An evening with Bill Cosby: An American original with wise words for our society

Bill Cosby

WASHINGTON, June 20, 2014 — At a performance by Bill Cosby at Wolftrap Park for the Performing Arts in Northern Virginia, Cosby proclaimed himself “old,” as he was about to celebrate his 76th birthday. But he sat on stage for nearly three hours, without a break, and there was never a lull in the laughter.

Cosby is truly an American original. Born in Philadelphia, he and his family lived in the Richard Allen Homes, a low-income housing project.

He started shining shoes at nine and later found a job at a supermarket. Despite their hardships, Cosby’s mother stressed the value of education and learning. She often read to Bill and his brothers, including the works of Mark Twain.  While a student at Temple University, he landed a job as a bartender at a coffee house. He told jokes there and eventually landed work filling in for the house comedian from time to time at a nearby club. The rest is history.

In 1965, when he was cast alongside Robert Culp in the “I Spy” espionage series, he became the first African-American co-star in a dramatic series. At the beginning of the 1965 season, a number of stations declined the show. It quickly became a hit.

He later starred in his own sitcom, “The Bill Cosby Show,” and was one of the major performers on the children’s t.v. series, “The Electric Company,” and created the educational cartoon comedy series, “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids,” about a group of young friends growing up in the city.

During the 1980s, Cosby produced and starred in “The Cosby Show,” which aired eight seasons from 1984 to 1992. It was the number one show in America for five straight seasons (1985-89).  The sitcom highlighted the experiences and growth of an affluent African American family. In 1976, Cosby earned a Ph.D in Education from the University of Massachusetts. His dissertation discussed the use of “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” as a teaching tool in elementary schools.

In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante included Bill Cosby in the book, “The 100 Greatest African Americans.”

One thing Bill Cosby has little patience for is political correctness or the politics of racial polarization embraced by some in the black community.

In 2004, on the fiftieth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Cosby addressed three thousand of black America’s elite at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. Cosby called on black Americans to keep their self-help traditions alive. His speech challenged black Americans to take a hard look at poor parenting and the cultural rot preventing too many black children from throwing off the veil of ignorance covering them, including disproportionate fatherlessness, bad schools, high rates of unemployment and lives wasted in jails.

In his talk, Cosby was critical of African Americans who put their priorities on sports, fashion and “acting hard,” rather than on education, self-respect, and self-improvement. He pleaded for black families to educate their children in many different aspects of American culture.

Speaking of the generation of the civil rights leaders, he declared: “…these people opened doors, they gave us rights. But today…in our cities we have fifty per cent dropout (rates among young black men) in our neighborhoods.  We have (the highest percentage of any American racial group with) men in prison. No longer is a person embarrassed because (she is) pregnant without a husband. No longer is a boy considered an embarrassment if he tries to run away from being the father.”

Cosby told the audience that the problems weighing down black America fifty years after the Brown decision, had nothing to do with white people or the racism of the past. “We can’t blame white people,” he said, “They’ve got to wonder what the hell happened…These people who marched and were hit in the face with rocks and punched in the face to get an education and today we got these knuckleheads walking around who don’t want to learn English…These people are not funny any more. And that’s not my brother. And that’s not my sister. They’re faking and they’re dragging me down because they don’t want to accept that they have to study to get an education.”

The immediate reaction to Cosby that night was a standing ovation. Later he came under attack from some in the civil rights establishment.  The respected black journalist Juan Williams noted that, “Cosby had broken with the civil rights establishment’s orthodoxy of portraying blacks as victims. That was the reason no other modern black leader or personality had previously pointed out the obvious problems bedeviling black America. Cosby had broken the code of silence.”

Three weeks after he ignited the debate, Cosby kept a commitment to appear at the annual convention of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.  Speaking to the Chicago activists, Cosby responded to criticism that he had betrayed the black community by exposing problems of the black poor to the world:

“Let me tell you something. Your dirty laundry gets out of school at two thirty every day. It’s cursing and calling each other nigger as they walk up and down the street. They think they’re hip. They can’t read;  they can’t write. They’re laughing and giggling and they’re going nowhere.”

When he was pressed about taking the pressure off white people and continued racism, he got fiery. This is the time to “turn the mirror around,” he said, “because for me it is almost analgesic to talk about what the white man is  doing against us. And it keeps a person frozen in their seat, it keeps you frozen in the hole you are sitting in.”

His words were greeted with thunderous applause.

Juan Williams writes:

“The essence of the negative behavior he was railing against was behavior that the NAACP, the black church, the Jesse Jackson activists, and the black intellectuals had long ago decided not to address. Not one civil rights group took up Cosby’s call for marches and protests against drug dealers, pregnant teens, deadbeat dads, and hate-filled rap music that celebrates violence. The only saving grace was that he had built up such a deep reservoir of goodwill that the official black leadership still didn’t launch a public attack.

They simply ignored him.”

In his book “Enough,” Williams writes:

“Cosby recounted to this author a conversation among teenaged boys he visited in a classroom. The boys told him they did not expect to live beyond the age of twenty-eight, some of them said twenty-five. ‘If you don’t expect to be alive beyond twenty-five, it is easy to do certain things, like make a lot of babies without worrying about taking care of them,’ said Cosby. ‘You don’t care if you give AIDS to a woman. And the women don’t care if they have baby after baby, because they don’t believe they are going to raise those babies.’ And there is no shame, he added. When he grew up in Philadelphia, Cosby said, a man who got a woman pregnant without marrying her often left town or went in the military or to a reform school. Now it’s acceptable behavior, celebrated in hip-hop’s corrosive culture.”

Bill Cosby is an American original. He continues to tour the country with his show. It was a treat to see his performance.

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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.
  • Robert Smith

    The More We Know. The far more we don’t.