My late mother was indeed a very wise woman. She would often caution my brother and me not to envy or emulate the lives of individuals whom we watched on television. She would say time and time again, "Son, that is a part they are playing. You have no idea who the real person is."
Sadly, this seems the case with Dr. William "Bill" Cosby.
Revered as "America's Dad" from his sitcom "The Cosby Show" where as Dr. Cliff Huxtable he and his beautiful and equally accomplished wife Claire, as played by Phylicia Rhyshad, dispensed love, wisdom, and humor to their near perfect family. The Cosby Show was "go-to television" on Thursday nights in a majority of American households for many years. The show opened a window to another aspect of African-American life in this country that was rarely seen by many Americans of all races. Cliff Huxtable was the father that children wanted to have and the husband that many wives wished theirs were more like.
So it was not surprising that when accusations about the actor Bill Cosby drugging and engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior began to surface that many people, myself included, were incredulous. Not Cliff Huxtable! Absolutely no way he would do this sort of thing - and not to Claire!
But then my mother's wisdom came back to me - and I realized that I was confusing the character a man had played with that of the character of a man whom I did not know.
The week's unsealing of a 2005 deposition in which Cosby admitted that he obtained Quaaludes with the intent of giving them to young women he wanted to have sex affirms this sage advice.
All of this has lead me as a professional social worker to reflect on why it so difficult for us as a society to hear the lived truth of victims of sexual violence? Is it that it forces us to look at ourselves and our own culpability; that we so strongly believe the adage that "one is innocent until proven guilty?" What if that proof is hard to come by and in some cases has cleverly been hidden?
Always one to give the benefit of the doubt, I watched and listened as numbers of women came forth telling their stories about their interactions with Cosby. The similarities in their stories were astounding, yet in my heart of hearts, I still did not want to believe that such a significant person in my life and in the life of my community could be guilty of what he was being accused of doing. I also shared some of the opinions that were being made that theses were individuals who were out seeking fame or fortune; I bought into the narrative that it was just another attempt to bring a successful and high profile Black man down.
My tipping point came when supermodel Beverley Johnson, the first African American model to grace the cover of Vogue magazine, came forward to reveal her own frightening encounter with Cosby. Beautiful, rich, and already famous with absolutely nothing to gain but plenty to lose by going public with her story, Ms. Johnson became embroiled in this quagmire. As I listened to her being interviewed, she said it was her daughter who asked her what she would want her own granddaughter to do if she were in a similar position that made her "come out" in a Vanity Fair story.
I also noticed when another courageous individual who came forward. Cindra Ladd, a former entertainment executive in the film business and LA philanthropist and the wife of Alan Ladd Jr., an Academy Award winning film producer and the former president of Twentieth Century Fox and Chairman of MGM/UA, recently wrote about her encounter with Cosby more than 45 years ago.
These are high profile women but the pedigree of the victims should not matter.
Again, my mother's caution rang in my ears, "...this is a part they are playing. You have no idea who the real person is."
In releasing the 2005 deposition, U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno said of Cosby:
"[He] has donned the mantle of public moralist and mounted the proverbial electronic or print soap box to volunteer his views on, among other things, childrearing, family life, education, and crime...To the extent that [Cosby] has freely entered the public square and 'thrust himself into the vortex of [these] public issue(s),' he has voluntarily narrowed the zone of privacy that he is entitled to claim."
In my reflection of society's marginalization of victims of sexual violence, I am painfully clear of other historic truths. It is a fact that for centuries in U.S. society, Black men have been perceived by some members of the public as over sexualized and have been vilified for a "perceived" hyper-sexuality. As a group we have endured castration, torture, and lynching merely at the accusation that we acted sexually - especially towards White women. It is also worth noting that Hannibal Burress, himself a Black comedian, was the person who reenergized the allegations when his comedy sketch Cosby went viral.
As I thought about all of this I was reminded of the words of the late feminist Audre Lorde who said:
"I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.' In retrospect that is the risk that many of these women have taken. Lorde also said "When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak."
So to those women who risked so much to speak - thank you.
Cliff and Claire Huxtable and their wonderful family can still be the idealized version of what a family can be. I am heeding my late mother's sage advice and no longer confusing the characters that they play with real life.