Until last week, TV Land allowed me a pleasant half-hour escape to a heartwarming, 1980s-era comedy that featured an affluent black family living in Brooklyn, New York: the Huxtables. Anchored by well-educated, professional parents — the father an obstetrician, the mother an attorney — the family featured five children; four daughters and a son.
It was testimony to the show’s star and co-creator, Bill Cosby, that it was eponymous, The Cosby Show. He was one of the biggest stars in the entertainment world, beloved for a brand of comedy that was warm, witty and wise, family friendly and folksy.
It was no accident, either, that his off-screen persona was so often fused with his role as TV’s favorite dad. He drew inspiration for the show from his personal life, and he sought to cultivate an image as a dedicated family man, a father of five in a stable, long-term marriage to the former Camille Hanks. (His only son, Ennis, was tragically murdered in 1997.)
Perhaps, then, it is karmic that an uglier slice of real life has collided with his carefully tended image and smashed it into tiny shards. Several women have recently revived decades-old allegations that Cosby sexually abused them, a turn of events that has eclipsed his lifetime of work as actor, comedian and activist. TV Land, joining other entertainment companies that have distanced themselves, has yanked Cosby reruns off the air.
That’s a jarring development — but no more so than the allegations. The accusers, whose accounts date back to 1969 and forward to 2004, say that, under the guise of offering career counseling, Cosby lured them to his quarters, gave them drinks that were laced with a substance meant to render them pliable, and proceeded to rape them. That’s about as far from Cliff Huxtable as one can imagine.
At this point, it’s standard procedure to note that Cosby hasn’t been convicted of any crime, that he’s not even been arrested or charged. It’s also true that famous men have been the targets of vicious allegations that turned out to be false, that some have been victimized by con artists looking to extort a quick buck, or unhinged personalities seeking notoriety.
Yet these charges are deeply troubling as much for Cosby’s response as for the details of his alleged misdeeds. In 2006, a young woman named Andrea Constand filed a lawsuit claiming that the entertainer had drugged and molested her two years earlier. According to press accounts, 13 other women were prepared to testify to similar encounters. But Cosby settled the case for an undisclosed amount of money.
Where was Cliff Huxtable? Wouldn’t he have insisted on meeting his accuser in a court of law to protest his innocence? Wouldn’t the Bill Cosby who has gone around the country lecturing black Americans on their faltering values have done the same?
Having spent my adult life as a journalist covering high-profile men and women, I learned long ago to separate private and public lives. Sometimes one barely resembles the other. Still, there were always certain personalities who persuaded me to set aside skepticism and embrace the public figure, the icon, the role model. Cosby was one of those.
I was charmed not only by his uplifting vision of black Americans portrayed in the Huxtable family, but also by his dedication to academic achievement — a high-school dropout, he earned his doctorate in education after becoming a household name — and his emphasis on self-help. Over the last decade, he has delivered a series of lectures in black communities around the country — “shout-outs,” he labels them — calling on parents to instill morals, revere education and recommit to discipline.
After I met him at a New York fundraiser in 2003, he insisted that I organize a shout-out for him in Atlanta. So it was that he spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at Frederick Douglass High School in 2004, chastising parents for failing the young, and exhorting the young to live up to high expectations.
I’d still like to think those shout-outs may have reached a few listeners and inspired them, even if the messenger was deeply flawed. But I can no longer believe that Cosby is an exemplar of all that he preached. Cliff Huxtable had disappeared before TV Land pulled the plug.
Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
AFP Photo/Timothy A. Clary