I usually find a self-serving positive spin to all scandals, wars, and tragedies that I cannot ignore. Either NIMBYOW (Not in my back yard? Oh well!) or some revelation that this can change my way of thinking about a particular person or thing. In the case of the recent rape allegations against Bill Cosby, I feel like I can happily destroy one of my childhood patriarchal idols. He, along with Michael Jackson, James Brown, Al Sharpton, Walt Clyde Frazier, and to a lesser extent, Prince, was one of those male figures that my parents felt safe leaving me with, even if it was virtually, through the television screen. He was vetted as one of the people that we should consider “good” and “on our side.” I had fantasies of living in a family like the Cosby’s. I’m sure many of us did. I’ve heard stories of little girls reenacting Rudy’s “Babaaaaaaaay” performance, and I still, randomly, will spout out lines by Justine (Theo’s girlfriend) to my friend Kimmy. When my dad moved from East Hampton to Brooklyn in the early 90s and was trying to make us feel more comfortable and safe with his move to the big city, he showed us how the brownstone he lived in was “like the one on the Cosby show, see, we’re in that part of Brooklyn.” Still I knew that our educated-but-working class lifestyle with a divorce so fresh in the rearview mirror was nothing like the Cosbys. But somehow, I always had a bit of hope that it could be.
Years later, when I attended Williams College, where there would be Cosby sightings occasionally when he was hanging with Morty, Williams’ then president, I had to go through an abandonment of all hope about Williams not being Hillman. Kimmy and I even designed Hillman College t-shirts way before that line that came out!— I, as often has been the case, was slow to print. Still, I was on the step team in college despite there being no sororities, and I always looked for parallels to the Cosby vision of college. Come to think of it, this may have impacted my choices of friends. [Black table]
Then, towards the end of my time in school, 2006/2007, I began to realize that Cos was talking about my kind of people, the working class schlubs who were just trying to enjoy life in a way that was demeaning. “Pull your pants up!” he was suddenly the old man on the lawn, still grasping for control of the aspirational images that he had presented in his shows. I think this is when I came to truly understand respectability politics and what his agenda was.
Still, at that time I could not just let him go. Too many memories, and still, a sliver of hope. Today, in light of the allegations against someone who has been one of the patriarchal icons in my life, I will go with one of my actual Dad’s favorite sayings, “In order to forgive and be happy, we have to abandon all hope for a better childhood.” And that’s the part of my brain where Bill Cosby lives, in the “hope for a better past“ part, purely fantastical. In a way, that’s where his politics live, on the verge of being an institutional racism denier, and now, a rape allegation “no-comment”er. I am grateful that women (oh my goodness, so many) are coming forward and telling their stories of how ol’ puddin’ pop popped off. I think now, I can let go of all of my Cosby hopes and dreams and move forward into reality.