My grandmother loved her Jesus, her husband, and her pastor—and not always in that order. Say a foul word about one or the other and you had better tell it walking.
Bill Cosby is not a pastor and, if your name is not Camille, he almost certainly is not your husband. But for some people, it seems, Cosby is a god—deified based on his career as a legendary comedian and actor, a Hollywood icon who generously invested countless millions in historically black institutions.
When I was invited to write a cover story for Ebony magazine and offer an analysis of that legacy, I accepted the assignment with both honor and trepidation. My focus was not on the allegations but on how Cosby’s widely acclaimed, record-breaking television show came to be the standard against which black families would be measured—by others and by us. What social model did it reinforce, and does its power endure in the face of Cosby’s crumbling public reputation?
Over the course of 72 breathtaking hours, I interviewed dozens of thought leaders, cultural experts, industry veterans, and academicians about that legacy and how deeply it was intertwined with his on-screen fictional persona, Heathcliff Huxtable. An excerpt of the cover story was released online Thursday afternoon.
As the cover art began to circulate on social media, both support and pushback began almost immediately. The cover, a framed photograph of the fictional Huxtable family behind shattered glass, evoked strong feelings, even before the 3,000-word story itself hit newsstands. Some voices were glad to see the story about how Cosby’s legacy and that of his alter ego, Cliff, have been challenged in recent months. Others cried foul, angered because they believe Cosby himself is “under attack.”
“It’s difficult for black people to accept the idea that Cosby could be guilty,” University of Connecticut professor Jelani Cobb told me recently. “Certainly the long history of prominent African Americans being torn down in public lends itself to the idea that Cosby is being targeted because of his wealth and influence.”
I have been reporting on and writing about the impact of the rape allegations since comedian Hannibal Buress unceremoniously outed Cosby last year. Truth be told, Cosby’s sexual proclivities were the biggest un-kept secret in Hollywood. When he came and left town, people talked. So Buress was only saying what many already believed.
My grandmother might have been proud to see my writing land on the cover of Ebony, long heralded as the bible of black celebrity, culture, and social progress. Inarguably, though, she would not have approved of me writing about a man she revered in her living days. Still, even in her disappointment, Grandma Alice would have been quick to say, “Tell the truth and shame the Devil.”
I stuffed away my own experiences, forgot for a moment that I had been the victim of child molestation and later drugged and raped by a high school football coach. I forgot who I was and focused on the women. I interviewed two dozen people who are experts on everything from rape culture to television programming, from the evolution of parenting to the impact of the Reagan-era “war on drugs.”
I had almost grown numb to the increasing number of women who claim Cosby drugged and raped them. The allegations stretch back nearly 50 years and, if the allegations are true, he did not discriminate.
The women are black, white, middle class, wealthy, and poor. Some are household names, while others could slip in and out of the local grocery store with little notice. They have long hair, short hair. They are graying brunettes and strawberry blondes. There is even one outsize Afro. They are former supermodels, actresses, talent agency secretaries, dancers, and cocktail servers.
Frankly, I thought I was over it. I thought I had successfully put it all behind me. Then came Thursday.
As I scrolled through my Twitter mentions, raising a brow (and a mute button) to objectors who had plenty to say but who had not read the unreleased story, a colleague circulated a related news item. In the middle of our afternoon editorial meeting, I sat staring at my laptop.
“She was a gawt-damned kid,” I muttered to myself.
I kept saying it, over and over again, as I read and re-read the news. Another woman had come forward Wednesday to file a civil lawsuit. It appears Renita Chaney Hill was, at the time of her alleged assault, the youngest Cosby victim.
Hill says she was still in high school when she met him. In the lawsuit, she accuses him of plying her with alcohol that caused her to black out and says she woke up “oftentimes nude, disheveled, confused and disoriented.”
She was a teenager, just a couple of years older than me. “She was a gawt-damned kid,” I said again.
Now about 50 years old, Hill is suing because she believes Cosby, his attorney, and his wife made particularly defamatory public statements after she went public with her story. According to the court filing, Hill is alleging defamation and “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” She claims their actions were “egregious in nature.”
To say I was disappointed about the initial round of allegations is an understatement, even if I have always been bothered by Cosby’s brand of respectability politics. For the record, I do not question the veracity of the women’s stories based on the number of years it took them to come forward. After all, it took me nearly three decades to speak up about what happened to me.
“Mr. Cosby’s vast resources and high-priced team retaliating against his accusers—that deterred women coming forward for years, and still scares them even now,” Lisa Bloom, a lawyer for model and Cosby accuser Janice Dickinson, told me as I was researching the Ebony cover piece.
“When women speak their truth out loud, it is empowering,” Bloom continued. “Let the perpetrator hide his head in shame. Let him close the door and remain quiet.”
Dr. Cobb was right when he said, “It’s too early to tell what Cosby’s legacy will be ultimately.” It is a complicated question, but one that deserves to be asked.
However, if your defense of Cosby means blindly accepting his innocence, if it involves defaming, marginalizing, and lobbing salacious personal attacks at his accusers: Tell it walking.