Bill Cosby is no Heathcliff Huxtable.
I first said it in a column last year, when after years of hushed rape rumors the truth was hard to deny.
More than 40 women have come forward with their accusations, and if what they say is true, America’s dad, the iconic comedian loved most for his role as the patriarch of “The Cosby Show,” is a rapist.
Cosby himself has admitted getting Quaaludes with the intention of giving them to women he wanted to have sex with. Quaaludes are equal parts sleeping pill and sedative. That’s rape, Cos, not sex.
And now Ebony magazine, steeped in African-American culture, is questioning the sanctity of the show that changed American television and delivered a powerful and positive image of the black family week after week for eight seasons. Most of my childhood.
The magazine’s November cover bravely features a shattered image of the Huxtables and asks the #CosbyVsCliff question: “Cliff-hanger: Can the Cosby Show Survive? Should it?”
Networks have already scrubbed themselves clean of every syndicated episode of “The Cosby Show.” What does this mean for the mark that the once-beloved show made?
The issue is polarizing. In just days it has been talked about on CNN, “The Wendy Williams Show” and NPR. As soon as the cover debuted online last week, it sent social media into emotional warfare. People are outraged at Ebony, calling it desperate and disrespectful, a betrayal of blackness.
But just as I was happy to see the incomparable Eddie Murphy roast Cos as Murphy accepted the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor over the weekend, I am proud to see the magazine talk about the hard truth.
Let’s say it again: Bill Cosby is no Heathcliff Huxtable.
He wanted us to believe he was the fun family man, the good doctor. I mean, the show is called “The Cosby Show,” though it’s about the Huxtable family. I grew up watching this family. I, like so many people of color under 40, aspired to be like the Huxtables. I once wrote a Mother’s Day ode to Clair Huxtable. That show planted the earliest seeds of my desire to excel in life.
Because the Huxtables were respected. They were loved. They were not the gang-banging, drug-ridden, welfare image of black people that the media fed to America. They set a golden standard that many of us subscribed to. That show made us believe that if we went to school and got a good job and met the right people, everything would be all good.
But I will never be a Cosby defender. Get real about rape: 1 out of every 6 American women (and 1 in 33 men) has been the victim of rape or attempted rape, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. More than half of rapes go unreported, and most rapists never spend a day in jail.
People like to cry that Cosby hasn’t been proven guilty. Not yet. But he has given hush money. And hello: Quaaludes — the same drug Roman Polanski is said to have used on the 13-year-old girl he raped.
When Netflix pulled Cosby’s comedy special and NBC axed his new school comedy pilot, the throne was gone. Still, networks axing “Cosby Show” reruns stung for many fans.
“I can still watch the show,” says Van Sneed, a 32-year-old Kansas City artist and “Cosby Show” lover. “But I will never be able to divorce from my mind what his character has devolved into or what has been revealed about his character. He passed himself off as Mr. Huxtable, so I get why people want to never watch it again. He positioned himself as a teacher, as a father figure and someone you would want to have over for Sunday dinner. I understand if no one wants to be a fan of the show because they only see him as a power-hungry rapist.
“But this cover poses an important question about art and moral relativity. Does his horribleness erase the goodness that came from the show? Do we separate the art from the artist? If not, no one can really be a fan of anything. Because if you dig deep enough into everyone’s soul, you will find some level of scumbaggery.”
Malcolm-Jamal Warner, who played son Theo Huxtable, said on “The View” he is passionate about the show’s legacy.
“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. “The fact that we no longer have that kind of leaves us not in a great place in terms of having the wide scope of images of people of color.”
As I listened to him, I started to feel differently about the Huxtables. I’ll never deny that “The Cosby Show” and its spin-off, “A Different World,” opened my mind to opportunity and ignited a passion to learn. For that I will always cherish those shows.
Did he and his famous fictional family inspire me? Yes. But I am done giving the Huxtables credit for the way blacks in America are perceived. “The Cosby Show” did wonders to counter black stereotypes, but it did not shatter systemic racism.
I went to college. I built a career. I surrounded myself with good people. And people who look like me are still feared and slaughtered. I hear terms like “you people” regularly. And I am still, more often than not, the only person of color in the room. Diversity and equality are works in progress. And well before we knew about his rapey ways, Bill Cosby himself joined in on racist generalizations, insinuating that blacks in lower income brackets were bad parents with low morals and bad kids. I guess in his mind, if you aren’t living like a Huxtable, you’re a thug.
Here’s a thought, Cos: We shouldn’t have to be rich or display a wall full of degrees to be respected and treated like humans. I mean, he’s the boogey monster and has more privilege than law-abiding citizens.
So is “The Cosby Show” iconic television that will always have its place in pop culture history? Yep.
But I am done protecting it like some sort of black national treasure. Maybe if we didn’t treat Bill Cosby like he was untouchable, he wouldn’t have gotten away with behaving like it for so long.
Don’t be scared, just say it out loud: The Huxtables aren’t perfect. There is no foul in saying so. But defending Cosby? That’s criminal.