“Just like us” was the dream of the show, right? “Best behavior” blackness. That’s one way to think about it, the cynical, uncharitable, myopic way, the way you’d think about it if you wanted to psychologize Bill Cosby as Cliff Huxtable.
I couldn’t have known how vertiginous the entire Huxtable project was. I was, like, 10, 13, 15 years old when the show was a thing. But eventually, I could see that Cliff became a play for respectability. This is how you comport yourself among white people, young black child. Take a little bit of Howard with you on your way to Harvard. But then, in 2004, at an NAACP ceremony commemorating 50 years since the Brown v. Board of Education decision, he gave the notorious “Pound Cake” speech, where prodding for a particular kind of self-betterment turned tsk-y. He compared incarcerated black men to jailed civil rights activists, the apples and oranges of the black criminal-justice crisis. He ruminated on names that didn’t seem, to him, like Bill.
“We are not Africans,” he said. “Those people are not Africans, they don’t know a damned thing about Africa. With names like Shaniqua, Shaligua, Mohammed, and all that crap and all of them are in jail.” Maybe this was Cliff unplugged — and unhinged. Mohammed? But it was a dare to flirt with distance, to reconsider all those applications I filed, to see Bill Cosby as someone who, despite hours of comedy like “Bill Cosby Is Not Himself These Days” and “Bill Cosby: Himself,” might not be willing or able to see who “himself” actually is. I called this a speech, but he performed it like another standup special.
This is the heavy thing about this verdict. The sorting of the ironies has been left to us. Mr. Cosby made blackness palatable to a country historically conditioned to think the worst of black people. And to pull that off, he had to find a morally impeccable presentation of himself and his race. This is what Sidney Poitier, his friend and movie partner, was always up against: inhabiting the superhumanly unimpeachable. But Mr. Cosby might have managed to pull a fast one, using his power and wealth to become the predator that white America mythologized in a campaign to terrorize, torture and kill black people for centuries. Mr. Cosby told lots of jokes. This was his sickest one.
Mr. Cosby’s guilty verdict happens to fall during a week in which Kanye West brought a lot of people a lot more grief, not with new music but with a blizzard of tweets that included an expressed affinity for President Trump, right down to wearing a Make America Great Again cap of his own. Mr. West began his career as a kind of black-sheep Huxtable. (His first album was “The College Dropout.”) But he eventually gathered a sense of politics — racialized, pro-black politics. And then he married into the Kardashian family and things got as vivid and incoherent as one of Cliff’s Van Den Akker sweaters. This is how you get a blistering indictment of racial closed-mindedness like 2013’s “Black Skinhead” but also an embrace of people who’ve been reluctant to shame white supremacists.
This seems like a reasonable moment to wonder whether the Huxtable mold is one that needs breaking — or at least expansion. Mr. West presents a new vexation that’s the opposite of Mr. Cosby’s stringent black conservatism. He can be offensive and rude and self-aggrandizing. But that mind-set also feels like a way to move beyond America’s Dad. Disrespectability politics.
We’re in a moment of cleaving terrible people from their great work. It’s a luxury conundrum, one that feels like a mockery of tremendous human suffering. With Mr. Cosby, though, these are questions worth seriously considering. How do I, at least, cleave this man from the man he seduced me into becoming?
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