From Ebony magazine’s “cracked” Cosby Show cover to Eddie Murphy’s Bill Cosby crack at the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor awards—it’s about time.
The cover is a triumph of what African-Americans call “real talk,” the unapologetic discussion and critique of the public conversation, specifically black life—even if it hurts.
“You know you’ve fucked up when they want you to give your trophy back,” said Murphy to a bust of Twain during Sunday’s ceremony. (Cosby is a previous recipient of the award.)
Murphy has emerged unscathed from his quip—not surprising for a comic with seasoned timing. Ebony magazine? Not so much.
Judging from Black Twitter and beyond, many African-Americans are livid and hurt by the November issue, which shows the beloved 80s family smiling under cracked glass:
I hear some of the hack contributor writers for #EbonyMag are upset with me for continuing to point out their disrespect for Black society
— Tariq Nasheed (@tariqnasheed) October 16, 2015
— Charlie Peach (@PoliticsPeach) October 16, 2015
— Tackling Tomfoolery (@MalikkaRogers) October 17, 2015
Those threatening to cancel their subscriptions (which they likely don’t have anyway) and damn Ebony to hell since “the Man” known as J.P. Morgan bailed out the magazine are likely hungry for a more complex narrative of what it means to be African-American. The Cosby Show fed that hunger well. Although having both a black physician father and a black lawyer mother might have been statistically and demographically skewed from the norm, everything else about the show was oh-so-real for black people—especially for children watching the show’s five kids of varying ages.
“The sad reality is that all those years ago black people needed The Cosby Show,” says Keffrelyn Brown, an associate professor in curriculum and instruction at the University of Texas at Austin. “And today, many years after its initial run, many still feel we need it.”
The show, Brown says, depicted black people as “gloriously regular.”
“Sure Heathcliff and Claire were highly educated, successful, and members of the upper class, far surpassing where most families fall in everyday America,” she adds. “Yet their lives were regular in a normal, white privileged way.”
Brown goes on:
They were not hustling for food or wondering if their next paycheck would arrive. They struggled over finding appropriate schooling for their children when they struggled academically, worked to balance a successful career, an engaged relationship with their children, and a strong, vibrant and passionate marriage. And for once, far removed from images of deficiency, depravity, or just outright difference from the mainstream, accepted white norm of being, black people were able to see themselves as just regular (yet privileged) people.
The past year has been a slow water torture of sorts. Cosby has been accused of drugging and sexually assaulting scores of women over the past four decades. Thirty-five accusers appeared on the cover of New York magazine, and Cosby faces several lawsuits over the alleged assaults. Fordham, Marquette, and Brown Universities have pulled their honorary degrees from Cosby as part of the fallout.
African-Americans live under constant threat of stereotypes, where people’s outcomes differ based on racial, sexual, or gender perceptions. Many hoped Bill Cosby’s issues wouldn’t bleed into Huxtable’s image, which means so much and sometimes more in an age of #BlackLivesMatter. To be sure, as far as America has come, African-Americans do live with a double consciousness, as described by W.E.B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk: two identities, one black, and one for consumption on a white stage.
It’s exhausting. This is where so-called respectability politics comes into play. The revelations about Cosby feel like a sucker punch, since the man who persuaded so many of us to love Jell-O also championed these politics so insistently (and irritatingly) in the face of evidence of structural racism. Think: punitive policing patterns in Ferguson, Missouri.
The Ebony cover is refreshing because the magazine has clearly evolved. Instead of being caught up in the debate of whether or not Cosby is guilty as charged or whether he should be forgiven, the magazine took a critical and reflective look back at the show everyone seemed so intent on protecting. Not only does Ebony come back with a disapproving acknowledgment of Cosby’s probable rapes, but the editors go many steps further, unearthing other kinds of damage that have resulted from the powerful, once flawless image of the black middle class.
The upshot is a good one: Cosby’s alleged assaults have pushed Ebony into an intersectional headspace, where it belongs. The magazine recognizes there are many ways to be black, and many types of black people who make up any number of combinations of race, religion, gender, sexuality, and class. Ebony recognizes that to be a magazine for the people, even the black ones, it must dispel oppressive exclusionary myths of who the people are and shatter, literally, the expectation some of its readership has of these exclusions.
Ebony tells us former U.S. senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s and President Ronald Reagan’s idea of how to be acceptably black in America looked just like that of The Cosby Show. And for this reason, audiences rallied behind the show, while allowing the hole that is the culture of poverty to grow deeper. The consistently highly rated show affirmed that if you are middle-class and avoid discussing race and live in a heteronormative, cisgendered home, then you are doing it right. If you’re none of those things, you’re out of luck.
Cosby underscored these notions on the show when in later seasons the Huxtables schooled hood-raised cousin Pam and her friends on appropriate behavior. Dr. Huxtable was disapproving of daughter Vanessa’s janitor fiance, and most everyone who was celebrated in the show had an advanced degree and matching spouse.
So the Ebony cover is intense—and rightfully so—because we all mourned the loss of the wholesomeness of Cosby. But more crushingly, African-Americans realized we had been buying into something that was holding many of our community members back.
Brown cautions that the fundamental problem of this controversy is not that African-Americans are upset by Ebony’s decision to present an image that shatters the pristine memory of America’s first black family. Nor is it our frustration that black people would overlook the troubling aspects of a beloved black figure to preserve a sliver of an image of black respectability.
“This show held the dreams and desires of a people thrilled to see themselves in a narrative reserved only for whites.” Brown says. “The fact that we can point only to The Cosby Show as emblematic of this fact, or better yet, the fact this show mattered in the ways that it highlighted the foundational problem with whiteness and the system of white supremacy that feeds it via the media” is the problem.
If Cosby, the man, becomes emblematic of a people instead of simply representing a troubled soul devoured by his own demons, then society needs to have a conversation about why anything featuring his countenance would stand in for anything real about millions of other black people (lingering under stereotype threat) who should simply be responsible for the good and bad they put in the world, not anybody else’s. That’s just real talk.
Deborah Douglas is a Chicago-based writer and Northwestern University adjunct lecturer who wrote for the September issue of Ebony. Naomi Reed is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis.