What Bill Cosby Should Be Talking About
Thursday, Jun. 03, 2004
It's fine to be critical. But blacks should be working together, not against each other 

There are still certain things some black people won’t talk about in front of some white people. American culture may be seemingly more integrated than, say, 50 years ago, but cultural walls remain. Racial issues, in multiracial company, are often circled until they are impossible to ignore and have to be discussed; blacks, when there are only other blacks around, often cut to the chase. But private black discourse, in my experience, is not focused on pinning things on skin color. The main difference between multiracial conversations and ones solely among blacks is that in private, African Americans are often more critical of themselves than outsiders would ever dare to be.

Last month, Bill Cosby broke the unwritten rule of keeping black dirty laundry in black washing machines. While at a multiracial gala dinner in Washington, D.C. commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Cosby targeted under-educated lower-income blacks as the source of various social problems. Among his comments: “People marched and were hit in the face with rocks to get an education, and now we’ve got these knuckleheads walking around...the lower economic people are not holding up their end of the deal. These people are not parenting.” And he mocked the way some blacks name their children: “With names like Shaniqua, Taliqua and Mohammed and all that crap, and all of them are in jail....They are standing on the corner and they can’t speak English.” Let’s hope Fantasia Barrino, Shaquille O’Neal and Muhammad Ali never see a transcript of Cosby’s comments.

After Cosby’s speech, a number of my friends and relatives, some of whom were in attendance, some of whom heard about the furor afterwards, expressed dismay at the statements — but several were more horrified that he had gone public, not at the opinions themselves. Cosby’s comments did not contain any new arguments. As far back as 1942, the writer Zora Neale Hurston lamented the attacks of those who would scapegoat the black underclass: “My people! My people! From the earliest rocking of my cradle days, I have heard this cry go up from Negro lips. It is forced outward by pity, scorn and hopeless resignation. It is called forth by the observations of one class of Negro on the doings of another branch of the brother in black.”

Cosby’s commentary is also strikingly similar to the words of a younger, hipper cultural critic: comedian Chris Rock. In Rock’s “Niggas vs. Black people” routine from his breakthrough 1996 “Bring the Pain” tour, Rock contrasted the values of middle class blacks with lower-income blacks who had succumbed to a kind of gangsta despair. Among Rock’s observations: some blacks liked watching movies in cinemas, other liked shooting them up; some blacks tried to be responsible, others thought if they merely took care of their babies they were doing something special. “There's like a civil war going on with black people,” Rock announced. “There are two sides: there's black people, and there's niggas. And niggas have got to go.”

Cosby was trying to get at some of the same ideas as Rock. But Rock made his his serious point with humor; Cosby made his serious point using seriousness. Comics who get all grave can be a drag. Nobody really wants to hear Seinfeld’s take on Halliburton unless it’s accompanied by a laughtrack. Also, Cosby’s comments deriding non-standard English seemed particularly off-base. Without non-traditional language, we wouldn’t have Public Enemy rapping “Don’t Believe The Hype,” Diana Ross singing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” or Bob Marley declaring he had “So Much Things to Say.” Without slang, we wouldn’t have the blues poems of Langston Hughes, or some of the patois-infused verse of Derek Walcott.

Yes, Cosby is right that education is important and kids should master English — but they should also be taught that vernacular black culture has worth. Certainly Zora Neale Hurston, who wrote such vernacular classics as Their Eyes Were Watching God — understood that. “Zora chose to write in dialect because she thought the language of ordinary, rural, self-educated black folk was beautiful,” Valerie Boyd, author of the Hurston biography Wrapped in Rainbows told me. “She thought this language — the language of her youth, her primary language as a storyteller — was poetic and rich and full of vivid imagery and worthy of being celebrated and immortalized in literature.”

What’s really needed isn’t a black civil war or more uncivil speech. The real problem may not be that blacks and whites are having separate conversations — that’s been true for 400 years — it’s that comments such as the ones Cosby made could be used as bricks for different groups of blacks to wall themselves off from each other. That would be a shame. Right now, on Broadway, Cosby’s erstwhile sitcom wife, Phylicia Rashad, is co-starring in A Raisin in the Sun alongside one of the most successful current purveyors of hip-hop slang, rapper/would-be actor Sean “P. Diddy” Combs. When I saw the show, I thought there was something profoundly appealing about seeing two different generations of black entertainers performing together in a classic play. Cosby, in his speech, declared that blacks should hold each other to a higher standard. Working together, and not just getting each other worked up, may be a good start.