The Sad Demise of the Bill Cosby Legacy

What the new and renewed allegations against the comedian mean to a black man who grew up idolizing him.

Philadelphia sounded like such a wonderful place. It was the 1960s, and I was a young black kid, growing up on the side of Kansas City where kids like me grew up while attending school on the other side. I took crosstown buses to get there once I was old enough to travel alone.

I’d been places already: They had names like Savannah, Lufkin and Los Angeles, places where I had family. One of those places went up in flames in 1965, the year before I visited: The rioters torched the building next door but spared my uncle’s package store. Three years later, on the night after Martin Luther King was killed, two business districts near my home also went up in flames while I remained indoors, watching the conflagration on TV.

But I had no relatives in the Northeast. I knew nothing about Columbia Avenue, and they didn’t show that one on TV. I did, however, know about the Ninth Street Bridge, and racing go-karts down a street that “went straight down for a quarter mile and emptied out — onto a freeway.”

And that was Bill Cosby’s doing.

THE STREETS OF Cosby’s childhood, as revealed in his many 1960s albums featuring tales from his youth, were filled with fun and adventure, so much so that, when I moved here in 1983, I vowed that I would replicate one of the things he did as a kid.

No, not ride a go-kart down a Roosevelt Expressway off-ramp, which I would discover was the site of that one monologue from Wonderfulness. It was to retrace one of the strange plays his pals would call when they played “Street Football”:

“Cosby, you go down to Third Street. Catch the J bus. Have them open the doors at 18th Street. I’ll fake it to you.”

I can now walk to the J bus in about five minutes, but I doubt I’ll ever run that play now.

And that’s because the innocence has been drained from that world. And that too is largely Bill Cosby’s doing.

This week, three more women have added their voices to the chorus of stories that have surfaced (or resurfaced) in the wake of a comedian’s provocative accusation in Philadelphia that “America’s Dad” is a rapist. And one more voice rose in Cosby’s defense: that of Phylicia Rashad, the actress who played his wife on The Cosby Show. Rashad yesterday said she was misquoted in the original interview where she referred to the accusations as “orchestrated,” no doubt because her remarks made it sound like she was completely dismissing them as made up, a charge perhaps as problematic as the allegations themselves. But she stood by her characterization of what’s happening as “the obliteration of a legacy.”

She is right about that, and the sad thing is, a lot of us who would love to defend Cosby the way his real wife has are finding it difficult or impossible to do so because the allegations are so numerous. It feels as though a personal legacy has been taken away from me.

THE SIXTIES AND SEVENTIES produced a slew of groundbreaking African-American comedians: Flip Wilson, Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor. All of them offered a distinctive take on both the black experience and the American one. But the one who touched me most was Bill Cosby. His humor, to me, spoke to something common in all of us: our childlike sense of awe and wonder at the world around us. He did it with a distinctively black accent, but in a way that brought everyone into his story. I’ve tried to live my own life that way, with varying success.

A lot of what I learned about Philadelphia growing up came from Cosby monologues like the ones I mention above. So strongly did I identify him with his alma mater, for instance, that when I received recruiting materials from Temple University in high school, I thought the school was a historically black college. (I got lots of recruiting materials from those schools.)

And as Cosby matured, transforming from standup comic into Dr. Cliff Huxtable, I followed along, again embracing both blackness and universality, seriousness and wonder. Some of my friends, noting my graying hair and my style of dress — which often featured thick patterned sweaters or a Harvard Athletic Department sweatshirt every now and then — referred to me as “Dr. Huxtable” or ribbed me gently about Jell-O pudding.

It didn’t faze me either when, in a sort of natural progression, Dr. Huxtable turned from genial dad to elder scold of his fellow African-Americans. You may not have heard it this way, but what I heard was the voice of someone encouraging us to draw on the best in ourselves instead of our lowest common denominator.

BUT WHAT’S HAPPENING now is different. The current scandal runs counter to everything I loved about Cosby. It casts him as an arrogant celebrity who got drunk on his own fame and believed he could continue to wall off outrageous behavior.

Now it may well be that a lot of this is gold-digging on the part of some jealous women, as some of his defenders claimed earlier. I can’t bring myself to agree with this view. There are simply too many women coming out of the woodwork with stories of being drugged, then assaulted, too many tales of reporters stonewalled when they tried to get answers, for me to give him the benefit of the doubt. And there are those lawsuits, one settled out of court, others just recently filed. The presence of attorney Gloria Allred at the latest news conference in which women came forth with similar-sounding stories of victimization suggests another suit is on the way.

And that is also a sad thing, for it means that, although no criminal charges have been filed against him, the Bill Cosby I knew and loved is gone, buried under a pile of allegations of sexual assault. He may or may not be guilty as charged in the court of public opinion, but the child-like innocence in his work has vanished forever. And along with that innocence went my admiration of the man.

I may yet go down to Third Street and catch the J bus to 18th. But it will be as a memorial, not a re-enactment.

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