“Would Theo do that to Heathcliff Huxtable?”
Dad looked down at me through his Spectacles of Disapproval, which is the name I gave his thick eyeglasses whenever I found myself disappointing him, which was fairly often. This particular event was so long ago that I don’t even recall my infraction now. He often turned to humor in these teachable moments, not realizing that from my juvenile perspective, this only served to further humiliate and rub my nose deep into the stench of my error. Or maybe that was the whole point. Who can understand the mind of a man with an acerbic wit? His favorite go-to move was, “Would Theo do that to Heathcliff Huxtable?”
With my practiced apologetic smile firmly affixed, internally, I winced each time he went to that sanctimonious well. The reasons were threefold; (1) Dad, being lower-middleclass, was in no way making Dr. Huxtable money, (2) Theo screwed-up constantly on The Cosby Show to the point where they could’ve renamed it The Dumb-Assed Theo Show, and (3) it felt ludicrous to be held to the lofty standards of fictional characters.
I was probably the only Black kid alive who eventually developed a deep contempt and resentment for The Coby Show and its spin-off, A Different World back in the 80’s. While family and friends mostly lauded these shows as shining examples of how African-Americanism can be lifted up if we all aspire to be our best selves at all times, all I saw was a lofty perch that I would never reach because I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t smart enough, and I wasn’t ambitious enough. The sum of whatever I thought I was, of whatever I thought my “best self” was, just wasn’t… enough. (To that end, I cried myself to sleep after viewing Spike Lee’s film School Daze, not because of the plot – undergrad, dark-skinned Blacks beefing with undergrad, light-skinned Blacks over ultimately senseless tribalism – but because I knew that my best-self wasn’t good enough to go away to college to weigh-in on that ultimately senseless tribalism. Turns out that I was right for the wrong reasons.)
I try not to hold a grudge because after all, there is no ghetto parental playbook, and Dad made a good-faith best-effort at guiding me down the right path. Dad couldn’t even perceive my poor self-esteem, and I was too passive to ever consider that my perspective mattered. So much for engaging in dialogue that could’ve spared me a few decades of uninformed decisions. Still, things worked out surprisingly well for me. A Naval recruiter took one look at my ASVAB scores and sold me on the Honor, Courage and Commitment of the U.S. Navy, where I matured, continued my education, and learned that my voice does matter. As it turns out, my “best-self” was good enough for whatever I set out to achieve. That’s what Dad was trying to tell me. That was Bill Cosby’s message in his pious, cloying television shows and his cranky, out-of-touch “Pull your pants up and stop using Hip-Hop, boogie-music slang!” old-man rants. I still found Dr. Cosby as annoying as any sanctimonious parrot could be, but I felt that his heart was in the right place, so I could deal with him in small doses.
When the rumors about Bill Cosby allegedly raping women began, I instantly dismissed them as urban legends and mean-spirited character-assassinations because Bill Cosby was clearly the Bill Cosbyest of all of us African-Americans aspiring to be our “best selves”. Bill Cosby couldn’t rape a woman any more than you or I could punch an infant in the face. Come-on, now! Bill Cosby doesn’t have sex, son! Bill Cosby is asexual, like an amoeba that just wants you to speak in grammatically-correct, profanity-free sentences at all fucking times (Sorry, Dr. C.)
But then more stories started to come out. And then more stories. And then still more. And then there were stories about Dr. Cosby being a mean-spirited bully. And then there were stories that made Dr. Cosby sound like a mafia Don or some kind of evil Black Pope entrenched in an intimidating power-structure that made victims question the wisdom of coming forth with their stories of Bill Cosby’s alleged predatory sexual acts.
I was briefly amused by the perverse irony of it all (“Ha-ha! The guy yelling at us to pull out pants up can’t keep his own pants on!”) But then, as empathy for the alleged victims built, and as the details of each story became darker and more depraved, I started to feel angry and betrayed. How dare this pillar of our Black community who inspired us and insisted that we show our best-selves not only show us the worst kind of human-failings, but also fail to see the humanity of the women so inhumanely exploited (allegedly)? Goodbye, and good riddance, Dr. Cosby! The Black community will do just fine without hypocrites like you failing to practice what you preach. It’s a good thing that nothing racially traumatic has happened recently that could've used the benefit of your now seemingly irrevocably broken moral compass-
Oh yeah. The Ferguson verdict. And then the Ferguson riot. And then the Ferguson protests in other American cities. And then the condemnation of the Ferguson protests by callous people who are either unwilling, or unable to comprehend why the apparent shooting of a surrendering, unarmed 18-year-old by those sworn to protect us might upset some of us. And then the irresponsible cry for vengeance by those who feel that justice has denied them one time too many. And then the few craven opportunists who believe that this society and its rules are bullshit anyway, and so when it threatens to unravel, they might as well get theirs. And then still more condemnation by disingenuous people who will use the craven opportunists as clear examples of why shooting an unarmed surrendering kid was justified. Of course, this horrifies me, not just because the skin color of the victim is similar to mine, but also because like me, he was once a human being with aspirations that won’t be met.
There is still the very real possibility that the Ferguson shooting was justified, though I still have my doubts. This is also a tough sell to most Black people because there are far too many instances of us having excessive force used on us for no justifiable reason. Many socially-conscious White people are rightfully outraged by these injustices, but if your skin color is similar to mine, you are most likely terrified. I fear being mugged by criminals, but I also fear being questioned by the police, and I have never committed a crime. Lest I forget, there are always more reminders that my “best self” is still just one misunderstanding and/or sudden-move away from being carried away from the scene of my death in a coroner bag. There will always be more reminders that I, a U.S. Navy Veteran, can be stopped-and-frisked for “fitting-the-description” or accidentally gunned-down for reaching for my wallet after a routine traffic stop (Good thing there was a dashboard camera, right? Also, why aren’t all police required to have cameras?)
A glib, stuffed-shirt will stare into a teleprompter and ponder nothing while parroting the words on his screen that form sentences of legions of air-tight strawmen like “what if he wasn’t surrendering?” Which makes sense because what if I pushed a guy and shoplifted cigars so I can go “stuntin'” (apologies to Dr. Cosby for the hip-hop slang) like some kind of gang-banging rap star? See? The shooting would be justified, right? And then regardless of what we believe, we will inevitably retreat to our respective echo chambers instead of summoning the hairsbreadth of empathy required to listen to one another while having an actual conversation about race and racism.
It is ludicrous, even laughable, to suggest that an elderly, out-of-touch comedian who inspired millions to achieve greatness could somehow bridge the widening gulf of racial mistrust and dehumanizing violence if only he wasn’t an alleged predatory serial-rapist. (As early as last week, my previous sentence would’ve been rejected as a failed plot-pitch for Law and Order: SVU) But in times like these, with social injustice and it’s inevitable backlash threatening to smolder and burn away everything we struggle to hold together, with empathy for others evaporating in the harsh drought of national tribalism, willful ignorance, and staggering apathy, I now find myself wondering…
Who among us in our race – the human race – will step up to remind us of who we aspire to be?