Bill Cosby: A Paradigm of Black Self Hatred
By Rayfield A. Waller
"You're nobody, son. You don't exist – can't you see ... that? The white folk tell everybody what to think – except men like me. I tell them; that's my life, telling white folk how to think about the things I know about…But you listen to me: I didn't make it, and I know that I can't change it. But I've made my place in it and I'll have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am."
Approximately two years ago in a then widely reported visit to Detroit's working class Wayne County Community College (WCCCD), Black actor, comedian, and Jello pudding peddler Bill Cosby delivered a college-wide lecture to faculty, students, staff, administrators, and local media. Although WCCCD is a Junior College ensconced in a poverty stricken, predominantly Black Detroit urban setting, Cosby, during his lecture fiercely attacked poor Black America for its embrace of 'ghetto culture' and for what he made clear he felt was rap music-inspired 'bad behavior.' I was present at that lecture, and though the audience's initial response to his humorless extirpation was uneasy silence, a large portion of the audience quickly warmed to his broadside, offering up both applause and laughter. Since that lecture, it has become clearer and clearer, as he's subsequently gone about the country repeating his slander upon Black identity, that Cosby has actively taken up the dubious mantel of nouveau Uncle Tom, or Dr. Bledsoe.
Since that visit he has twice returned to Detroit, and both times he's repeated what's become his habit of making provocative statements before the media, against underclass Black life and Black youth culture. One subsequent appearances was just months ago: a private faculty and staff gathering, again at WCCCD. As a faculty member I was allowed into this private command performance and witnessed yet another Cosby attack on the 'bad behavior' of American Black youths whom Cosby insinuates have created their own impoverished circumstances through that very same behavior.
Although his schtick is nothing new, Cosby in recent years has amazed us by forging himself into a present day Dr. Bledsoe, antagonist from Ralph Ellison's novel, “Invisible Man.” He has appeared to become our own paradigm, indeed, he sometimes seems our phenom of self hatred and of snarling cynicism.
Though there are numerous historical figures who fit the paradigm it is perhaps only in literature that we can find sufficiently resonant examples that seem periodically to emerge inexplicably from our midst, we the children of one of the four greatest holocausts of modern times (the other three being, arguably, the Jewish Shoah, the Aboriginal holocausts of North Amerindian and South Amerindian aboriginals, and the genocide against the Armenian peoples).
With his intermittent spates of angry media appearances (such as a particularly invidious turn he took on "Meet the Press" along with cut buddy and Harvard meercat, Alvin Pouissant, in January, 2009), Bill Cosby has in recent years enthusiastically participated in some of the most overtly racist, reductive, and slanderous mass media denigrations of Black American identity and social reality since the mendacious 1965 'Moynihan Report'.
The Report, a 78 page attack on the integrity of the "Negro family" was authored by then Assistant Secretary of Labor and soon to be United States senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and was entitled, “The Negro Family:The Case For National Action Office of Policy Planning and Research United States Department of Labor, March 1965.” In it, Moynihan, who possessed some modicum of Harvard training in social science, nevertheless committed a decidedly a-sociological act of slander against Blacks in America. In the words of Gordon Marshall, author of “A Dictionary of Sociology (1998)”, Moynihan presented not a thoroughgoing attack on the prison industrial complex, the woefully inadequate funding of urban schools, segregation, racism, economic exclusion and racially biased capitalist political economy, all of which caused both Black (and white and Latino) urban poverty in the sixties; instead he presented:
"...a highly selective account [that] seemed to place responsibility for being poor on the victims themselves, mainly because the ‘lower-class sub-culture’—in particular that of Blacks—was said to be dominated by ‘matriarchy’, emasculated males, educational failure, crime, delinquency, and drug addiction, all of which ultimately were attributable to the breakdown of the family structure. In the words of the report, ‘At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family. It is the fundamental source of weakness of the Negro community at the present time … The white family has achieved a high degree of stability and is maintaining that stability. By contrast, the family structure of lower class Negroes is highly unstable, and is approaching complete breakdown."
Recently, America was afforded an opportunity to witness “The Coz” in the throes of yet another of his most exemplary sneering harangues against Black America's working class and 'underclas's when he appeared, on “Meet The Press" Some of the damage done by that particular January 2009 appearance can be tracked by the plethora of reactionary responses found in the media and on the internet.
This kind of backward anti-materialist analysis is only fostered by the way in which Cosby, an enabler of American bourgeois assumptions, is speaking along with rather than in critique of, the mass media echo chamber of a decidedly racist, and viciously unconscious, ahistorical post Reagan America, an America which, although a Black man has achieved the presidency, is still being held hostage to the social backwardness of an entrenched contingent of right wing religious, economic, and political reactionaries who fiercely oppose all forward progress on the socio-economic front.
The effect on our society of this entrenched faction's willingness and ability to lobby, to exercise influence, and to block social, urban, and domestic reform has been to delay and to sabotage what ought to be change that the progressive coalition had anticipated emerging from the Obama victory: a new WPA initiative, universal health care legislation, a swift end to government discrimination against gay and lesbian citizens, a swift end to the wars, and renewed spending on public education, urban infrastructure, and arts funding, as well as a rollback of Reagan-Bush tax cuts for the wealthy that are arguably the real root and cause of US urban disaster and collapse. Instead, those entrenched, reactionary factions have proven to be ferociously recalcitrant. As they blithely disregard what are the most salient material realities of the era, essentially leaping over a mountain of inequity just to plant their spikes in the backs of victims, Black conservatives or just plain black demagogues such as Cosby, come off as being fools at best, and insane at worst (Michael Eric Dyson's book, “Is Bill Cosby Right: Or Has The Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?” speculates convincingly that insanity might be the correct call).
This ethical myopia on the part of Black demagogery is in itself reason enough to call into question Bill Cosby's ability to do a political analysis, if not call into question his sanity. While draconian forces contradict the very idea that the last presidential election cycle supposedly brought to power a national progressive coalition, myopic Black public 'commentators' such as Cosby, James McWhorter (Manhattan Institute), Prof Walter E. Williams (Economics, George Mason University), Shelby Steele (Hoover Institution), Thomas Sowell (Columnist and Hyek/Friedman right wing economist), William Raspberry (Washington Post columnist) and the rest of that ilk manage to do untold damage to the psyche and public persona of Black Americans, using the power of access and of right wing patronage (McWhorter, et. al.), and of celebrity (Cosby) as cover for their sniping. The uncommon access to the public stage that performer Cosby enjoys extends to television, print media, and even to his ability to enact insurgent penetrations into urban communities to stand before the masses themselves and openly insult them to their faces.
He uses that privilege, one not even McWhorter, Sowell, Steele, or Raspberry can match, to cynically reinforce vicious stereotypes rather than intellectually and actively challenge the underlying corporate and social exploitation that those very same stereotypes obscure and enable. He does this, of course, because he is himself the product of, and a toady of, that very same corporate and social exploitation. He has nursed at the teat of corporate commercial culture for nearly two generations now, and he would rather bite the people who birthed him than bite the hand that feeds him Jello residuals.
Dig: he has first hand knowledge that Black ‘achievement’, what ever that means, can and will be tolerated in the U.S. only on an individual basis (and even then only in prescribed and narrow avenues of endeavor such as the low avenues he his individual self was confined to). Surely he knows that when we collectively achieve power, pride, grace, wealth, and literacy we run the risk of being murdered for it (Rosewood, Detroit and the Algiers Hotel, Tulsa, etc.).
Why, for example, Cosby demands to know, do Rap artists perform and front such vile, hateful, violent material? Surely Cosby ought to be able to reason and understand the causality of a profit obsessed recording industry and entertainment industry that controls Rap at every level now from creation to packaging, to promotion and distribution, a mendacious control that also adversely affects every other artistic, commercial, political, and economic expression in America. These forces of control have systematically sought to destroy the promotion and distribution of progressive and revolutionary artists such as Public Enemy, Disposable Heroes of Hypocrisy, Rage Against The Machine, Eric B. and Rakim, Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, House of Pain, Roxanne Shante, De La Soul, KRS One, etc., etc., etc. The global media corporations that own Rap music in America are the very same ones affiliated with Kodak film, Coca Cola, Jello, and Kool Aid and E.F. Hutton ("because it's my money")-- Cosby's patrons; the corporations and financial institutions that made him rich and put him in Bentleys and knit sweaters.
So corporate Rap bears this much resemblance to cocaine: some young Black males may sell it, indulge in it, glorify it, and pass it between themselves, but they surely cannot and do not globally distribute it. So how else does gangsta rap travel from East Coast Black community to West Coast Black community and back again? From white suburb to white suburb? From North coast Great Lakes to South Coast Lake Okeechobee and from the U.S. to Germany, Brazil, Port Au Prince, France, Spain, Brixton, and Italy?
As has been pointed out by Black scholars and cultural critics like Amiri Baraka, Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West, white corporate America is the culprit. Corporate America in the form of Columbia, Atlantic, and Warner Bros., moved stealthily and shrewdly to lay down the framework for an eventual economic takeover of Rap even as Hiphop of the late 70's and early 80's took America by storm. A vibrant, politically outspoken, consciousness raising and pride promoting cultural movement, Rap music as it emerged in the late 1970s was informed by dynamic, new urban forms of dance, song, vernacular, music, clothing design, visual, and techno art. The music's rapid development spawned literally thousands of wealth-nurturing, economically empowering, community based, ingenious, free market, profit generating businesses and collectives from Brooklyn, to Atlanta, to Miami, to Detroit, to Chicago, to Dallas, to LA.
As a result the national recording industry moved to co-opt, to dominate, to control, and then eventually to direct the very evolution of what it saw as being, for itself, the most lucrative aspect of Hiphop culture: Rap music, the music Bill Cosby so truculently attacks. The question must be asked: What really lies at the heart of Cosby's bitter attacks on his own people and his ultimate defense of the master culture and economy that won't let his people go? If it walks, talks, and squawks like it, we can and should call it by its name: Black self hatred, spelled out with pudding pop sticks.
Rayfield A. Waller is a poet, cultural critic, labor activist, and political journalist who teaches literature, history, and the social sciences at Wayne State University and Wayne County Community College in the postindustrial city of Detroit, Michigan.