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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

December 30, 2014: End of Year Stories: Bill Cosby

[While I don’t consistently cover current events in this space, I do try when I can to connect the histories, stories, and issues on which I focus to our contemporary moment. But sometimes it’s important to flip that script, and to contextualize some of those contemporary connections. So this week, I’ll do that with five ongoing American stories. I’d love to hear your thoughts, on them and on any other current stories!]
On two ways to AmericanStudy the dark story of a celebrity’s alleged crimes.
As with the stories of sexual assault at UVa on which I focused in yesterday’s post, I’ve followed the unfolding (if, of course, far from new) stories of Bill Cosby’s alleged serial rapes and sexual assaults with horror and anger. Most of them are outside of the statute of limitations on the alleged crimes and can never be brought to trial, so it’s entirely possible (at least as of this late November writing) that the story will linger for months or years with no closure, no possibility of resolution unless some sort of definitive proof emerges (unlikely) or Cosby confesses (even less likely). As such, the ongoing coverage of the story might seem like a sort of sleazy rubbernecking; but I would push back on that narrative, not only because it’s insulting to the alleged victims and their voices, but also because there are other important American contexts through which to analyze the issue.
One of those contexts has already been partially covered by one of our most thoughtful and talented contemporary public intellectuals, Ta-Nehisi Coates. In a powerful mea culpa about his own failure to pursue sufficiently the longstanding stories of Cosby’s assaults, Coates also engaged with the reason why he had been covering Cosby in the first place: Cosby’s speaking tour of African American communities, offering what have come to be known as “call-outs” that demand personal and shared responsibility and accountability of the members of those communities. It’s easy, and not wrong, to note that if Cosby is guilty of even a few of the many crimes of which he has been accused, such call-outs were profoundly hypocritical. But I would also take a step back to note the broader problem with these call-outs (one about which Coates has also written eloquently): that they demand that the African American community not include the same criminals that are present in every human community and society, ask African Americans to be “twice as good” as the rest of their fellow Americans and people. Every group—even our most beloved entertainers—has its share of criminals as well as heroes, and every type in between.
Cosby isn’t just part of the entertainment or African American communities, however; he’s also been for many decades the most famous representative of another group, Temple University alumni. As someone who received his PhD in English from Temple University (in 2005), I can attest to the enduring presence of Cosby on campus, not only in images and narratives but in his continuing active role on the university’s Board of Trustees. As that linked story indicates, as of this writing Temple has not decided whether to remove Cosby from that Board, and I don’t blame them for the hesitation—Cosby has been not only that most prominent representative of the university, but a longstanding and very significant supporter of its community and efforts in any number of ways. Of course no university wants to be associated with an alleged serial rapist; yet the sad but definite truth is that no university, and especially no public university, can afford in 2014 to quickly sever ties with one of its most prominent financial supporters. I imagine at some point Temple will do so—and at that point, ironically but to my mind undoubtedly, the university’s future stability will take a hit.
Next current story tomorrow,

PS. What do you think? Other current events you’d highlight?


  1. "Every group—even our most beloved entertainers—has its share of criminals as well as heroes, and every type in between."

    Dear Ben and fellow bloggers,

    I am an African American male myself, born 1966 in Concord MASS; grown up looking up to and enjoying and even idolizing to some extent Bill Cosby. A controversial story like his really throws in your face how far off one can be in making sweeping generalizations and judgments of what kind of persons these 'celebrities' really are on the inside.

    I think we don't want to, but sometimes we have to question what 'beloved entertainer' really means and doesn't mean.

    To use a crude analogy: I was in the grocery store the other day; picking up some dried fruit. The package label clearly says "pitted prunes." What do I do with this information if I find one prune inside with a pit in it? Do I ask for my money back? Do I never purchase prunes again?

    Kind of scary - or sobering, at least - to think about what's inside of people like Bill Cosby - and how he and others like him might even take it a step further and use that to their own selfish advantage in society.

    Roland Gibson, Jr.
    FSU IDIS Major

  2. Well said, Roland. I think *The Cosby Show* (for example) still did some important cultural work in America, and thus that some of what made Cosby beloved was tied to something genuine and beneficial. But I certainly agree with your broader point here.