At its core, The Cosby Show was an absolute endorsement of Black respectability politics. The two married, professional, successful Black parents, the mostly well-behaved children educated at the best schools, and the focus on real “American” values were all a deliberate counter to the poverty-stricken, low-class images of shows like Good Times and Sanford & Son. The show seemed to always be mindful of its responsibility to uphold the ideals of what Black people could be if we did everything right.
With Bill Cosby steering the ship, that responsibility for promoting and maintaining Black respectability quite naturally shifted to him. He became not only “America’s favorite dad,” but a figure of reverence and irreproachability in the Black community, so much so that more than two decades after the show ended its eight-year run, it is virtually impossible for many Black people to divorce the character of Heathcliff Huxtable from Bill Cosby. So intertwined are the two legacies, that any attack on the character of Cosby is refuted, dismissed and shunned with nods to his Cosby Show character’s wholesomeness.
When allegations that Cosby had drugged and raped dozens of women, many of them white women, decades ago began to surface, the reverence he’d been granted by the Black community covered him. That reverence coupled with the history of the devastating, sometimes fatal, consequences of white women accusing Black men of rape, created in the minds of many Black people an impenetrable wall of implausibility. Despite the now more than four dozen accusers, Cosby’s own testimony in a court deposition, and a recording from the 1969 of Cosby performing a routine about drugging women, many — too many — in the Black community still not only don’t believe the allegations, but have taken to defaming and demeaning the accusers with inexplicable venom and malice.
I love Black people at a cellular level. I will defend our right to exist until my last breath. I have an almost iceberg devotion to defending Black men. That devotion does not extend to rapists. That devotion is not blind and irrational. That devotion is not enabling.
Suddenly, I, a woman who spends her days calling out injustice against my people, have been accused of being anti-Black. When I rage about Black men being executed with impunity, I’m a bold and conscious. When I refuse to foster the same environment that’s made sexual assault against Black women nearly a rite of passage, I become a sheep brainwashed by “the white man.” In order to love and support my people, I must apparently discount not only the accounts of more than 30 white women (because I guess the very real unfair persecution of countless Black men somehow means that no Black man can ever rape a white woman) but also the accounts of more than a dozen Black women, my sisters, by blood or bond. The litmus test for my Blackness becomes not my unwavering refusal to pander to whiteness, or my commitment to speaking the name of all the forgotten Black victims, but my willingness to defend “America’s favorite dad” simply because he is Black.
I have to be blind not to see all the signs that this is just a conspiracy to bring down a powerful Black man. Signs like the fact that many of these women did not come forward with these allegations until 20, sometimes 40 years later. I guess that would be a dead giveaway that the crime didn’t happen, except I know of people like Essie Mae Washington-Williams, whose mother was a 16-year-old Black domestic worker when she was raped and impregnated by a 22-year-old Strom Thurmond, and that rape never became public knowledge until more than 80 years after it happened. I also might be able to accept that unless victims immediately come forward, then their accusations cannot be true had I not sat at a family member’s funeral and watched her sisters cry out about how the drug overdose that killed her was the result of her trying to numb the pain of being raped by her father for 10 years, and never telling.
I guess I can just understand that a woman who’s just had her body violated in the most unimaginable way might not want to march into a police station to tell the story over and over, reliving the horror, then have that same violated body poked, invaded and photographed for a rape kit. Maybe it’s conceivable to me that a victim would just try to bury that kind of trauma as deep down as possible and pretend it never happened. I kinda get why someone wouldn’t want their sexual history put on trial and their character dragged through the mud.
I’m painfully aware that white men are often forgiven, excused or barely punished for committing rape. I just don’t see how white supremacy’s inherent leniency on white men gives Black men carte blanche to rape women for decades. And I’ll admit I’m legitimately stumped at the correlation between Charlie Sheen remaining sexually active despite his HIV status and Bill Cosby drugging, groping and penetrating women without consent that I’ve seen too many of Cosby’s supporters make.
So, call me what you want, but you’ll never be able to call me a rape apologist. My commitment to Black people is documented. That commitment includes standing for all the victims of rape who never came forward. I’m never anti-Black. I’m always anti-rapist.