The promise of equality and systemic racial subjugation. To protect and serve and be part of a narrative that shows the exact opposite of an unsettling, painful past. The Cliff Huxtable and Bill Cosby dream. The promises made to Black America and the existing realities haven’t been quite right for centuries. November 2014 has been a cold reminder of that.
As many have cynically expected, Darren Wilson wasn’t indicted by a Grand Jury for killing unarmed teen Michael Brown. Last night, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch got on stage and attempted to sympathize with Brown’s grieving family, hold social media at fault and exonerate the Ferguson police department of its sin. A number of adjectives can describe McCulloch’s address. None of them are good: Tone-deaf, bizarre, buffoonish, patronizing. (President Barack Obama’s subsequent address didn’t help much either.)
McCulloch’s speech attempted to wrap everything up cleanly, since Brown’s murder on August 9. It minimizes what’s gone down in the last three months: a community commiserating over a common injustice, the revival of the conversation about race and the humanistic tragedy of the loss of human life. Even worse, it’s very possible it won’t go down accurately in the history books; riots have broken out, looting has taken place and Ferguson is ablaze.
The conversation thus rightfully steers away from Bill Cosby, the former bastion of Black morality. America’s dad. In addition to Ferguson, we’ve been forced to witness the troubling saga of Bill Cosby the Alleged Rapist. Numerous women stepped up to claim Cosby had raped and drugged them, but it wasn’t until Janice Dickinson spoke up that NBC backed away from their planned pilot and Netflix dropped his standup special. TV Land didn’t face as much public pressure, but it, too, decided to take action by pulling Cosby’s opus — The Cosby Show — from the lineup. The 77-year-old’s public relations fails in the past few weeks have been rather ignominious to say the least, but at least he can use the current unrest to go into recommended seclusion.
Things were a bit different in 1992, when another black man unintentionally became a symbol of police brutality. The four LAPD officers who assaulted Rodney King were acquitted on April 29, and the Los Angeles riots started soon after. The final episode of The Cosby Show was scheduled to air on April 30. Instead of getting ready to say farewell to America’s most beloved family, eyes were glued to news stations reporting mayhem and death in the streets.
On the day of the episode, KNBC was able to point to The Cosby Show’s finale as a piece of relief. This wasn’t just a sitcom’s victory lap. This was Bill Cosby — the voice of class and reason not just for Blacks, but America in general. So it made sense for KNBC to call on him to deliver an address to the public after the Clair and Cliff took their final bow.
“Let us all pray that everyone from the top of the government down to the people in the streets … would all have good sense,” he said to the public at the end of the episode. “And let us pray for a better tomorrow, which starts today.”
We now no longer have that irrefutable Black voice on such a mainstream level. It now represents something vile. In the past weeks, fans have been forced to see Cliff as a separate entity from Cosby rather than an extension. It’s hard to simply discredit a character who’s asked us to be our best selves and inspired a generation of black college graduates. It’s hard for some to even look at The Cosby Show from the same lens again, especially with Darren Wilson now free. The Cosby allegations are a incomprehensible betrayal for a demographic again convinced of its second-class citizenship. This also hurts not only because of the jarring images of smoke, militarized police and buildings on fire. It stings more because we’ve seen these images 22 years ago. Except this time, it’s over a kid who was getting ready for college.
The Cosby Show’s two ends — one celebratory and the other disgraceful — happen as the Black community finds itself violated by the law. In a way, Cosby’s steep fall and the apparently flat lining of progress symbolize an unfortunate constant: To be Black in America is to fight. We’re still fighting against the American system’s failures and hopelessness, regardless of dignity or moral values. It undoes Don Lemon’s absurd “Pull your pants up” logic. It dismantles Cosby’s Pound Cake criticism. It underscores the pessimistic air that arose last Monday, when a lot of us sighed, not even bothering to hold in our breaths for the coming blow.
Obama has been losing cred with his paper-thin comments on Ferguson, and that hasn’t changed with his post-verdict speech: “We have made enormous progress in race relations over the course of the past several decades.” But the nationwide protests don’t represent progress. It’s the continuation of centuries-old dissonance.
Everything is corrupt, but you can still follow Brian Josephs at @Bklyn_Rock.