We usually think of Bill Cosby as the jolly, Jell-O-pitching, Cliff Huxtable father figure who never gets agitated about much. But, even the jolly Jell-O Man feels the need sometimes to liberate his inner grouch.
One such moment occurred as he was being honored at a black-tie bash in Washington’s Constitution Hall commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision.
Witnesses say he astonished many at the posh affair by launching into a rant-sermon mocking the talk, fashion and spending habits of poor black people.
“People marched and were hit in the face with rocks to get an education, and now we’ve got these knuckleheads walking around,” Mr. Cosby grumbled, according to The Washington Post and Associated Press. “The lower economic people are not holding up their end in this deal. These people are not parenting. They are buying things for kids —$500 sneakers for what? And won’t spend $200 for ‘Hooked on Phonics.’ ”
Hold on. He was just getting warmed up.
“I can’t even talk the way these people talk: ‘Why you ain’t,’ ‘Where you is’. … You can’t be a doctor with that kind of … coming out of your mouth.”
And, as for “the incarcerated?” Fuh-gedda-boud-dit.
“These are not political criminals. These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. 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?”
Why is this news? Because Mr. Cosby violated what I call “BPC,” black political correctness. We should not hang our dirty laundry out in public, according to BPC, especially in front of white folks — as if white folks didn’t already know when our clothes are not clean.
Instead of candidness in our public self-appraisals, BPC tells us to sound like President Bush does on Iraq: If we’ve made any mistakes, we can’t remember what they are.
Conservative talk radio and TV hosts like Fox New Channel’s Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity used Mr. Cosby’s remarks to jab liberals who would find anything “politically incorrect” about them. For evidence, they quoted The Post’s reporter Hamil Harris’ account of other podium guests — Howard University President H. Patrick Swygert, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume and NAACP legal defense fund head Theodore Shaw — looking “stone-faced” after Mr. Cosby finished his little rant.
But Mr. Mfume told me later in an interview he felt anything but “stony-faced” that night. Mr. Mfume said he fully agreed with what Mr. Cosby was trying to say, even if he would have used different words to say it. “I just got back from the barbershop an hour ago and the conversation there is probably still going on about how we [as black people] have got to take responsibility for our own lives,” he said.
What about the conservatives who say the NAACP cares more about white racism than black self-reliance? “They’re not sitting at my speeches,” he said. “I am constantly saying black bigotry is just as cruel and ignorant as white bigotry and that the value of old-fashioned self-reliant values are what have gotten us through so many hard times. But that doesn’t get coverage.”
No, it is not news when blacks admonish other blacks to work harder. But when anybody from one race accuses or offends somebody of another race, stop the presses.
Mr. Cosby’s view, by contrast, offers a side of black life seldom seen on the news, a self-reliance liberalism. Right-wing ideologues pretend self-reliance liberalism does not exist. But most successful African-Americans are intimately familiar with it. The message, as Mr. Cosby might say, is simple: Those of us who have made it need to help those who have not, but poor black folks need to “hold up their end in this deal,” too.
Mr. Cosby was saying the same thing backstage when I interviewed him during my college days. It was 1968, but he didn’t want to talk about black power, Black Panthers or cultural revolutions. He wanted to complain that so many young blacks of my generation were wasting the great opportunities brought by hard-won civil rights victories.
In those politically polarized times, I was disappointed by his traditionalist attitude. But I appreciate its wisdom today with new eyes, the eyes of a parent.
Mr. Cosby probably feels liberated these days by a new intellectual honesty that the hip-hop generation has brought to black entertainment. This is, after all, an era in which a bright young black talent like Chris Rock can bluntly declare, “I love black people, but I hate [racial epithet]” — and receive thundering applause from black audiences who understand completely what he is saying.
Here’s hoping our new candor can lead us to new action. We need to close the gap between those who have made it and those who haven’t. No joke.
Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.