There are many reasons to love Bill Cosby.
Back when he was on "I Spy" in the 1960s, I loved him for looking remarkably like my beloved big brother, who died a decade later. I loved that Cosby's albums cracked up my brothers and me without our having to hide the records from our parents, as we did those of the equally hilarious Redd Foxx, who used "bad words."
For most of the '80s, America's role model for loving, firm and upstanding fatherhood was a black man -- a once-unimaginable feat for which I straight-up adored Cosby.
When I heard what Cosby said Wednesday before 1,400 teachers, students and parents at a high school in Baltimore, I decided to nominate America's Most Loved Father for a vital new role:
America's Favorite Crotchety Grandpa.
Having never had a grandpa I knew, I sometimes fantasized about how one might behave. A good grandpa, I figured, would be like a father, but even more powerful.
He'd set you on your feet after you fell, gruffly admonishing you that "big girls [or boys] don't cry over a little scratch." He'd take you fishing or to the ballpark, places your dad was too tired to venture after working all day.
He'd tell you blunt, need-to-know stuff about being a real man or a for-sure woman. Stuff like, "You young males, you can't just knock up five, six girls and then not take on the responsibility of fatherhood . . .," as Cosby told audience members at W.E.B. DuBois Senior High School to shouts of "Amen!" according to the Baltimore Sun yesterday. "I'm saying some young men, not all."
A good grandpa would tell hard truths, just as Cosby did when he said, "Young men are taught not to cry; but they get angry, and they hurt." When such wounded young men band together in gangs, he continued, "somebody's going to get hurt. . . . But the blood on their hands means nothing to them. Because they are trying to hurt the man that didn't come to their birthday party, the man who was never there for them."
A take-no-crap grandpa, I figured, would know how to be vulnerable, too. He could admit, as Cosby has during the speaking tour that has taken him to Springfield, Mass., and Newark, and Milwaukee and Atlanta, that "my biggest cry is for us to really reflect on who we are. Who are we in our manhood? Who are we in our responsibility to the black woman and the black child?"
Can I get a witness?
In May, precious few amens -- from black folks, anyway -- greeted Cosby's public criticisms of certain African Americans during a ceremony commemorating Brown v. Board of Education. The comic blasted poor blacks for squandering the civil rights movement's legacy by giving their kids "$500 sneakers" rather than books, and not speaking standard English.
In the resultant media firestorm, it was easy to forget that Cosby had been trying to address the plight of inner-city African American males, more than half of whom leave high school without graduating in some cities. It was easy to forget that the entertainer -- though cruelly oversimplifying things, as comedians often do -- had a point.
My fantasies notwithstanding, I didn't need a grandpa. I had a hard-working dad who came home every night to my equally devoted mother.
Which made me different from more than 60 percent of black children born today.
More than half of black boys have no fathers to do the difficult work of teaching them how to be men. More than half of black girls lack a daddy who's present, accounted for and committed to their mothers and to them. Some have able father substitutes; most don't.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Eugene Kane attended the same Philadelphia high school and college as Cosby -- and reamed him for his comments in May. Afterward, Kane received a call from Cosby, who invited the columnist to join him in Newark, where he'd arranged a meeting with gang members of the Crips and the Bloods.
As Cosby spoke, "the room got real quiet," Kane recalled. The men, resplendent in gang colors, were rapt as the comedian pressed them about personal responsibility and reminded them he was speaking that way because he loved them.
"If it had been Chris Rock or somebody, the response might have been different," Kane said. "But Cosby took on this fatherly, even grandfatherly role." Men who are like the gang members "don't care about pretending. . . . They seemed to crave that kind of discipline and chastising."
Of course. That's what loving fathers and grandfathers -- whose influence many of these gang members clearly lacked -- provide.
Conservative commentators -- who, to some black folks' horror, reveled in Cosby's "telling the truth" about poor blacks -- have demonstrated little love for African American men. So these pundits' misplaced delight didn't disturb them. Cosby's proven affection, and his status as a man whose own beloved son died violently, earned him the right to criticize.
Noted psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint, who was a consultant on "The Cosby Show," believes that Cosby would never purposely stereotype African Americans.
"He had me go over every script to take out stereotypes," Poussaint said. Rather, the comic "has projected his love for black people for decades -- through his philanthropy, by hiring young, black TV writers, by almost going broke giving scholarships."
Black people's history in America, Poussaint said, "isn't just surviving against the odds -- it's succeeding against the odds. [Cosby] feels some people have lost some of that spirit. . . . He doesn't want people to be steamrolled by these awful statistics."
Neither would their crotchety grandpa.