The first place I heard it was at the barbershop. That’s where black men go to tell stories, swap lies and pass on rumors.
It was the summer of 1985, and even with all of the challenges facing the black community, both locally and nationally, there was one thing we could be proud of — America’s No. 1 TV show and America’s favorite family was black!
The Cosby Show premiered in the fall of 1984 and quickly became the hit of the television season. People fell in love with Cliff and Claire Huxtable and their beautiful black family. So what if they led the type of life that a lot of people (both black and white) couldn’t imagine ever achieving? It was great to look into the lives of the one percent (two decades before the term was made famous).
America may have had its problems, but if a family like the Huxtables could make it, maybe so could we.
The barbershop is where you heard black men talking in dead serious tones about how their white friends wanted to know why they — that black man — hadn’t 'made it' like Cliff and Claire. And about how the Huxtables were the 'right' type of black family — the kind you wouldn’t mind moving into your (white) neighborhood.
The barbershop is also where I heard the guy in the corner look up from the domino table and say, “Yeah, Cos has it pretty good right now, but Camille [Cosby’s real-life wife] is whuppin’ his ass on a daily basis for messing around with them white women.”
Then someone would chime in about a friend of a friend whose buddy saw Cosby in Vegas at Caesar’s Palace with a young girl hanging off his arm. Soon, the conversation would drift toward stories someone had heard about how Cosby treated those women.
The older men in the barbershop would tell these folks to stop talking that foolishness — some in language that I can’t use here. Their point was that, even in the barbershop, we shouldn’t be spreading these stories. Dr. Cosby (and that’s what people called him — Dr. Cosby) was one of W.E.B DuBois’ fabled Talented Tenth. (As DuBois wrote in 1903, the problem of the Talented Tenth "is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst.")
Cosby was the 'Good Black Man' who showed that we were not as portrayed on the evening news. Running Cosby down, they believed, would reflect on all of us — black people in general, but also black men specifically.
I was in my 20’s when I first heard these stories.
A decade later, The Cosby Show ended to praise that television hadn’t seen since the final episode of M*A*S*H. There were different men in the barbershop, but their stories hadn’t changed: Cos in Vegas snuggling with a woman they knew wasn’t his wife.
The tone of their responses though, had changed.
What happened between 1985 and the mid 90’s? Dr. Cosby had taken a private (black) conversation into the broader (read white) world and some of the pride and sympathy people had had for him in the 80s had started to disappear.
Cosby had started telling white people that the black generation coming up didn’t appreciate the sacrifices their relatives and ancestors had made. This was a regular conversation in the black community, but it’s one we really didn’t want getting out. We knew what the response of the majority of the population would be: "Why are you mad at us?? Even you feel that way about young black men."
As expected, the acolytes of Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing radio hosts had a field day with Cosby’s admonitions about “pulling up your pants,” “giving your children silly names,” and “having so many babies.” But there were also moderate and liberal voices that started saying things out loud that would have been unimaginable prior to the speeches Cosby was making: Things like, "Don't they (black people) appreciate the sacrifices we made for them? This is how they repay us?"
Cosby’s words gave white folk dispensation to say that the problem wasn’t racism as much as it was black folk being too lazy to do things for themselves.
But as Cosby was saying “Come on, People” (the name of his book admonishing specific black populations), the barbershop conversation about Cosby started turning toward his basic hypocrisy.
“How can a man who has slept with so many women start lecturing us about how we behave?” became a regular question when the topic of Cosby and 'personal responsibility' came up. “You know he’s paying off some of those women just so they will keep their mouths shut,” was another common refrain.
This time no one came to Cosby’s defense.
That barbershop is gone now, the barber retired, a number of its customers have passed away, and my hair is a lot grayer. Unfortunately, the conversation I heard almost 30 years ago has not gone away — and I suspect that there would be even fewer defenders of Cosby now.
If you’re black and over the age of 50, Bill Cosby holds a special place in the world. We listened to his albums, watched reruns of I Spy and kept our mouths shut when we heard the stories about his 'preferences.'
For the last decade, Dr. Cosby has spoken about black people in general and black men specifically stepping up “to their responsibilities.”
But if William H. Cosby Jr., PhD. is serious about what he has been telling us, it’s time for him to take his own words to heart and to stop hiding behind lawyers and silence.
Then maybe that barbershop conversation can finally be put to rest.