"Say, homes. You Gon' Eat That Jell-O Puddin'?"
Okay, now that Bill Cosby
is ensconced in a prison
cell, wondering why he didn't liquidate his assets and
flee to a country with no extradition treaty - and,
presumably, offering to tell jokes in exchange for some
extra Jell-O pudding - let's ask ourselves this: do
we get to ignore everything he said simply because the
man now known as "Pill" Cosby said it?
Do we have the luxury of tossing into the trashcan - alongside those bootleg VHS tapes of The Bill Cosby Show - his advice about pulling up your pants, speaking English precisely and not giving your kids names with apostrophes simply because it came from a man with such epic moral failings?
Personal responsibility is not an exclusively conservative value, and some of my best friends have apostrophes in their names.
While in Washington recently, I stopped by Ben's Chili Bowl for a couple of half smokes - succulent half-pork, half-beef sausages - and realized that the picture of Cosby that had hung on its wall for 45 years was missing. So was the mural and the sign over the cash register that read something like "Credit offered to Bill Cosby and Family Only."
(When Cosby was starting out as a comedian, he used to drive down to Washington from New York nightly and, in a booth at Ben's, court his wife, Camille, who was a student at nearby Howard University.)
Cosby, once he reached his moralizing Cotton Mather-in-a-hideous-sweater phase, reminded me a tiny bit of my late Uncle Johnny, who - when you had to go to court because you got caught stealing some weinies and pork & beans from the Winn Dixie so your buddies and you could camp out that night - would give you a look that made your blood run cold.
In lieu of that look, you'd wish he'd take the strop to you.
You always knew, though, that everything Uncle Johnny said or did came from a place of love, because he'd put in the work over many years to make sure you didn't go to the Winn Dixie and steal some weinies and pork & beans.
Did anybody ever sense "love" from Uncle Bill's finger-wagging?
Hell naw. If anything, the prevailing sentiment behind his puritanical lecturing seemed to be "Y'all poor Negroes are embarrassing the rest of us with your funny names, sagging pants and jive talking. Do better!"
In his book Is Bill Cosby Right? (Or has the black middle class lost its mind?), Michael Eric Dyson laid out his case for why Cosby was "a crusader against poor blacks."
Dyson quotes Cosby from the 1970s as kvetching "I'm tired of people saying 'You should be doing more to help your people.' I'm a comedian, that's all."
Hey, that's cool, but then why all of a sudden come out chastising us like a dyspeptic schoolmaster whose shoes are two sizes too small?
Nobody's trying to hear that, Heathcliff.
Decades ago when actor James Earl Jones was portraying Paul Robeson in a one-man play on Broadway, audience members incensed by his buffoonish portrayal of the dignified actor, scholar and human rights activist shut the play down right in the middle of a performance.
Years later, the play returned to Broadway with Avery Brooks portraying Robeson: critics and audiences loved it.
While interviewing Brooks backstage after a heralded performance at Chicago Theatre, I asked him how much of the script had been changed in response to the previous negative reactions to the play?
"Not one word," he said. "It's all in how you present it."
You hear that, avuncular Bill?
Bruce Lightner, a Raleigh businessman and civic leader, has been a virulent Cosby critic for years, even before Cos was accused by scores of women of drugging and sexually assaulting them.
I asked him "Do we now ignore everything he ever said?"
"Yes," Lightner said. "Some of what he said made sense, but his moral turpitude makes him unfit to tell anyone else how to live," he said. "I'd like it better if it came from anyone else but him."
What do y'all think? Is a message of personal responsibility compromised because the person delivering it is - ahem - a pill?