Though long a symbol of responsible parenthood — model TV dad, doctor of education, proud supporter of Temple University — Bill Cosby etched his legacy in stone with a speech in 2004 that took black parents to task. It became famous as the “Pound Cake” speech for this passage:
“Looking at the incarcerated, these are not political criminals,” Cosby said. “These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! Then we all run out and are outraged: ‘The cops shouldn’t have shot him.’ What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?”
While many lauded Cosby for tackling a delicate subject so directly, it wasn’t long before the trouble began. Before the allegations of sexual assault surfaced, critics lambasted his conservative prescriptions for black America. After the accusations mounted over the past year, the Pound Cake speech was seized upon as an example of gross hypocrisy.
Now, the Pound Cake speech has resurfaced in yet another incarnation that no one could have predicted. It was cited by a U.S. district judge as a legal justification for unsealing a deposition that was deeply damaging to Cosby, the same document made public yesterday by the Associated Press that showed that Cosby acknowledged in 2005 that he intended to give Quaaludes to young women with whom he wanted to have sex, as The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi reported.
In his memorandum, Judge Eduardo C. Robreno said the speech, and Cosby’s general posture as a “public moralist,” made the deposition a legitimate subject of public interest sufficient to override Cosby’s objections to its disclosure. “The stark contrast between Bill Cosby, the public moralist and Bill Cosby, the subject of serious allegations concerning improper (and perhaps criminal) conduct, is a matter as to which the AP — and by extension the public — has a significant interest,” the judge wrote.
The deposition was made public largely because Cosby crowned himself a moral crusader.
It was a stunning — and deeply ironic — chapter in the story of one of the more enduring and controversial utterances in the past 15 years by an African American about African Americans. And its reappearance in a legal matter so potentially detrimental to Cosby, who has decried the allegations against him as baseless, may also go down in history as a case study in the costs of hypocrisy.
The occasion for Cosby’s talk about black parents’ failures was an NAACP awards ceremony in Washington on May 17, 2004 — no less an occasion than the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision ruling school segregation illegal that paved the way for the civil rights victories of the 1960s.
“In the neighborhood that most of us grew up in, parenting is not going on,” Cosby said. “In the old days, you couldn’t hooky school because every drawn shade was an eye. And before your mother got off the bus and to the house, she knew exactly where you had gone, who had gone into the house, and where you got on whatever you had one and where you got it from. Parents don’t know that today.”
He asked hard questions.
“I’m talking about these people who cry when their son is standing there in an orange suit,” he said. “Where were you when he was 2? Where were you when he was 12? Where were you when he was 18, and how come you don’t know he had a pistol? And where is his father, and why don’t you know where he is? And why doesn’t the father show up to talk to this boy?”
Then came the confection that gave Cosby’s most famous address its unusual name, which presaged the debate over Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, Mo., 10 years later.
“I wanted a piece of pound cake just as bad as anybody else,” Cosby went on. “And I looked at it and I had no money. And something called parenting said, ‘If you get caught with it you’re going to embarrass your mother.’ Not: ‘You’re going to get your butt kicked.’ No. ‘You’re going to embarrass your mother. You’re going to embarrass your family.'”
Self-abnegation despite the prospect of free pound cake in Mom’s name. It was a nice bit of rhetoric — one that earned Cosby praise in some quarters and criticism in others. The Pound Cake speech left no small mark. Books were written about it; it was discussed in the pages of the Harvard Educational Review.
“If Cosby’s call-outs simply ended at that — a personal and communal creed — there’d be little to oppose,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in the Atlantic in 2008. “But Cosby often pits the rhetoric of personal responsibility against the legitimate claims of American citizens for their rights. He chides activists for pushing to reform the criminal-justice system, despite solid evidence that the criminal-justice system needs reform. His historical amnesia — his assertion that many of the problems that pervade black America are of a recent vintage — is simply wrong, as is his contention that today’s young African Americans are somehow weaker, that they’ve dropped the ball.”
“A man who was running around the country yelling at women for how they were conducting their sex lives, a man who held his own marriage up as a model of functional commitment, had in fact been repeatedly unfaithful,” Rebecca Traister wrote in the New Republic last year. “To have gone further — to have really dealt with the possibility that this extremely rich man lambasting poor people for everything from stealing pound cake to wearing low-slung pants to how they named their children — might have drugged and raped more than a dozen women would have made our heads pop off.”
Eleven years after that speech, Robreno of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania had to decide whether Cosby could block the release of a deposition related to the comedian’s alleged molestation of a Temple University employee in 2005. (The civil claim was settled; Cosby denied wrongdoing and has not been charged with a crime.) The AP intervened last year to request that the record be made available to the public “after more recent allegations of similar misconduct by [Cosby] gained public attention,” as Robreno put it.
One the major issues: Cosby’s right to privacy — what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called “the right to be let alone.” Cosby, after all, is not a public figure in the sense that President Obama is; the comedian “does not surrender his privacy rights at the doorstep of the courthouse,” as Robreno wrote. The judge added: “Were this so, well-known nongovernmental public figures, visible in the public eye but pursuing strictly private activities, would be subject to spurious litigation brought perchance to gain access to the intimate details of their personal lives.”
So: Would Robreno give Cosby a pass and leave the documents sealed because he is not a legislator, but a funnyman?
“This case, however, is not about Defendant’s status as a public person by virtue of the exercise of his trade as a televised or comedic personality,” the judge wrote. “Rather, the defendant has donned the mantle of public moralist and mounted the proverbial electronic or print soap box to volunteer his views on, among other things, childrearing, family life, education, and crime.”
At this point, Robreno, in a footnote, pointed to a number of Cosby’s public statements. Item No. 1: “See, e.g., Pound Cake Speech.” The address the comedian used to shame others was now being used to shame him.
Robreno continued: “To the extent that Defendant has freely entered the public square and ‘thrust himself into the vortex of [these public issues],’ he has voluntarily narrowed the zone of privacy that he is entitled to claim.”
In conclusion, Robreno said the AP wanted the documents not for “commercial gain or prurient interest.” Instead, the news organization sought the dirty details in service of the greater good.
Without the speech, Cosby would still stand accused of drugging and raping women, and his decades-old legacy would be endangered if not in tatters.
But without Pound Cake, it is unlikely that the public would know that, when Cosby was asked “When you got the Quaaludes, was it in your mind that you were going to use these Quaaludes for young women that you wanted to have sex with?” in 2005, he said, “Yes.”