Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry
There is a black woman who works security in our building. Leaving for the day a few weeks ago, I skip our morning salutation and jump right in: “Oh, chile, Bill Cosby. What are we gonna do?”
It may be a cultural assumption on my part, but as we are both black, and Bill Cosby is a black hero, I take for granted that this is as big a crisis for her as it is for me.
Karen doesn’t miss a beat. “I don’t think he did it.”
I envy her a little. Her tone suggests she doesn’t believe it, won’t believe it, never will, and that’s that. Denial is very satisfying –I don’t want to believe it either, even though the minute I heard the first woman come forward, I felt it was true. Unexamined loyalty like Karen’s would definitely make my day a lot easier, and would mean I didn’t have to question all my dreams, and opinions, and admiration for Bill Cosby.
On some level, I’m frightened by what is happening. Cosby was supposed to have achieved the level of status that the rest of us blacks can only dream about in this country: the impenetrable power of a rich white man. Now he’s in trouble, he’s vulnerable, he’s black-in-America again – brought back down to mere mortality like the rest of us. For those who believe in his innocence, he’s the escaped slave that everyone dreamt reached north, only to be brought back to the plantation, head down, in chains.
And Bill Cosby isn’t just any black hero: he and his wife Camille, because of their generosity to black institutions, their commitment to education, and their wealth, exist in that stratosphere of black prestige with Oprah and Dr. Maya Angelou bordering on, in some people’s minds, sainthood.
And while I genuinely acknowledge their achievements, it can get to be a little tiresome having “black prestige” thrown in your face when you’re having trouble paying the light bill. Or when white America sees your black failure and wonders why you can’t be more like Bill Cosby (including Bill Cosby, himself.)
Karen buzzes the UPS guy in. When he’s gone, I clarify, making sure I heard right: “So, you don’t believe them at all? None of them?”
“No.” Her face is resolute. “I think he’s innocent.”
At this point nine women, maybe ten have come forward. I think at first that she is kidding, but neither of us is laughing. I wait for some qualification, even the slightest suggestion of doubt, but there is none. I’m having O.J. flashbacks.
I mention to Karen what I’ve read in the paper, the similarity of the stories, the fact that the women have nothing to gain, and in some cases, everything to lose. Yet, I know that I’m in that part of the matrix where for some of us actual facts or evidence probably won’t matter, either. As TV crime programs have made us all amateur investigators, team Cosby demands: “Well, if he’s guilty, then where is the DNA?” Yet, there is the unthinking person who will say when the DNA comes back positive from the lab, “I bet you it’s not even his. They snuck in at night and changed the slides.” It’s the fundamentalist belief system, self-mesmerized and unassailable. You can only nod, smile, and back away slowly.
When I ask why she believes he’s innocent, she says her biggest problem is why now, why did the accusers wait so long, why didn’t they come forward sooner, and if they were raped, why didn’t they go to the police when it happened?
I know where these questions come from. And even as more women come forward and corroborate each other’s stories, the questions don’t change. I’m not saying the accusers shouldn’t be challenged. I just wonder how many women would have to accuse Cosby for us to change our minds. Fifteen? Twenty? Forty? One hundred? A thousand?
At the time of this writing, over twenty women have come out publicly with stories about Bill Cosby – ranging from sexual impropriety to sexual assault. Still there are those who feel, and may always feel, that Bill Cosby is being framed. Maybe a mob of women could come forward and say Bill Cosby raped their whole town and still we wouldn’t believe it because, much like the black codes of the Antebellum South that once prohibited a black man from testifying against a white man in court, a woman’s accusations against a man don’t matter. A man’s denial and silence is more powerful than a woman’s assertion, no matter how many women come forward because, in the public’s eye, each of those women stands alone.
Copyright 2017 Max S. Gordon. This excerpt is from Bill Cosby, Himself: Fame, Narcissism and Sexual Violence published in The New Civil Rights Movement. Appearing in Vox Populi under “Fair Use” provisions. For noncommercial, educational use only. To read the full essay, click here.
Bill Cosby, the comedian and TV star best known for ‘The Cosby Show’ goes to trial for alleged sexual assault. Photo: USA TODAY