At one time, I thought Cosby epitomized moxie.
Born in humble circumstances in Philadelphia, Cosby rose to dizzying heights as a comedian and actor.
Early on, he discovered a talent for making people laugh and entertaining people. He had a reputation as class clown all through school, and excelled in sports and on the stage. He preferred entertaining to academics, but still managed to earn his high school equivalency diploma while serving in the Navy, and snagged an athletic scholarship to Temple University in 1961.
But his talent as a comedian was undeniable, and he soon dropped out of college and began performing in clubs around Philadelphia and New York. He took his show on the road to Chicago, Las Vegas, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. before landing a coveted appearance on the supremely influential Tonight Show. The appearance marked a turning point for Cosby, and he landed a recording contract and began recording comedy albums.
In a time when many comedians were pushing boundaries and talking about sex, drugs and other taboo topics, Cosby was telling stories about his childhood and everyday life. While other African American performers were using their platforms to champion civil rights, Cosby was noticeably – and strategically – quiet.
“A white person listens to my act and he laughs and he thinks, ‘Yeah, that’s the way I see it too.’ Okay. He’s white. I’m Negro. And we both see things the same way. That must mean that we are alike. Right?” Cosby explained. “So I figure this way I’m doing as much for good race relations as the next guy.”
Cosby had the moxie to chart his own gentle, relatable, guy-next-door course in a time of cultural upheaval.
It paid off handsomely. With his starring role in I Spy, Cosby was the first African American to be cast in a lead role in a weekly dramatic television series. The role brought him four consecutive Emmys (1966 – 1968). It was the first of many successful television projects, many of which became cultural touchstones, perhaps none more so than The Cosby Show, which revived the family sitcom genre and turned NBC into a powerhouse.
As the years progressed, the accolades continued to pour in. He won armfuls of Grammys, Emmys, People’s Choice Awards and Golden Globes. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush in 2002, and was recognized for Lifetime Achievement by the Kennedy Center in 1998.
He was also a credible voice on culture and education. Even as he ascended to fame as a performer, he earned his Master’s degree (1973) and Doctor of Education (1976), both from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Perhaps that’s what made it so hard for people to believe women who came forward over the years, repeating the same story.
Bill Cosby gave me a drink. He gave me a pill. When I woke up, I knew something was wrong.
Details varied. Sometimes, the women had vague recollections of Cosby assaulting them. Sometimes they weren’t sure. Sometimes he offered them coffee, sometimes wine, sometimes a mixed drink. He offered them cold medicine, or something for their headache. They awoke to find their clothes disheveled, or their undergarments missing, or even to find themselves naked.
What remained constant? No one listened. They spoke out to workers on set, who told them to stay quiet. They spoke out to reporters, who didn’t report the story. The wrote their stories in their autobiographies, only to have publishers edit them out for fear of a lawsuit.
Why wouldn’t anyone listen? Was it that Cosby was too powerful? His lawyers were aggressive. He was aggressive. He wasn’t afraid to call your boss. He wasn’t afraid to send a letter threatening a lawsuit. And he had the money – thanks to all those years telling his gentle stories about childhood, all those years playing American’s favorite television dad, all those years teasing precious stories out of precocious children – to back it up.
I think it was something more. We didn’t want to believe that Bill Cosby was capable of such a thing.
Not Cliff Huxtable. Not the warm, affable, funny doctor next door. Not the guy who is just like us, or maybe even who we aspire to be.
The strategy Bill Cosby used to help bridge the gap between black and white became the very strategy that insulated him from accusations later on. His moxie was twisted by evil.
Allowing that Bill Cosby might be capable of such heinous acts opens the door to something darker – the idea that perhaps we, too are capable of deep and terrible wrongs. We are forced to confront the banality of evil, and the truth that we are all just one short step away from a path that could lead to our own destruction, and the destruction of others.
The boundary that divides good from evil is often thin, permeable and easily breached. No one wakes up one morning and says, “I think I’ll rape someone today.” It starts somewhere else, perhaps with a twinge of pride, a sense of entitlement, a desire to exercise power over another.
After years of accusations from dozens and dozens of women, in April of 2018 Bill Cosby was finally convicted of drugging and assaulting a woman. He was sentenced last week, and at the age of 81 will likely spend the rest of his life locked up.
I often ask my guests how they would like to be remembered. In Cosby’s case, the question of his legacy is incredibly complicated.
How will you remember Bill Cosby?