William Henry Cosby, Jr., known to the world primarily as Bill Cosby, has solidified his career in entertainment for over five decades as a brilliant actor, comedian, writer, and visionary.
I, Spy. Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. The Cosby Show. A Different World. Little Bill. Television Hall of Fame. Presidential Medal of Freedom. Bob Hope Humanitarian Award. These are only some of his works and accolades.
His legacy, however, has been challenged by the drug-facilitated sexual assault accusations of over 40 women that have made headlines in the past 2 years, with cases ranging from 1965 to 2008.
No charges have been filed due to the statute of limitations on legal proceedings for sexual assault in various states throughout the country. There are records of Cosby settling out of court with accusers for undisclosed amounts, and as of July 2015, a deposition was released by the Associated Press in which Cosby testified to obtaining Quaaludes to give to women he wanted to have sexual relations with, as well as giving the drug to at least one woman.
Many have pointed to these accusations and court records as efforts to vilify Bill Cosby, and this has been especially important in the black community given the history of attacks on powerful black male leaders. However, the problem here is that people have a hard time coming to terms with the fact that those we designate as leaders or heroes in some regard are still human. Bill Cosby, along with so many others, is inherently flawed. In the same vein, Americans have had to grapple with similar situations such as singer R. Kelly's many statutory rape cases, Stephen Collins of Seventh Heaven's admission to being a child molester, and Josh Duggar of 19 Kids and Counting being outed as a child molester. As we grew to love these people, somehow we began to blur the lines between idealism and realism, which is at the heart of the problem in Cosby's case.
Bill Cosby is not Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable. They are both highly educated, have similar family dynamics in terms of marriage and children, and use the same style of comedy. But Dr. Huxtable is a fictional character. Cosby, on the other hand, is a very real person who built a legacy for himself beyond entertainment. In speeches like "Pound Cake," Cosby asserts that the black community should take a more active role in education, self-improvement, and proper standards of moral behavior. While his opinions have been controversial, they have worked alongside his portrayal of Dr. Huxtable to establish him as an authority, and after five decades of success, they have nearly made him omnipotent.
But this has only worked for so long. In the current investigations of Cosby's rape accusations, the judge ruled that releasing the sealed document from 2005 was justified by Cosby's role as a "public moralist" in contrast to his possible criminal private behavior. Cosby's admission has led to many discussions on the prevalence of rape culture in America, and how it has been perpetuated by the denial of over 40 women's testimonies since the 1960s, until what many Americans consider a confession. It seems that no matter how much evidence arises, there are still those who will defend Cosby's reputation, as seen in the tweets of rapper Joey Bada$$ and the statement made by actress Phylicia Rashad.
Herein lies the issue: Those defending Cosby have done so based on his legacy, not his character.
Both Whoopi Goldberg and Jill Scott, previously very vocal advocates for Bill Cosby, recanted and apologized for having lent their support without further information. Additionally, Joseph C. Phillips, who played the role of character Denise's husband on The Cosby Show, posted to his blog that he knew Cosby was guilty. Finally, President Barack Obama, in a speech indirectly addressing Cosby's case, made a statement about the dismantling rape culture in America.
The accusations themselves have caused irreversible damage to Cosby's legacy. Cosby 77, his latest comedy tour, was largely cancelled along with his developing sitcom set to air on NBC. Walt Disney World decided to remove a statue of Bill Cosby, the United States Navy revoked his honorary Chief Petty Officer title, and many have called for the removal of his Hollywood Walk of Fame star as well as his Presidential Medal of Freedom.
We cannot build and maintain a society in which our beloved and revered celebrities' victimization of their fellow man becomes the norm. We have yet to see a conviction and it is unlikely that we ever will. But going forward, it is important for us to know that we see what people want us to see, and sometimes what we see is a lie.