When I first heard Andrea Constand and Tamara Green publicly tell their stories about being drugged and assaulted by Cosby, I wasn’t relieved; I was terrified. I knew these women weren’t fabricating stories and conspiring to destroy America’s favorite dad, but I did not want to see yet another African American man vilified in the media. As I debated whether to come forward, I struggled with where my allegiances should lie – with the women who were sexually victimized or with black America, which had been systemically victimized. I called several friends for advice. While some encouraged me to speak out, others were cautious – even angry. One friend, an African American man, insisted I should stay quiet: “You will be eaten alive, and for what? The black community is not going to support you.” It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but I think it was his way of protecting me.
Even I felt a certain instinct to protect Cosby. In the 1980s, when “The Cosby Show” aired, African Americans were suffering more than most from the combined scourge of Reaganomics, AIDS and the crack epidemic. When I would go home to Brooklyn, I would wonder whether absent childhood friends had gotten hooked on crack. When a fellow model wouldn’t show up at auditions for months, I worried that she had succumbed to AIDS – and sadly, one close friend did. Weekly doses of “The Cosby Show” allowed me to escape this painful reality and restore my hope in the future for black America. The well-educated, well-spoken and well-heeled Huxtables seemed to promise that, despite the decaying conditions for black folks, everything was going to be alright. In the first season of “The Cosby Show,” I attached myself to Lisa Bonet’s character, Denise, because of our similar age and physical appearance, and I imagined the Huxtables were my family. With his 30-minute sitcom, Cosby helped soothe black America’s psyche, showing that our men could be engaged fathers, our women could become successful lawyers and our children could go to college. By simply providing a better vision of ourselves, Cosby became one of the African American community’s most celebrated and admired icons.
But as I vomited in the backseat of the taxi that Cosby ushered me into after he assaulted me one night in the late 1980s, that Dr. Huxtable image no longer made sense. I felt both physically violated and emotionally bamboozled. Still, I didn’t want the image of Dr. Huxtable reduced to that of a criminal. For so many of the African American men I knew, William H. Cosby, Ed.D, provided a much-needed wholesome image of success, and the character he made famous was their model for self-worth and manhood. I knew that, in my reluctance to add my assault to the allegations facing Cosby, I was allowing race to trump rape.
Even as the number of Cosby’s accusers has mounted to more than 25, many African Americans struggled to part with their idealized image of him. Several celebrities publicly defended Cosby, questioning the credibility of his accusers and criticizing the media for ruining his legacy: actors Whoopi Goldberg and Ben Vereen, and singer Jill Scott, among others. At the BET Honors last week, Phylicia Rashad, who played Cosby’s TV wife, was applauded when she alluded to protecting “The Cosby Show” legacy during her award acceptance speech. Rashad at one point even gave credence to conspiracy theories circulating among African Americans that suggest some nameless person or group made up the sexual assault allegations to prevent Cosby’s return to television.
Historical context also has fueled much of this doubt. Last year, before I revealed my own story, I called a very dear African American friend and asked her what she thought about the women accusing Bill Cosby. “I don’t believe these white women,” she said. “They are just trying to destroy another black man.” It pained me terribly to hear her say it, but I knew her perspective wasn’t uncommon. Black people are sensitive to the fact that, for centuries, images of African American men as threats to white women have been used to justify oppressing them.
In 1989, for instance, as the fifth season of “The Cosby Show” aired and the Huxtables were the most-watched TV family in American homes, the heart-wrenching case of the Central Park Five began to unfold in the news. The story was filled with abhorrent racist overtones: Five African American and Hispanic boys were convicted of raping a white woman as she was jogging in the park, even though the crime-scene DNA did not match any of the teens. They were depicted in the media as wild animals, and unjustly imprisoned on sentences ranging from five to 13 years. Their forced confessions, the wrongful convictions and white America’s misplaced rage all fed off old stereotypes of black men’s lustful, violent and uncontrollable behavior toward white women, the same stereotypes that had convicted the Scottsboro boys and caused countless other African American men to be lynched, castrated and burned alive.
Like my friend, many people have invoked this long and horrific history when examining the sexual assault accusations against Bill Cosby. Many black folks feel suspicious, agitated and afraid when they see white women charging an African American man with sexual violence. Admitting that Cosby is a rapist would feel like giving in to white America’s age-old stereotypes about black men. It would be akin to validating fears that African American men are lustful and violent. It would be taking away one of our greatest and most inspiring role models – one many African Americans feel we can’t afford to lose.
Eventually, it was the vicious anger that some directed at Barbara Bowman, Victoria Valentino and the other courageous women who spoke up about their assaults by Cosby that convinced me to come forward. I saw in their eyes the same deep pain that I had been experiencing silently for years. Other women of color started speaking up to say they had been drugged and/or sexually assaulted by Cosby, too, and model Beverly Johnson eventually joined them. When I finally told my story in the New York Daily News in November, it was hard for me to look other African American people in the eye. On some level, I felt that I had betrayed black America. And some of my African American friends seemed too hurt by the damage to Cosby’s image to offer me any support. The friend who had dismissed the stories of Cosby’s white accusers, for instance, didn’t offer me any words of comfort.
Soon after I told my story, I ran into a successful African American photographer who asked me, “Sister, is it true?” The tone of his question made it sound like our father had died. “I’m sorry, brother, but it is true. Do not let this weaken you in any way,” I told him.
Cosby was once a source of hope for many African Americans. But fictional icons like him should not wield so much power over our collective spirit. Our nation’s greatest African American heroes have been on the front lines of Civil Rights efforts, not in our television sets. They are in the mothers and fathers who fought real-life challenges to raise us and in the teachers and professors who worked long hours to educate us. Bill Cosby did not lead the March on Washington, and “The Cosby Show” didn’t end racism. The only legacy at stake is of one entertainer, not of black manhood, as I once feared.
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