How do you mend a broken heart?
5/19/2018, 9:52 p.m.
I used to love me some Bill Cosby, not only because he was America’s Dad, but also because he was fun and funny.
Most of the times that I was around him, I felt lifted. He had that deep, “Heh, heh, heh,” laugh and that sweet smile. And then he loved some HBCUs, so what could you say?
Yeah, there was that irascible thing, that pull up your pants and don’t steal the cake preachy conversation. But there was the $20 million that he and wife Camille Cosby gave to Spelman College and the fraction of which I was able to wangle from him for Bennett College.
We had this conversation, once upon a time, when he said that he loved me, and I replied, “As much as you love Dr. (Johnnetta) Cole?” And he said, “Yeah.” So I said, “Where is my $20 million? If you love me even 10 percent as much, I get $2 million.” He laughed. I laughed. He spent a day at Bennett College talking to my students.
Now he has been convicted as a sexual predator. And while there will be an appeal, the fact that more than 60 women have made accusations is daunting. Even if half of them are piling on, enough of them have made the case that a man who has been an amazing philanthropist also has been an awful sexual predator. How do I mend my broken heart?
Indeed, my heart is broken. It started breaking with the first allegation. It continued to break as the accusations piled up. How could I — how could we — reconcile the image of a man whose humor and dad-liness engaged a generation with a man who, by his own admission, drugged women so he could have nonconsensual sex with them? What is real, what is fake, and how do we begin to enjoy powerful episodes of “The Cosby Show” without thinking of the man who was just convicted?
So do we throw the art out? Do we decide that the engaging body of work is now worthless because the creator is horribly flawed? Do we decide that “Fat Albert” wasn’t really fat and funny, that Theo and Rudy weren’t amazing kids, that “I Spy” didn’t spy, that the Cosby body of work is useless?
I will make no excuses for a man who has been convicted as a sexual predator, even as I confess my affection for him. But I wonder if we can separate the art from its creator, especially when we consider the fact that Mr. Cosby broke so many barriers as he created his art. And while he deserves more than a wink and a nod or a slap on the wrist, I think it also is important to consider context.
Who taught this man to be a sexual predator? Was this the norm in Hollywood at that time?
Mr. Cosby was raised well enough to know the difference between right and wrong, and he was not only wrong but also butt wrong to drug women to have sex with them. One could be a misunderstanding. Sixty is an epidemic. Even if half of them are making it up, 30, 20, 10 or even one is more than enough.
So my heart breaks for our culture and for that which many will throw away. Meaning, do Mr. Cosby’s crimes invalidate his art? Will all eight seasons of “The Cosby Show” be kicked to the curb because its creator is an extraordinarily flawed man? Will a moment in history, a moment when the ensemble depiction of a dynamic black middle class family entertained a nation, be obliterated by the judgment of one man?
I am not sure of the answer. I am certain, though, that my heart is broken.
Mr. Cosby will appeal and he may prevail. Or, he may not. But I am among those who cherish the memories of “The Cosby Show,” the Cosby philanthropist, the funny and irascible man who came to my campus, talked good sense to my students and cared.
Cheers to him for lifting up black colleges. Shame on him for violating women. How can I reconcile these images? How can I mend my broken heart?
The writer is an economist, author and former president of Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C.