For more than a year, we’ve watched Bill Cosby’s slide in slow motion as dozens of women have come forth to say that he sexually assaulted them. Now we’re watching in hyperdrive.
The comedian, pitchman and American icon was charged Wednesday with felony aggravated indecent assault stemming from allegations that he drugged and abused a woman in 2004 in his suburban Philadelphia home.
Since then, we’ve had the Cosby perp walk and mug shot, timelines, deconstructions and details. Other accusers have celebrated, and social media is debating legal strategies and karma. Spectacle has begun.
But for some, myself included, there is an extra lane to Cosby’s fall from grace. It is gray, twisted and largely traveled by black women, many of a certain age. It both fully recognizes and supports the justice needed for survivors, yet is the opposite of guilty/not guilty binaries. It is full of sadness and reflection on an American double jeopardy others might not know about.
Cultural critic Michaela Angela Davis calls it “a complex horror story. . . . Particularly to black women feminists, this has so many layers, and almost every one of them is painful.”
Blacks don’t have hundreds of years of crossover success stories, so black success often feels personal. Cosby predates Oprah, Tyler Perry, Beyoncé and Jay Z. He was big before Kenneth Chenault was chief executive of American Express.
“He predates the president as someone who was able to bridge this gap,” Davis says. “You felt like, in his world, people thought he was equal. He looked like he was performing as an equal man in America, free to go as far as his imagination would take him.” In the early 1990s, Cosby contemplated buying NBC.
Cosby told stories of everyday people, and “he brought so many of us with him,” Davis says. If you look at “The Cosby Show,” most of the characters were women at a time when television wasn’t casting ensembles of black women.
“Clair Huxtable showed us what a dignified, funny, sexy, grown black woman looked like,” Davis says. “Lisa Bonet was everybody’s girl crush. She defined black Bohemia when nobody had language for that.” Heathcliff Huxtable wore HBCU sweatshirts and lined the walls of his Brooklyn brownstone with black art in a way that presaged Kehinde Wiley or Basquiat references on the Fox hit “Empire.”
He was America’s dad, not just black America’s dad, and if America’s dad is a serial rapist, then the whole family is cracked, Davis says. November’s Ebony magazine featured a splintered family portrait from “The Cosby Show” and a cover story that grappled with the sitcom’s legacy. “The Family Issue(s),” the cover read.
Which brings up another searing piece of the Cosby morality play, something off-radar for many commentators, but long debated among black women:
White women “don’t call their men ‘brothers’ and that made their struggle enviably simpler than mine,” feminist author Joan Morgan writes in her book “When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost.” “Racism and the will to survive it creates a sense of intra-racial loyalty that makes it impossible for black women to turn our backs on black men - even in their ugliest and most sexist of moments. I needed a feminism that would allow us to continue loving ourselves and the brothers who hurt us without letting race loyalty buy us early tombstones.”
Attorney Gloria Allred says that many of her clients saw the Cosby indictment as “the best Christmas present they have ever received,” and the matter is now before the criminal justice system.
That’s a fraught proposition for some of us during a holiday season bookended by non-indictments for police in the cases of Texas motorist Sandra Bland and Cleveland 12-year-old Tamir Rice, in a country with a lynching history, that incarcerates black men en masse. That willingness to say, ‘I trust the criminal justice system' is a privilege many black Americans don’t share, Davis says.
The whole thing just opens our veins.
This is “the price for justice for women and bringing sexual violence to the forefront,” Davis says. But “must all our moves forward be so full of blood and pain? The survivors aren’t just black women, but as a black woman, do I protect myself and stand up for justice? Do I protect black America? Black men? That’s what we get to negotiate.
“There’s no neat place for us to sit down. It’s all a mess.”