by Valerie Morales
After I heard the Bill Cosby verdict, I was reminded of a lunch I attended a couple of years ago. The year of that lunch Cosby was a has-been comic and television star given to lecturing the next generation. His sanitized fatherhood act didn’t fit the social media world. Frankly, he was historical, aged, and belonging to another century.
Sometime after the appetizers were cleared and the salad course was served, Cosby’s name surfaced as gossip. Around the table, the feeling was layered. That Cosby was being framed by a bunch of accusers who had something to gain was tossed back and forth before a casual dismissal. Abuse itself demands silence. The number of accusers was sobering, and there was that Cosby admission of passing out drugs for sex reasons.
It was difficult for the women at the table to look at the white accusers as equivalent because of the documented history. White women accusing black men of sexual assault for their own fictional purposes is real. But- and this is where it was particularly dicey- some of the black women at the table had been assaulted by black men. Who were we kidding?
The peach cobbler dessert was the sweet to a structural racism sour. Cosby was due to premiere his new show on NBC. Many of the professionals at the table pointed to specific instances in their careers when there was racial sabotage.
It was an interesting conversation, one in which assault wasn’t being justified and women weren’t shamed as a group and consent didn’t have a huge hurdle to cross. There was no grand love for Cosby, the son of a maid, who on his best day wasn’t heroic. But Cosby clearly was symbolic of a successful black man who worked hard and was now facing loss and was in trouble.
On that afternoon in Windsor Hills, an affluent black enclave, no one ever thought it would ever reach this conclusion of Bill Cosby blind, 80 and defiant, perhaps spending his last days on earth in prison. His wealth and fame were thought to be protective applications even with struggle, as if he had somehow morphed into whiteness benefits.
I recall at the lunch, I brought up the movie Beloved.
Beloved was the elegant 1987 Pultizer Prize winning novel written by Toni Morrison that Oprah Winfrey turned into a film. The novel was based on a true story of runaway Kentucky slave Margaret Garner who, upon capture, slit her two year old daughter’s throat and wounded her other children with a butcher knife. It was an act of resistance. Another Garner generation was not going to be slaves.
There is a scene in the film where the runaway slave Sethe is cornered in the barn. She is unapologetic when she slits her daughter Beloved’s throat as the law descends upon her. The lawman stares at her bloody baby, her bloody hands and bloody frock. He stares at her defiant gaze and he spits on the ground, enraged. He calls her an animal.
Black women’s humanity often traffics in animalistic imagery. I mentioned that scene at the lunch because it reminded me of what black women are up against.
At that lunch, we understood and didn’t have to confirm out loud. Women are victims. Many sexual assault victims are women of color. Brown women are more likely to be sexual assault victims than their white counterparts so exactly what was Camille Cosby, a black woman, talking about when she said the Bill Cosby verdict was mob justice and women lie? 20% of Cosby’s victims were black women. Who was she calling liars? Us?
Sexual abuse in America is a familiar and personal black woman’s story that Camille Cosby cannot erase.
In 1863, Harriet Elizabeth McKinley testified against her abuser. She was black. Her abuser was a man of power. He was in the military.
“He dragged me past a post and I caught hold of it and he told me if I didn’t let loose, he would slap the hell out of me. Then he tried to make me lie down and I wouldn’t. He flung his knee into my back and threw me into the ground. He got on top of me and held me down.” She then told the military commission that Private Perry Pierson of the 33rd Indiana Volunteer Infantry raped her.
Private Perry Pierson was found guilty just as Bill Cosby was found guilty.
What Camille Cosby knows is that her husband doesn’t matter to us like Barack Obama matters to us. We really don’t care that all his degrees and honors are being stripped. He was wicked. He hurt others.
Bill Cosby achieved at the highest levels but he wasn’t a social critic and was regularly criticized for a brand of comedy absent the black experience. At the end though, his show on NBC had become too much of a moralistic Cosby scolding. With sanctimony, he implored the rest of us to live like he was telling us to. But even that wasn’t the worst.
Cosby in his most arrogant social moments legitimized racial shame. Many of us he just didn’t like. The comics who used profanity. The young kids and their sagging jeans. The athletes and the way they talked. Gold chains on whoever. Mamas buying baby formula, sleeveless arms a graph of tattoos. The rational that bypassed college. Rap music sycophants, the lyrics blasting. Many incurred his wrath instead of his acceptance, reflection and understanding.
Cosby was a man raised in poverty who had fame and wealth that he paid forward by dividing among class lines and scornfully assessing who had worth. He could be vicious. Same with his wife.
Cosby lectured on the one hand people he knew and on the other hand was abusing women who wanted to know him. It was perfectly venal. He wasn’t the image he tried so hard to perpetuate. He was the Christmas ornament on the glittery white tree. Shiny and alluring until it falls and breaks, shattering exceptionally.
In the movie Beloved, the last scene balances the film but does not absolve the racial trauma. Nevertheless, Danny Glover tells Oprah Winfrey, “you are your best thing”. As a piece of wisdom, it feels benevolent. It is the Cosbys antithesis. Each one, teach one.
African Americans didn’t need a trial, nor a verdict, nor a queue of accusers, nor an enraged Camille Cosby calling black women liars, to know Bill Cosby was never our best thing. Never. He had a television show that whites approved of and blacks were relieved by. But as far back as a young Eddie Murphy’s entrance into comedy and success, Cosby was tearing his people to shreds as he alone was the arbiter of appropriate black behavior. Now his wife is following his example.
It’s both damning and fitting as a paradox that one of those black male comics Bill Cosby would have despised was the one who took Bill Cosby down by mentioning in a punchline that Cosby rapes.
Rape isn’t a punchline but that isn’t the point either. Cosby will be sent to prison. For years, Cosby created his own prison. In his mind there was us and there was them. There was the redeemed and there was the vulgar. He wanted nothing to do with the latter and that is where the story he told dovetails into the lie he hid. He was the vulgar image in the mirror he was desperate to escape. Of that, Camille Cosby wholeheartedly approves.