Lately, Bill Cosby has been making a comeback—as Shelby Steele. The 67-year-old comedian—who became America's Dad in the 1980s and America's Granddad more recently—has launched a series of surprising assaults on the pathologies of low-income blacks. "They think they're hip. They can't read; they can't write. They're laughing and giggling, and they're going nowhere," he said in Chicago at the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and Citizenship Education Fund's annual conference on July 1.
This followed an attack launched at the NAACP's Brown v. Board of Education 50th anniversary gala at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., in May. No laugh tracks there. The Cos has chastised young black men for "beating up your women because you can't find a job," blasted poor parenting in the ghettoes, heaped scorn on Ebonics, and lambasted aimless blacks for squandering the hard-won gains of the civil rights movement. Symbolically, he made his comments in high-profile "public" (read: where whites could hear) venues.
Many critics expressed shock that the beloved figure of Americana—the genial observational humorist; the wise paterfamilias of the beloved The Cosby Show (1984-1992); the winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002—should offer such a pointed, and conservative, political message. Yet those who were fooled by Cosby's silliness into surprise at his newfound ferocity were just that—fooled. Cosby has long been a good "race" man on an all-too-serious mission. There was always darkness in the Cos' light.
From humble beginnings in the projects of Philadelphia, raised by a domestic and a laborer, Cosby parlayed his impish nature and keen insights into the transcendent in daily life into a successful comedy career during the early 1960s heyday of stand-up. In 1963, he was chosen as the first black guest host of The Tonight Show and in 1965 as the first black star on a white drama. On I Spy, he and Robert Culp played intelligence agents gone undercover as an international tennis player and coach. Overnight Cosby became the "Jackie Robinson of television," a crucial figure in bringing unapologetic but unconfrontational blackness into the mainstream.
It is almost impossible now to convey the watershed I Spy represented in American life. Those were the days when blacks called each other in wonderment to make sure that no one missed seeing one of their own in America's public square. That Cosby's "Scotty" was an abstemious, multilingual Rhodes Scholar and devoted family man while Culp's "Kelly" was a womanizing boozehound from the wrong side of the tracks was no accident. Cosby himself lobbied to make Scotty the brains of the outfit, the one who traveled the world and tended to national security matters.
Nonradical elements of the black community always embraced strategic racial inroads like this as exactly the type of gains they were trying to make—securing a place at the table instead of dismantling the table. Radicals like the Black Panthers, socialists, and Amiri Baraka, of course, considered Cosby a sell-out—a judgment for which his recent comments merely provide them the final proof.
Once Cosby found the upward path, he worked hard to stay there and to help bring the race along with him. His philosophy was always to play by the rules so as to beat the master at his own game—to be clearly black-identified, but not, you know, militant about it. Like that of Nat King Cole, Flip Wilson, and Diahann Carroll, television's other black pioneers, Cosby's appeal lay in presenting the universality of black life "apolitically," on its own terms (or, if you're Amiri Baraka, in the least discomforting way possible for whites). Their sudden presence in public life was all the rebuke that pre-Civil Rights Act America could face.
But Cosby's critics are wrong to say Cosby is either "incognegro" or an appeaser. The man always had a plan. While his humor is nonconfrontational, his attitude has been anything but; like Oprah Winfrey and Magic Johnson's inner-city focused business empire, Cosby sees the acquisition of power as a civil rights strategy. He's worked to be in the meetings where decisions are made rather than outside picketing them, though he was an ardent supporter of the civil rights movement and used his shows to pay homage to it.
And he succeeded. Once his star took off, Cosby was rarely without either a sitcom, a game show, an animated series, best selling non-fiction, or a comedy album riding the top of the charts. His power allowed him, among many other good deeds, to support black higher education by donating millions to schools, sending deserving, hardscrabble youngsters he'd read about in the newspaper to college, and challenging universities to ambitious fundraising goals by offering generous matching funds of his own—facts he's been advertising in a PR counteroffensive after the harsh reaction his recent comments provoked.
So why now? Why is Bill Cosby suddenly so sour, so publicly? Perhaps it was watching one of his four daughters struggle with a drug habit in the 1980s. Perhaps it was losing his only son, Ennis, to random violence in 1997. (Ghouls click here for a guide to the murder site.) Perhaps it was having to acknowledge having cheated on his wife of 40 years, Camille, who is nearly as beloved by blacks as he is. To make matters worse, the news of this infidelity broke when a young woman tried to extort hush money from him, and he helped the FBI send his (probable) love child to prison. But perhaps the final straw was watching Eddie Murphy reprise his history-making I Spy role on the big screen in 2002, not as a jet-setting, high-minded patriot but as a jive-talking, barely literate boxer who couldn't care less about national security; Cosby has long been vocal in his disgust with what he sees as the minstrelsy, vulgarity, and low artistic value of modern black comedy, film, and television. Don't even get him started on rap music.
"I'm a tired man," he said recently, but he wasn't talking about the energy required to defend himself. He was talking about still fighting battles his generation thought would have been long won by now, and he's talking about how draining it is to watch black complacency with its pockets of stagnation. But true acolytes will recognize the Cos' own personal progression through the stages of life, territory he just about owns. One of Cosby's standards bits was in ribbing his mother for coddling her grandchildren after having been so tough on her children. "That's not the same woman that raised me," he'd claim in mock confusion. Watching our beloved Cos take his people so publicly to the woodshed, it's our turn now to marvel at the evolution of the man we thought we knew so well.