I never got Fat Albert. Dumb Donald wore a lampshade for a hat, Russell dressed like a bag lady, and Bucky appeared to be the victim of a back-alley orthodontist. Bill Cosby’s distorted, funny-looking kids couldn’t shoot fire from their hands, and they wouldn’t know a weather dominator from a flux capacitor. Instead, they were a dumb and dumpy bunch who conquered the travails of life (deodorant? candy overload?) with one simple weapon—Fat Albert’s formidable moral center.
I thought about that moral center last week, when Cosby ventured down to Washington and ripped into the have-nots among us. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Ed, and the Coz had been invited to Chocolate City by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the NAACP proper, and Howard University. The triumvirate had decided to honor Cosby for having “advanced the promise of Brown.” Cosby decided to do some advancing of his own.
The comedian launched into a relentless attack on poor and working-class African Americans, criticizing them for everything from what they name their kids to how they speak. “Ladies and gentlemen, the lower-economic people are not holding up their end in this deal,” he told the audience, in remarks later quoted by gossip columnists. “These people are not parenting. They are buying things for their kids—$500 sneakers for what?”
And then: “They’re standing on the corner and they can’t speak English. I can’t even talk the way these people talk: ‘Why you ain’t?’ ‘Where you is?’ . . . And I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk. And then I heard the father talk. . . . Everybody knows it’s important to speak English except these knuckleheads. . . . You can’t be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth!”
Cosby has said his words were taken out of context, which is tough to prove since officials at Howard won’t release a video of the event. News organizations around the nation have been asking for a copy.
According to one eyewitness, Coz lampooned blacks for giving their kids weird names like Ali and Shaniqua and finished up by launching a parting barrage at the prisoners rights movement. “These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola,” the press reported. “People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake and then we run out and we are outraged, [saying] ‘The cops shouldn’t have shot him.’ What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?”
Cosby’s audience was reportedly shocked by the classist diatribe. They shouldn’t have been. Throughout his career, Bill Cosby has been many beautiful things—brilliant humorist, anti-apartheid activist, champion of historically black colleges, to name a few. But over the past couple of decades, he’s played one ugly role that his activist friends like to ignore—patron saint of black elitists.
Let’s not act like Cosby’s points are baseless. Here in New York, black activists rail against the evils of Giulianism, but shrink from confronting crack dealers. That said, Cosby’s critique betrays his own narcissism—like the dandies who worship him, he fancies himself an everyman, but he’s embarrassed by everymen. He’s been a tireless critic of fellow black comedians, many of whom—for better and worse—chose to follow in Richard Pryor’s footsteps instead of his. At last year’s Emmys, Wanda Sykes asked Cosby what accounted for his success and that of other early black comics. Cosby, clearly annoyed with the demonstrative Sykes, fixed her with an ice-grill and said, “We spoke English.”
Broken English is an obsession of Cosby’s. In 1997, he wrote a mocking editorial for The Wall Street Journal denouncing the Oakland School Board for teaching Ebonics. “In London, I guess Cockney would be the equivalent of Ebonics,” wrote Cosby. “And though they may study Cockney at Oxford as part of literature, I doubt they teach it.” The fact was, the Oakland School Board never planned to “teach” Ebonics. They actually planned to teach proper English to young kids using Ebonics. But facts were irrelevant to Cosby because whenever he walked into a cocktail party and a stuffed shirt made a joke about Ebonics, his self-image crumpled from the hit.
In the ’80s, Cosby’s elitism was relatively benign, a punchline in an Eddie Murphy joke. But amid his most significant and entertaining work, The Cosby Show, there was always a touch of bourgeois fantasy. The marriage of a black doctor and a black lawyer was blatantly calculated to send a message. You could almost see the algebra etched on Heathcliff’s forehead (Negroid MD + Negroid JD – Cousin on Smack = Good PR for Jack-and-Jillers).
There were no toilets in the Huxtable home, and the family repped for everything the elite liked to think it was. In reality, that elite enjoyed a frightening proximity to the rest of us. But The Cosby Show, at its root, was fighting racist propaganda with race-conscious propaganda. We’d survived Good Times, so the face-lift Cosby offered was welcome. But it was still Cosby doing the surgery. Which explains why, during the show’s heyday, in the midst of Reaganomics, with black-on-black crime surging, with the crack epidemic wreaking havoc, with New York (where the show was based) in racial hysteria, Theo never so much as had his pockets run.
The show’s obsession with keeping up appearances was not only a product of its creator, but of its creator’s generation. It’s no mistake that black America’s biggest awards show is the NAACP Image Awards. Ditto for the Coz’s recent diatribe. The civil rights crowd has had a rough 30 years as the old tactics of marching and boycotting have come up lame. Its leaders, like Cosby himself, are in winter, and having beaten Bull Connerism, they now stand befuddled and silenced before their greatest new adversary—class.
Race still matters, but largely the problems of black people today are the problems of poor people. In his last days, Martin Luther King turned his attention to class, a focus Cosby’s brethren airbrushed away. They could march on Washington every 10 years without having to march on their own drug-riddled corners. They ignore the ghetto or, when emboldened like Cosby, shit on it.
When the Coz came to Constitution Hall last week, he was one up on his audience. He had no solutions, and unlike his audience, he knew it. And so he fell back on what elitists do best—impose condescending lessons on ethics and etiquette. He fell back on Fat Albert, and a world where poverty can be beaten through sheer force of blithe axiom. Morality becomes the answer when you don’t have another one. Maybe we are everything the racists say we are—dumb, fat, and cute, in a really ugly and childish sort of way. But if we could just pay attention in school, stop stealing, learn proper English, and correctly apply deodorant, we’d be all right. Well, maybe not all right, but at least we wouldn’t make Cosby look so bad.