PHILADELPHIA – Bill Cosby, a cultural icon who once stood among America’s most beloved figures, suffered the latest and most serious blow to his forever mixed legacy, as he walked slowly into a Pennsylvania courthouse holding a cane and answered to charges that he drugged and sexually assaulted a woman.
It was a moment Wednesday in stark contrast to a reputation built over half a century, merging the personal and professional into one potent, visceral brand. The allegations have left many – especially in the Black community – feeling betrayed.
“This is an entire edifice of iconic and symbolic Blackness shattered by this charge,” said author and Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson, noting that “millions of people looked up to him.”
At times, Cosby has lashed out against the African American community that long embraced him. Late in his career, Cosby famously and publicly excoriated poor Blacks in a 2004 speech – comments that angered many. Dyson, who wrote a book on Cosby a decade ago in response to the incident, said his admonitions sting more now in light of the comedian’s own moral failings.
“He lashed out, ultimately, only at himself, even as he indicted millions along the way,” Dyson said.
Though Cosby had been previously accused of sexual misconduct by dozens of women and several civil claims against him are still pending, he has never been criminally charged until now. His public persona began to rapidly unravel last year, when Black comedian Hannibal Burress called Cosby out as a rapist and a hypocrite. Burress’ comments unleashed the allegations anew – and forced a reckoning among many African Americans.
Cosby had been, in many ways, a pioneer. The 78-year-old became the first Black actor in a television drama when I Spy debuted in 1965. Two decades later, he starred as Cliff Huxtable in The Cosby Show – based on his own marriage and family – endearing him to the country as “America’s Dad.”
The NBC show aired from 1984 to 1992 and was the highest-rated sitcom for five consecutive years. The 90s spinoff A Different World, set at Huxtable’s fictitious alma mater, Hillman College, inspired thousands of African American youth to attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs.
Cosby is one of only a few popular figures who can be credited with promoting HBCUs nationally, said Jarrett Carter Sr., publisher of HBCU Digest.
“(The show) came about at a time where we were slowly transitioning into having more access to predominantly White (colleges),” Carter said. “Then you had this show, which just ushered in the next level of explosion of HBCUs. It just came at a critical time. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that since the show’s gone off, you don’t have the same level of enrollment for HBCUs.”
Following the parade of allegations against him in the past year, the all-women Spelman College – one of the crowned jewels of the HBCU community – ended its Cosby-endowed professorship. Cosby and his wife, Camille, donated $20 million to the school in the 1980s. At the time, the gift was the largest personal gift to an HBCU.
Cosby has long enjoyed the loyalty given to breakthrough cultural figures by the Black community that can sometimes supersede their transgressions, said James Peterson, director of Africana Studies at Lehigh University.
“This contradicts our sense of who Bill Cosby was,” Peterson said of Wednesday’s criminal charge. “People really felt that Mr. Cosby would never be arraigned. He wasn’t Cliff Huxtable.”
Though his groundbreaking work cannot be erased, it has been tarnished by the allegations of the past year, and likely will be further soiled by his ongoing legal battles.
“There is a fatal difference now between Cliff Huxtable and Bill Cosby that can never be overcome, because Cosby depended as a figure and an icon on the goodwill he established through his characters,” Dyson said. “It does add a creepy subtext and a shadow of tremendous moral weight that will inevitably be brought up each time his name is evoked.”