor blacks. This, in my opinion, is a narrow perspective on how race might be explored. Cosby did not, as Dyson points out, use his place on the national stage to address race and racism in the style of Dick Gregory and other comedians. Cosby did however use it to promote higher education by doing shows on historically Black Colleges, displaying jerseys from HBCs and making the setting for Different World a factious college. He provided many blacks and other ethnic groups with their very first view of paintings and sculptures by black artists such as Annie Lee (Died November 24, 2014) and Ellis Wilson whose painting, The Funeral Possession, was made famous because it hung on the Huxatable’s living room wall. Black performers such as singer Mavis Staples (Respect Yourself) and dancer Judith Jamison (Alvin Alley Dance theater of Harlem) often made appearances. Cosby collaborated with Varnette Honeywood (Died 2010) to create Little Bill Books for beginning Readers that included children doing homework and showed other examples of black life.
In spite of what Dyson says, Cosby’s more inductive approach to addressing race and racism is as legitimate as the more deductive approaches chosen by other comedians. Rather than focusing on what we as black American do not have or what “They” are doing to us, Cosby consistently uses his platform to emphasize possibilities, potential, personal responsibilities. A good example is the show called Regular People, when Theo was getting “Ds” in his classes and thought his parents should not worry because grades do not matter if you get the kind of job regular people get.
Race and racism are complex issues. There is no one right way to engage in this debate. It seems to me using a family show to re-position or position the values of education in the minds of children and adults was an effective strategy for combatting racism. Stimulating interest in higher education by using historically black colleges (HBC) to create memories, tap into emotions and encourage conversation after the show was over, increased the chances of transferring learning from TV to real life should not be discounted as way of honoring Brown vs. The Board of education – a decision that
as Cosby said, was passed because “People marched and were punched and hit in the face with rocks.”
In addition to his television shows, Bill Cosby and his wife Camille had, at the time of the speech, donated at least $40.000,000 dollars to historically black colleges and social services agencies that work with and on behalf of the families that are unduly affected by what Dyson identifies as “White supremacy, unfair housing practices, segregated public accommodations, Jim Crow Law, Unequal health care, racial disparities in wealth, disproportionately high infant mortality rates, unjust criminal justice sentencing practices, unequal higher education, etc.” Despite what Dyson say, if the television shows and the philanthropy had not earned Bill Cosby the street creds needed to make his poignant but imperfect speech, then they are probably impossible to earn.
The accusations against Bill Cosby are pouring from the past like water from a faucet turned on full force. If he cannot prove his innocences he will be forced to step down as American Dad, as he should. But I hope we are able abhor his treatment of the women without discounting the importance of the call to action that was embedded in a speech that he deemed fitting to deliver before the NAACP, the civil rights group the made possible “one of the greatest Supreme Court decisions of the 20th century.”
As I said earlier, it was not a perfect speech. It was a speech given by a man who, like the rest of us is flawed. But Black people found it in their hearts to let go of anger at another flawed man who on January 14, 1963 delivered a speech that was described as “vehement, mean-spirited and hateful in its words and its delivery.” Dan Carter, Historian and author of the Politics of Rage, said, the streets of Montgomery were packed that day. “George Wallace’s followers, many of them wearing white flowers meant to symbolize their commitment to white supremacy” were crowded round the platform:
“Let us send this message back to Washington. From this day, we are standing up, and the heel of tyranny does not fit the neck of an upright man. Let us rise to the call of freedom-loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chain upon the South. In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw a line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and say, segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.”
“Violence quickly followed Wallace’s inauguration, said, James Poe, President of the Montgomery Chapter of the NAACP – night-riding and burning crosses; the police beat down people and ran over them with horses, put tear gas on them.” Later that year, four girls were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama and Governor Wallace stood in front of the door to prevent two “unwanted and unwelcome” black students from integrating the University of Alabama.
Pound Cake and Segregation. Two speeches. Two men. Comedian and Philanthropist, Bill Cosby. Governor of the State of Alabama, George Wallace – both spoke words that impacted Black people. One speech was about failure to take advantage of opportunities; the other about denying opportunity. One speech; an expression of disappointment because of missed opportunities; the other a statement about race-based exclusion. Both speeches – a call to action. One a plea to overcome apathy that requires us to turn our attention to the speaker’s intent even if we do not agree with the content and the context. The other an order to keep us “in our place” by any means necessary and ultimately required the speaker to ask for our forgiveness and we gave it in abundance. In later years, Wallace sought and received the forgiveness of black civic and church leaders. He won the 1982 governor’s race with 90% of the Black vote and nearly half of the 25,000 people who attended his funeral were Black. The forgiveness expressed by Rev. Jesse Jackson: “He was a figure who represented both tragedy and triumph” and a female black mourner, “I sure hope he wasn’t too lonely these last years,” says it all.
Unless I am missing something, Bill Cosby’s speech does not, in my opinion, require forgiveness. But, whatever it requires, if we can feel just a modicum of the compassion we seem to have willingly given to George Wallace, Buress will be the last black person who will mock Cosby about his speech. We will not let the accusations against Cosby (even if they are proven true) to be yet another excuse for not acknowledging that the laundry Cosby hung ten years ago is still on the line. The laundry does not, as Dyson insist, belong to just black people who are poor. It belongs to all black parents who are not assuming full responsibility for their children. It belongs to all black students who are not fully investing in their education. It belongs to all black adults who are not role models for what is positive. It belongs to all black educators whose expectations for girls and boys are low.
We have to stop being overly concerned about white people seeing our dirty laundry and interpreting its meaning. It is not like their line is not full. And, from where I stand some of it looks very much like what is on our line. “What you think about me does not matter. It’s what I think about me that count,” is a clique that indicates both flip-ness and arrogance. Fortunately, it is not a motto by which most of us live. On the other hand, too much attention to impression management can lead to excuses and explanations for behaviors that in my opinion, need to be unacceptable.
For example, I am not, as Dyson, says fashion adverse when it comes to young people using clothing as a form of self-expression and group identity. But I must be one of those “dismissive and demeaning elders” who do not understand that “The baggy pants style may symbolize, consciously or not, their restricted mobility in the culture or baggy pants and oversize clothing in general, may also cover black bodies subject to unhealthy surveillance or maybe black youth who can’t hide in their skin are forced to hide in their clothes or the more they are swallowed up in a sea of denim or cotton, the less likely they are to drown in a naked scrutiny of vulnerable limbs.”
Dyson is right. I do not understand. I do not understand because I do not know what being black has to do with the dress of the young man and woman (both looked old enough to have voted at least once) who a few weeks ago, sat with their backs to me and other diners in a downtown restaurant. His pants were so low I could see almost all of his red, white and blue plaid underwear that matched his red, white and blue high top gym shoes. The woman, with matching shoes, was also wearing low riding blue jeans except, “She didn’t have on no red, white and blue underwear.”
This, by itself, is enough for us to continue to explore, without so much emotional hindrance, the question Cosby asked in his speech, ”Is this a sign that something has gone wrong?”