After the recent mistrial of Andrea Constand’s rape case against him, Bill Cosby’s announcement that he would go on tour to raise awareness about how men could avoid being accused of sexual assault seemed a slap in the face to the many women he allegedly raped. Predictably, the backlash against Cosby for this announcement was quite vocal. In defense, his lawyer insisted the town halls would be educational and focused on restoring Cosby’s legacy, but doubted that he would be speaking publicly or holding town halls prior to his retrial, which has now been rescheduled to begin November 6 in Norristown, Pennsylvania. Still, it is hard not to interpret the hasty backpedaling in Cosby’s camp at this point as a form of damage control in response to the media backlash. The emphasis on convening town halls to educate his audiences and “restore his legacy” obscures the pain of the over 60 women, including Constand, who claim that Cosby drugged and raped them over the past five decades and implies that if there were any victim in the legal proceedings, the victim was Cosby. It also obscures some important histories in recent years and in the distant past.
It is ironic that Cosby proposed to reach out to young audiences considering the infamous “pound cake speech” that he made at a 2004 NAACP ceremony commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, a condescending diatribe linking black homicidal deaths to the trivial theft of things like pound cake and Coca-Cola and lambasting black youth for their vernacular language, dropout rates, parenting habits, and criminality. The proposed town halls sounded doubly ironic because they implied Cosby to be a truth teller who has been wronged and should be believed, instead of the many women who made allegations against him and whom such sanctimonious forums threatened to further discredit. If Cosby has lost the battle to clear his name in the court of public opinion, he is obviously invested in continuing the war to defend it at their expense, even as his many women accusers will not have similar opportunities to have their voices heard before public audiences or in a court of law. That some churches reportedly signed on to host his town halls reinforces the moral high ground and authority that Cosby is now attempting to claim at the expense of his alleged victims.
That the announcement of the town halls was initially made in Birmingham, Alabama, seemed like an attempt to align the case against Cosby to historical civil rights struggles and, most notably, those of the nine young black boys falsely accused of raping two white women on a train in the infamous Scottsboro case in 1931. Recollecting their story alongside the kidnapping and brutal gang-rape in 1944 of Recy Taylor in Abbeville, Alabama, by a group of six white men who were never charged or held accountable even when they admitted to committing this crime, suggests what was truly at stake in Cosby’s proposal to take his town hall tour to Alabama and aligns his agenda more with histories of racial oppression than with the black liberation struggle.
To be sure, that Cosby is a wealthy and prominent black man accused of rape by a predominately white group of women inevitably recollects the myth of the black rapist that emerged during the Reconstruction era, which routinely pathologized and criminalized black men as rapists and served as a rationale for lynching, in many cases on the basis of false allegations. These perceptions fed the taboos and legal prohibitions against interracial sex and marriage in the Jim Crow South and fueled the panic and fear about interracial rape, which also inflected racial dynamics at a national level, as works such as Richard Wright’s classic 1940 novel Native Son suggest.
However, Cosby’s appropriation of this painful and traumatizing raced, sexed, and gendered history in an attempt to vindicate himself is an insult to black men who have truly been victimized historically within a racist system, just as many critics found outrageous Clarence Thomas’s claim that he was the victim of a “high tech lynching” as the Senate Judiciary Committee interrogated him in 1991 for allegations he had sexually harassed Anita Hill. Moreover, the centering and prioritization of this narrative in Cosby’s case also obscures the sexual violence and abuse that black women, such as Taylor, routinely experienced from the time of slavery at the hands of white men as well as their rape and sexual abuse at the hands of black men.
What happened over decades to Cosby’s alleged victims sounds bizarre and truly disturbing. The allegations are all the more troubling and terrifying because the drugged, comatose state that Cosby allegedly fetishized and imposed on his victims recalls classic horror films starring Bela Lugosi and seems designed to rob women of agency, consciousness, and choice in his encounters with them. In the face of these claims, he does not need anyone making excuses for him. He needs help. The problems with Cosby’s behavior and his pattern of drugging women to subdue and gain power and control over their bodies are still very transparent. Whether he convenes town halls or not, he will never erase or silence them.