One of the most frequently asked topics discussed by my peers, family, and even students deals with the entire Bill Cosby matter. ‘Do you think that he did it?’ ‘Don’t you think that these white women are trying to bring a brother down?’ I answer nary a word in response to the allegations being hurled against the nation’s most revered Black TV dad. Although I would hate for the allegations to be true, life has taught me that fame and morality do not exist on the same continuum.
As someone who writes about manhood, race, and culture; most think it strange that I have avoided this entire episode. The primary reason for my silence is that I have, without any actual evidence, an innate urge to defend Mr. Cosby from his white accusers. This urge is heightened by the unprecedented manner that whites have attacked Mr. Cosby’s legacy, a manner that appears from my perspective, and the vast majority of African-Americans, to be reserved for Black men. Consequently, I have not commented on this matter because I would never want to be viewed as one of those that piled onto one of my own.
The only reason that I am even commenting on this issue at this moment is the recent piece written by Jewel Allison, the author of Stealing Peace: Let’s Talk about Racism, which raises several significant issues regarding racial allegiance and its cost on my people’s soul. Ms. Allison alleges that she, like droves of other women, were victimized by Mr. Bill Cosby and has finally discovered the courage to speak out.
What makes her story so much different from the white women who have accused Mr. Cosby is that they cowered in the face of his celebrity status, Jewel Allison has had to factor in one other variable regarding her speaking out against Cosby. That additional variable is race, what W.E.B. Du Bois refers to as ‘the problem of the twentieth-century.’ Ms. Allison hesitated in the face of the same dilemma that has silenced not only my pen, but also the pens of many other African-American writers.
Jewel Allison relates that race trumped rape, a dubious decision that calls for one to ignore their personal injury (rape) for the good of the collective (race). A situation that grows more awkward when one reflects that it was a ‘brother’ who caused the injury. Unfortunately, I have witnessed such flawed thinking repeated in a host of arenas on a daily basis. During such moments, we often give our people a pass in public, due to our realization that we are inextricably linked with one another and public criticism of their actions or behavior before outsiders invariably leads to a disparaging eye being cast upon ourselves; or at least that is what the paranoia that being Black in America has engendered within us. Jewel Allison relates this peculiar quandary when she pens that “As an African American woman, I felt the stakes for me were even higher. Historic images of black men being vilified en masse as sexually violent sent chills through my body. Telling my story wouldn’t only help bring down Cosby; I feared it would undermine the entire African American community.”
The previously mentioned W.E.B. Du Bois advanced an idea in his magnum opus, The Souls of Black Folk, that is particularly useful in discussing this matter, Du Bois posited that African-Americans have a dual identity as they are both Black and an American. I think that Du Bois is correct in his assessment of multiple identities, however, there are many more than two running concurrently. When examined under such a construct, many of the African-American women I know appear to have a legion of identities: Female, Black, mother, sister, womanist, activist, Black Nationalist, etc. Jewel Allison wondered, as so many of us does, where does our allegiance lie, what is at the top of this Gumbo of identities? Most would argue that our collective history and present plight mandate that race should occupy positions one through twenty. Those who dare to disagree with such priorities run the risk of ostracism and ridicule from those they do and do not know.
Put simply, it appears that we are a slave to the social construct of race. Although geneticists have repeatedly stated that race does not exist, the historical experiences of our ancestors and our personal daily interactions with a hostile white world tell us different. So I understand Jewel Allison’s dilemma as I, and the vast majority of African-Americans have been taught to ‘hold the race line’ regardless of the circumstances, particularly when one considers that the failure to do so will ultimately end in the extermination of our kind. The saying ‘united we stand and divided we fall’ appears to be a foundational principle for African-Americans when it comes to defending our own against any attack, hurt, or harm from outsiders.
We seemingly fail to remember that African-Americans are only human and are therefore susceptible to making mistakes, misspeaking, or committing crimes. However, for African-Americans when incidents such as these allegations involving Bill Cosby arise, the horrific history of lynch-mob justice that followed some white woman’s allegation that a Black man had raped her quickly appears in our mind’s eye. We instinctively move to protect the accused against what we instinctively believe is a thread-bare lie coming from a white woman.
Jewel Allison eloquently pinned this dilemma when she wrote, “many black folks feel suspicious, agitated and afraid when they see white women charging an African American man with sexual violence. Admitting that Cosby is a rapist would feel like giving in to white America’s age-old stereotypes about black men. It would be akin to validating fears that African American men are lustful and violent. It would be taking away one of our greatest and most inspiring role models – one many African Americans feel we can’t afford to lose.” After relating her story Ms. Allison related that “…it was hard for me to look other African American people in the eye. On some level, I felt that I had betrayed black America…”
Lost in this storm of prolonged controversy is the reality that in the vast majority of such matters, those defending the accused, this time it happens to be Mr. Cosby, really do not care if the allegations are true. They merely desire to win the conflict as if they are rooting for their favorite sports team. Such matters remind me of the Scottsboro Trial when whites rallied around known prostitute Victoria Price who accused nine African-American males of raping her. Whites hatred of Blacks allowed them to transform Price into a virtuous woman who knew no man. The crazed group-think mentality allowed Price’s supporters to ignore all evidence pointing to the Scottsboro Boys innocence.
Ms. Allison finishes her piece with the following litany. “Cosby was once a source of hope for many African Americans. But fictional icons like him should not wield so much power over our collective spirit. Our nation’s greatest African American heroes have been on the front lines of Civil Rights efforts, not in our television sets. They are in the mothers and fathers who fought real-life challenges to raise us and in the teachers and professors who worked long hours to educate us. Bill Cosby did not lead the March on Washington, and “The Cosby Show” didn’t end racism. The only legacy at stake is of one entertainer, not of black manhood, as I once feared.”
I wholly agree with the sentiment that it is Bill Cosby, not black manhood that is being tried in the court of public opinion. However, in light of the centrality of racial politics in America, that court will never be civil and those ‘involved’ in the trial will never feel as if they have received anything near justice. Unfortunately for Americans, that is the cost that they will have to continually pay as their punishment for allowing this nation to exist in a mode that made the ‘color-line’ its primary problem throughout the twentieth-century; it appears as if it will extend well into the twenty-first century as well.
James Thomas Jones III, Ph.D.
©Manhood, Race and Culture, 2015