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Ebony’s cracked ‘Cosby Show’ cover reveals fractures in show’s legacy for black community

Until Bill Cosby was accused of drugging and sexually assaulting dozens of women over decades, there was something special about “The Cosby Show.” (Cosby has denied the allegations and has not been charged with a crime.)

The sitcom wasn’t just funny. It was, many argued, proof positive that America’s view of the black family had changed or, at least, could change. Though anyone not living under a rock knew that African Americans weren’t just criminals and chauffeurs, the fictional Cliff and Clair Huxtable and their mostly perfect children somehow demonstrated that black people could also be doctors and lawyers, and that African American families could be “normal.”

Since Cosby’s downfall, “The Cosby Show” has been pulled from the air in many places. No one, it seems, wants to be reminded of the comedian as the number of women he’s allegedly sexually assaulted over several decades approaches 50. But when Ebony magazine put a picture of Cosby’s TV family under cracked glass on its November cover, some thought the magazine had gone too far. Sure, Cosby had fallen under a cloud. But was it necessary to throw out the show with the comedian who made it?

Goldie Taylor, who wrote the piece, thought so. She said that, though many think “Cosby” upended racism, the comedian’s prime-time juggernaut may have perpetuated it.

Taylor pointed out that the show came at a critical time in the cultural, social and political portrayals of African Americans, and that in the fall of 1984, “network honchos at NBC took a huge gamble: They put a strong, loving and successful Black family on prime-time television.”

“Although the show provided emotional relief from the stereotypes in the newspapers, it may have done very little to prove them false,” Taylor also wrote. “Cosby — through Cliff Huxtable — inadvertently told America that [Daniel Patrick] Moynihan and Reagan were right. They contended that the ability of Black families to make economic and political gains was inextricably tied to  — and hindered by — the rising rate of households led by single mothers. Both the cause and the price, they said, were illicit drug use, teenage pregnancy, academic disparities, generational poverty and incarceration.”

Taylor added: “If we could just pull ourselves together and find a good (educated, middle-class) soul mate, everything would be OK.”

This was not okay with many Ebony readers, who took issue with both the article’s premise and the striking image used to convey it. Some pointed out that, unlike Cosby, other celebrities who had actually admitted to sexual misconduct — white men such as Jared Fogle of Subway and Steven Collins of “7th Heaven” — weren’t as scrutinized as Cosby.

“How rude of you to assume to know for a fact that he did this,” one commenter on the article’s preview page wrote. “You, nor the women can show any evidence. My grandchild will have the entire DVD set of this show because it has value!”

“This magazine cover was done in very poor taste,” another wrote. “Not only is it defacing Bill Cosby, but the shattered glass is also reflecting off of his cast members who had ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH his allegations. Terrible. Do better Ebony Magazine.”

It’s not every day that a magazine editor has to appear on television defending her photo selection. But there Kierna Mayo, Ebony’s editor-in-chief, was last week, discussing the cover on CNN.

“This is an urgent conversation happening in black America,” Mayo said. “It was going to happen whether or not we did this or not. We really decided amongst ourselves that we were going to take a chance.”

Mayo acknowledged the importance of “iconography” and the “image of black family perfection.” But into the breach the magazine went, and its editor reminded viewers that Ebony had not created the problem.

“I think that Ebony is reacting to a very urgent conversation,” Mayo — hired to revive Ebony’s “maverick spirit,” as Advertising Age put it — said. “We simply are not the reason that there is a shattered legacy. … We are reacting to the fact that this fracture has happened.”

But Malcolm-Jamal Warner, a.k.a. Theo Huxtable, faced with an image of the cover on “The View,” said that those who wish to ditch “The Cosby Show” are playing a dangerous game.

“When we’ve had images that perpetuate the negative stereotype of people of color, we’ve always had ‘The Cosby Show’ to hold up against that,” he said. “And the fact that we no longer have that kinda leaves us not in a great place.”

Taylor also seemed somewhat taken off-guard by the reaction.

“The release of this Ebony magazine article certainly proved to me that there is still a very strong contention of largely African-American people who are defending Bill Cosby against these allegations,” Taylor told NPR last week. “And any notion that we would question the legacy of ‘The Cosby Show’ itself, to them, is blasphemy.”

She added: “Dr. James Peterson told me — he is a professor at Lehigh University. He said to me his mother still doesn’t believe the allegations. And by the way, neither does mine.”

Not everyone, of course, thought Ebony had overreached.

“This has to stop now,” one commenter wrote. “No more using Cosby for a role model. Outrageous.”