Growing up, my brothers and I were only allowed to watch an hour of television a week. We had to be judicious with that time because there was so much we wanted to see and so little time. In 1984, when The Cosby Show premiered, we quickly decided to allot half an hour to Cosby even though that meant we could only watch another half hour of some other show. We were a middle class black family, living in the suburbs where we were the only family of any kind of color. The only time we saw people who looked like us with any regularity was when we visited family in New York or Port au Prince. On television, there was nothing at all. The Cosby Show was a breath of necessary air. Here was a family like ours—sprawling, loving, complicated, true, black. Each episode offered a satisfying narrative arc and there was always a greater lesson to be learned, hearty laughs to be had.
As Cliff Huxtable, Bill Cosby seemed like the most charming, loving dad in the whole world. When he needed to impart some kind of wisdom or discipline, he did, but there was always warmth and humor in everything he did. Claire Huxtable, played by Phylicia Rashad, was sassy and independent but maternal and loving. She had it all—a satisfying career as a lawyer and a rich home life. Cliff and Claire were still in love after many years of marriage and five children. The kids were funny and charming and they bickered the way my brothers and I bickered but also loved each other in a familiar, fierce way. Here, on our televisions, week after week, for years, was a glorious display of a happy black family, black love, and black success. The importance of The Cosby Show cannot be understated.
The show’s importance no longer matters. It cannot matter.
There are always alarming whispers about certain men. There are stories women share as a means of self-defense. Steer clear of him. Don’t be alone with him. Don’t trust him. In the past month, popular CBC radio personality Jian Ghomeshi lost his job. In the wake, several women came forward with stories of his abuse and then there was an overwhelming tide of people who knew about Jian, how there were stories about Jian. The whispers became something much louder, more fervent.
Bill Cosby has been followed by such whispers for some time now. Bill Cosby. The JELLO pudding man. The brilliant comedian. Cliff Huxtable. The philanthropist and proud supporter of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The devil is cunning. And then Hannibal Buress started talking about Bill Cosby’s history of rape in his act. The whispers became something louder, more fervent.
Over the years, fourteen women have come forward, accusing Cosby of rape. His history of violence has been laid bare and it has not been enough. There are disturbing similarities between these women’s testimonies—often the women were drugged. Often, they were professionally vulnerable to Cosby and subject to coercion and manipulation.
There is a popular and precious fantasy that abounds, that women are largely conspiring to take men down with accusations of rape, as if there is some kind of benefit to publicly outing oneself as a rape victim. This fantasy becomes even more elaborate when a famous and/or wealthy man is involved. These women are out to get that man. They want his money. They want attention. It’s easier to indulge this fantasy than it is to face the truth that sometimes, the people we admire and think we know, are capable of terrible things.
And sometimes, it really is the people we know. Last year, I blurbed the debut novel of Gregory Sherl, because his co-writer asked me to. I had published his writing in a magazine I edited. We chatted online occasionally. I thought he was a talented writer and good guy. After my blurb was turned in, stories began surfacing about Gregory Sherl, the same way stories surfaced about Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby and so many other men. Several young women have come forward with horrifying stories of the abuse they suffered at Sherl’s hands. I was and remain utterly appalled, knowing my words were on his book cover, endorsing his words when his actions were so reprehensible I have struggled with what to do and what to say but I have done my best. After a recent article about Sherl and the accusations he is facing came out, his lawyer e-mailed me, asking me to withhold judgment until both sides are known.
There is only one side that matters. I will err on the side of the victims, whether the abuser is Gregory Sherl or Bill Cosby or any other aggressor.
It’s all so repulsive—what Cosby has done, how many women have come forward, how many women may be out there, silent and afraid, and the extent of the system that allowed a man like Bill Cosby to prey on women in plain sight, the number of people who looked the other way, who helped him cover his crimes, who allowed his trespasses because he is Bill Cosby, wealthy and famous and seemingly above the law.
Rather than acknowledge the accusations, Cosby acts like they are a collective figment of imagination. In an NPR interview on Weekend Edition, Cosby responded to Scott Simon’s questions about the new allegations with silence. He simply shook his head. On November 16, his lawyer posted a mealy-mouthed statement on Cosby’s website mentioning Cosby’s age, as if his being 77 somehow excuses serial rape.
I can’t remember when I first heard these accusations but it has been many years. I’ve always believed these women but I have struggled because The Cosby Show meant so much to me. That episode, the one where Theo tries to prove he is independent and has to learn a life lesson about money? Classic. This is the pernicious trap a man like Bill Cosby has created. He believes his artistic legacy will absolve his criminal behavior. It cannot. We have to say enough. We have to stop implicitly or explicitly supporting Cosby. We cannot justify our fondness for him any longer. We have to demand that his show be taken off the air. We have to stop supporting any of his endeavors. His art does not absolve him. Art is nothing compared to humanity, nothing at all.
Roxane Gay is the editor of The Butter.