EDITOR’S NOTE: With the news this afternoon that comedian Bill Cosby was found guilty on three counts of aggravated indecent assault in Pennsylvania, we present this 2015 column, written before the groundbreaking performer was even charged about the damage the accusations have done to his legacy.
Bill Cosby has not yet been arrested, charged, tried or convicted for allegedly drugging and sexually assaulting scores of women over several decades. But there is one thing I know he’s guilty of.
He killed Cliff Huxtable.
When the talented singer-actress Jill Scott tweeted her defense — a lot of people’s defense — of Cosby months ago, she didn’t just reference the real-life man, but Cliff Huxtable, pleading that she was “respecting a man who has done more for the image of Brown people than almost anyone EVER. From Fat Albert to the Huxtables.”
And last week, when details were released of a 2005 deposition in which the comedian admits to securing drugs in order to get women to have sex with him, Scott returned to Twitter to admit she’d been duped. “Sadly his own testimony offers PROOF of terrible deeds…,” she wrote. “Completely disgusted. I stood by a man I respected and loved. I was wrong. It HURTS!!!”
Yes, it does.
Before you start writing that angry email, I am not suggesting that effectively ruining part of my childhood is as important as what he’s accused of, because it’s not. If you have to take “The Cosby Show” off the air, take down Cosby’s statue at Walt Disney World, and virtually eradicate his legacy in an effort to help the healing begin (or, at least, look like you’re trying to), then do what you have to do. In the full ugly scheme of things, it’s a TV show, albeit an important one.
I know that Cliff, the warm, wise Brooklyn pediatrician in the colorfully ugly sweaters presiding over a gorgeous family and their relatable, solvable-in-an-episode problems was not the sum total of Cosby, the man. Cliff Huxtable was a fictional character, a lovably flawed patriarch with a love of midnight sandwiches. Bill Cosby, on the other hand, is a real person.
But he’s a real person who for years floated on an untouchable cloud of respectability, of community service, of Look What I’ve Done For You. It got to the point that he became the unofficial Cranky Old Black Granddad telling Black America what to do and shaking his billion-dollar cane at them to get off his lawn with their stupid saggy pants.
And he did it with an agitated, prideful way that our beloved Cliff would have never have thought about, even though he used Cliff’s authority to be able to do that. His growing sanctimony was not only presumptuous, but, if the Kravis Center performance I saw long ago is any indication, it also was getting in the way of him being funny.
Bill Cosby is a real guy who gets to do whatever he wants in his personal life, unless it’s criminal. But when this guy we’ve been hearing about lately proposes to tell other people how to live, specifically the black people he helped raise through the TV, and it turns out he’s at best a hypocritical cheater with a thing for younger women he’s not married to and at worst a predator, it makes Cliff Huxtable less shiny. It has to.
While Cliff Huxtable was built on the goodwill that Bill Cosby had developed through his lovable dad stand-up, through “Fat Albert” and pudding pops, Bill Cosby also began to lean on the goodwill of Cliff Huxtable, of his relatability. He went from being the first black actor to lead his own TV drama, on 1965’s “I Spy” with Robert Culp, to being the head of a fictional black family that Americans across racial and class lines invited into their homes every week.
See, to a lot of folks in the 1980s, Cliff, his gorgeous wife Clair and their photogenic offspring weren’t just a sitcom creation — they were a prettier, neater version of a black American family that both black and white people denied existed. A family a lot like mine.
At 13, the Huxtables were a revelation, an “in your face” to the black kids who told me that I talked too well to be black, to the white kids who told me I wasn’t ghetto like the black people they saw on TV so I wasn’t really black and therefore OK. They were proof that there were versions of blackness, and this was one, because Bill Cosby said so. I didn’t need him to know I existed, but it didn’t hurt.
Cosby even helped legitimize parts of my identity into college and young adulthood as the producer of “A Different World,” which began as a spinoff for problem kid Denise (Lisa Bonet) but became a living, breathing glimpse into life at a historically black college. I didn’t go to one, but I sure related to the specifically black details I recognized even at a mainstream university, from the random spades tournaments to the guys practicing their step shows in the quad and the girls sitting on the steps braiding each other’s hair or touching up each other’s relaxers.
Every week, I saw myself on TV, in a way that I had never seen before, or since, and it was sometimes preachy and flawed, and removed from reality in the way that sitcoms are. But it was real to me. And for decades, even as “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” and “Bad Girls” and all that mess replaced the Huxtables as the go-to image of black people with money, you could see Cliff and his jazz-loving, college sweatshirt-wearing mug and his family every day on some cable station.
And now you can’t, because “The Cosby Show,” like “The Dukes of Hazzard,” another relic of my childhood, is gone.
Those two shows have been spoken of in the same breath a lot lately, as the outcry over the Confederate flag in the wake of the Charleston massacre has finally made it necessary to eradicate that symbol from our view. Both “Dukes” and “Cosby” are now tainted by their association with real-life ugliness.
The difference, however, is that nothing changed about the meaning of that flag except its PR issues. If it was a symbol of hate and slavery last month, it’s been one ever since Bo and Luke jumped into the General Lee four decades ago, and it was OK with TV Land and the people making money off it all that time. Whatever it meant to you, either pride or pain, it still means that. It’s just not currently OK to believe the former.
“The Cosby Show,” however, was safe. There was nothing ever offensive about it, unless you hate ugly sweaters and mugging, or are offended by niceness.
Even as we began to know that Bill Cosby was not Cliff Huxtable, when we learned of an out-of-wedlock daughter, as rumors of his dangerous activity were obviously so well-known that “30 Rock” joked about them in 2009, we defended the man. We defended his books and his calling-out of the community, at least parts of it, because of what he meant to us. What Cliff meant. What it all meant.
But now it’s really hard to defend Bill Cosby — although Whoopi Goldberg’s still trying — as a role model, as anything more than a rich man who used not only his money and status but his almost untouchable reputation as a Man Above Reproach to sleep with women, and allegedly assault them. And if Cosby, the man, rose entwined with the sainthood of Cliff Huxtable, so he brings Cliff Huxtable down with him. He cheapens him. He kills him.
And although Bill Cosby the man will never completely destroy what his work did for me all my life, I will never be able to look at it without at least a twinge of regret — and of anger. And that is what’s so hard to forgive.