Have the damning sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby—the man once known as “America’s favorite dad”—destroyed the legacy of our greatest family sitcom, The Cosby Show? Goldie Taylor explores the intensely complicated relationship between the fallen icon, his most beloved character and the broken hearts of Black America.
Nearly two decades after Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report on Black life in America and in the midst of President Ronald Reagan’s “war on drugs,” network honchos at NBC took a huge gamble: They put a strong, loving and successful Black family on prime-time television.
Debuting in September 1984, The Cosby Show was based on the stand-up comedy routines of Bill Cosby, already a celebrated Hollywood staple, and loosely mirrored his family life. For eight seasons on NBC—five of which it was the country’s most-watched program, according to Nielsen ratings—Cosby’s portrayal of Heathcliff Huxtable—a physician, loving husband and doting Black father—reinforced the widely held virtues of the nuclear family, if not also unwittingly illuminating the hazards of respectability politics (the notion that if Black people simply act “good” and “behave,” the world-at-large will treat them as such.)
Now, some three decades later, as Cosby stands accused of sexually assaulting at least 40 women, Black America is left to grapple with his once-unimpeachable legacy. If Bill Cosby is finished, what does that mean for Cliff, and the rest of the tribe called Huxtable?
America’s First Black First Family
The Cosby Show was especially appealing in its early days, offering a 30-minute refuge from some of the negative imagery found on television. Still in their early stages, cable news broadcasts filled 24-hour cycles with images of gangland-style homicides, chronicling the crack cocaine epidemic and pointing an indicting finger at the rise in single-parent homes. Black America was in turmoil, if one believed the narrative of the day.
The implicit message: If Black people had a problem, it was Black people.
“The Cosby Show debuted during the Reagan era, when the plagues of crack, AIDS and spiraling homicide were ravaging African-Americans,” says author Jelani Cobb, associate professor of history and director of the Africana Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut. “[The show was] huge among Black people because it was a counterpoint to the stream of negativity that we heard and saw about ourselves so frequently during those years,” he opines.
Although the show provided emotional relief from the stereotypes in the newspapers, it may have done very little to prove them false. Cosby—through Cliff Huxtable—inadvertently told America that Moynihan and Reagan were right. They contended that the ability of Black families to make economic and political gains was inextricably tied to—and hindered by—the rising rate of households led by single mothers. Both the cause and the price, they said, were illicit drug use, teenage pregnancy, academic disparities, generational poverty and incarceration. If we could just pull ourselves together and find a good (educated, middle-class) soul mate, everything would be OK.
“I specifically remember a White teacher in my high school saying to me that a show about a Black lawyer married to a Black doctor was absurd,” Cobb says. “As if those types of African-Americans simply didn’t exist.”
On The Cosby Show, there was no economic downturn, no mass incarceration and no White flight. The family’s world was as diverse and colorful as the sweaters Cliff donned, but it was largely devoid of street narratives playing out in hip-hop music. In fact, despite the presence of adolescent and teenage children in the Huxtable household, there was little real evidence of a popular culture, either its glories or its failings. No one was worried about the rising cost of gasoline or the price of a gallon of milk. A young brown-skinned Theo wore hoodies without fear of racial profiling, and colorism was all but dismissed.
In a beautiful, well appointed Brooklyn brownstone lived the Huxtables, a shining testament to the gains made by the Civil Rights Movement. Cliff, an OB/GYN, and Clair, an attorney, along with their five children, were not unlike affluent White families on TV, except that they were unabashedly Black. The message—Live right, follow the rules and the “American Dream” can be yours—played well among White and Black audiences alike.
At its height, 30 million U.S. households tuned in, and Coretta Scott King once called it “the most positive portrayal of Black family life that has ever been broadcast.” Its overwhelming success was demonstrable proof that American society was ready to let a Black family into their homes, if only for 30 minutes each Thursday evening.
“The show had a huge global impact because it demonstrated that Black folks were just like everyone else,” says brand communications expert Onyx Finney. “Black men and women had loving relationships with each other, their children, family, friends and art.
Widely acclaimed by television critics of the day, The Cosby Show was a distinct departure from the old model, a bootstrapping Black family made good, or perpetually trying to do so. Cliff Huxtable was no James Evans, and there was no George Jefferson-styled “come up.” Cosby proved that breaking those norms and offering a new reflection of Black life could be profitable for revenue-hungry, ratings-savvy television executives.
Digital strategist Ryan Thornton, who works for a global media company, believes shows such as black-ish and even The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air owe some of their success to Cosby. “[The show broke] a mold that existed due to the long-standing stereotypes that plague, and unfortunately continue to plague, the Black community,” he says.
A Tale of Two Cosbys
To be sure, the now-78-year-old built a powerhouse brand, both on and off the screen. Cosby reportedly used his considerable influence to demand opportunities for people of color from the studio lot to the executive suite. Hollywood veteran Russell Williams remembers the day Cosby left a commercial shoot “because there were too many White children.” Williams, who won back-to back Academy Awards for Best Sound (for Glory and Dances With Wolves) and also worked on Training Day, says Cosby “threatened to leave again” if the producers didn’t bring in more diverse talent.
In addition, millions of Cosby dollars were donated to colleges and universities, specifically historically Black institutions, where buildings, scholarships and academic programs were named in honor of him and his wife, Camille.
Years after The Cosby Show ended, the paterfamilias took to the road, extolling the value of family and education before standing-room only audiences. At a May 2004 NAACP awards ceremony, Cosby delivered his now infamous “Pound Cake” speech (“Looking at the incarcerated, these are not political criminals. These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake!”), in which he openly criticized the Black community for the use of slang, the prevalence of single-parent homes, an emphasis on conspicuous consumption and a lack of personal responsibility. Cosby had morphed into our own Black Moynihan; perhaps he had been that all along. He seemed disgusted by the majority of Black people who failed to replicate the Cliff and Clair fantasy life he’d deftly crafted, but not as troubled by the factors that made it so elusive: generational poverty and subpar schools that often serve as a pathway to prison being just two of them.
Yet as he continued his public excoriation of Black America, his own (alleged) demons would be exposed and upend the reputation as a public moralizer he’d worked so hard to create. The horrific allegations against Cosby as a sexual predator date back some 45 years and have been the best unkept secret in the film and television industry. Although rumors of philandering have long followed the comedian, it wasn’t until 2004 that various claims of date rape began to make national headlines. Even then, they were largely ignored. In most of the cases, the statute of limitations has run out and Cosby has never faced a single criminal charge—although the Associated Press recently reported that he is seeking a criminal defense lawyer for a related criminal probe.
Through his legal team, Cosby has repeatedly and universally denied the accusations. (A representative for the comedian declined comment for this story.) During a July appearance on Good Morning America, Cosby attorney Monique Pressley said of the growing list of accusers, “The sheer volume or number of people who are saying a thing does not make it true.” The court of public opinion, however, has already begun its deliberations with many—Blacks and Whites—rendering a guilty verdict.
“I think we have more than enough information from the testimonies of all the women who have come forward,” said Anthea Butler, who is an associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s hard to think of Bill Cosby in any constructed way after all these allegations.”
Others aren’t so sure. Ronnie Tyler, co-creator of the blog Black and Married With Kids, says many are slow to believe the accusations because “traditionally, we’ve seen the media and mainstream culture do their best to tear down the people we hold closest and admire the most.”
“When allegations like these surface, we want uncontested facts,” she says, “but we often don’t receive them.”
Co-star Phylicia Rashad has been pointed in her rebuke of the allegations and appears to believe there is a concerted effort to destroy the star: “What you’re seeing is the destruction of a legacy. And I think it’s orchestrated,” she said in an interview in early 2015. “I don’t know why or who’s doing it, but it’s the legacy. And it’s a legacy that is so important to the culture.”
It was also, ironically and in part, Cosby’s public generosity that shielded him from criticism. Actor Faizon Love pointed to his charity as one of the reasons he believes the entertainer is innocent. Love, who is best known for his role as Big Worm in the Friday film franchise, took to Twitter. He assailed Cosby critics as “new slaves” and “porch monkeys.”
Comedian and actor Damon Wayans also defended Cosby in what may have been one of the worst PR moves we’ve seen this year, referring to some of the accusers as “bitches” and “unrapeable.” During an appearance on a popular New York radio program, he said, “If I was him, I would divorce my wife, wink, wink, give her all my money, and then I would go to a deposition. I’d light one of them three-hour cigars, I’d have me some wine, and maybe a Quaalude … I don’t believe that he was raping. I think he was in relationships with all of them.”
“And some of them, really, is un-rape-able,” he added. “When you look, I look at them and go, ‘No, he don’t want that. Get outta here!’”
Attorney and television contributor Lisa Bloom was not surprised. “Attacking victims is a tired old strategy in these cases. I tell my clients to expect it,” she says.
Bloom, who manages a Los Angeles-based law firm and is a legal analyst for Avvo.com, represents former supermodel Janice Dickinson and another alleged Cosby victim who, at press time, had not yet come forward.
The Beginning of the End
In October 2014, the public backlash started with comedian Hannibal Buress, who first lambasted Cosby during a stand-up show in Philadelphia. “Bill Cosby has the f–king smuggest old Black man public persona that I hate. … Yeah, you raped women, Bill Cosby,” Buress said. “So [that] brings you down a couple notches.”
“You leave here and Google ‘Bill Cosby rape’… that shit has more results than ‘Hannibal Buress.’”
After the sexual assault allegations came to light again last year, NBC show cancelled the entertainer’s planned sitcom. Cosby Show reruns were pulled from TV Land, and Netflix indefinitely postponed release of the comedian’s stand-up special. Cosby resigned from the board of trustees at Temple last December. In July, Spelman College ended an endowment funded by Bill and Camille Cosby, one that had been in place since the late 1980s. Fordham and Marquette universities rescinded Cosby’s honorary degrees at the end of September, and it is expected that other academic institutions will follow suit.
“That Mr. Cosby was willing to drug and rape women for his sexual gratification, and further damage those same women’s reputations and careers to obscure his guilt, hurt not only his victims, but all women, and is beyond the pale,” said an official statement from Fordham regarding the first honorary diploma to be revoked in the university’s history.
There can be no doubt that Cosby’s alleged behavior has decimated the credibility he once enjoyed offscreen. But has that apparent hypocrisy changed the way Black Americans view Cliff Huxtable, the fictional character who dispensed time-honored wisdom and discipline? Can we separate the two?
Renae Bluitt, a consumer brand expert and creator of In Her Shoes blog, doesn’t believe we can. “Most people are unable to separate Cliff Huxtable the character from Bill Cosby the person,” she said. “Every Black girl and boy growing up in the ’80s looked at Cliff Huxtable as their ‘dad in their heads.’ No one wants to imagine his or her father committing any of the acts that Bill Cosby has been accused of.”
Even so, Bluitt says she would still enjoy watching reruns given the nostalgia, despite the allegations. “The Huxtables are still important examples of what the Black family could look like,” she says.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, a best-selling author and columnist at The Atlantic, believes the ship has already sailed. “It’s destroyed,” Coates tells EBONY. “His show was so linked to who he was, and to his image. I don’t think it survives. I suspect now his only positive legacy will be his influence on other comics. That’s very sad, because the show wasn’t just him.”
Rashad isn’t alone in her support of Cosby, despite new revelations that he admitted under oath during a deposition that he drugged women, saying he got the prescription drug Quaalude with the intent of giving them to young women he wanted to have sex with. He acknowledged giving the powerful sedative to at least one woman and “other people.” The civil suit, involving a Temple University employee, was settled in 2006 for undisclosed terms.
Still, his admissions do not satisfy everyone.
“My mom still doesn’t believe it,” says James Peterson, director of Africana studies and associate professor of English at Lehigh University. “But I think men, especially African-American men, have been quicker to shift the subject or the dialogue to the tried-and-true narrative of the oppression and persecution of Black men in American society, especially the American media.”
Coates suggests that this has crossed racial lines: “Cosby got a lot of the benefit of the doubt from White people, too, who loved him for their own reasons.”
For many, the notion that Cosby raped dozens of women has been difficult to stomach. The amount of damage the show’s legacy has suffered, however, is unknowable.
“The fusion of Huxtable and Cosby was inevitable, especially since Cosby filtered critical elements of respectable Black masculinity through Huxtable’s character,” says Michael Eric Dyson, professor of sociology at Georgetown University, author and MSNBC political analyst. “But the good that Cosby projected through Huxtable also contained a seed of its own undoing.”
Lisa Kennedy, a former Denver Post film and theater critic, disagrees to a point. “Cliff Huxtable is not Bill Cosby. [Cliff is] a fig leaf for his creator, but he’s not the same guy. One is fiction, for heaven’s sake.”
She adds that maybe “what we need to look for from our artists is complexity. I think the more we read the success of shows for what they say about us at a particular moment in time—and not confuse their stars for their characters, even when they want us to, like Cosby—the smarter we’ll be as humans.”
But was it shortsighted to invest so much into this concept of Black family perfection? Was it healthy to check racial animus and the police profiling at the stoop of the Huxtable brownstone? “[It’s] dangerous. We’re all human,” says Coates. “There is no royal family.”