Tuesday, August 22, 2006

BALTIMORE — Comedian Bill Cosby spoke at three of the city’s elementary schools yesterday morning, exhorting black children to value education and black adults to build stronger families.

“Our children are trying to tell us something, and we’re not listening,” said Mr. Cosby, 69, a father of four daughters. “You can’t walk tall knowing that someone who helped to make you never showed up to be there for you.”

He began the day at Rosemont Elementary/Middle School, then went to Robert Coleman Elementary and later to Westside Fulton Elementary. The three schools are close to each other in a high-crime neighborhood in West Baltimore.

At Westside, Mr. Cosby, who holds a doctorate in education, invited more than 100 children on stage with him, where he sat on the top step.

“These people,” he told parents, referring to their children, “are not on this earth for us to fool with, to bring up in a manner that they’re not thinking properly, that the word ‘life’ has no love in it.”

Mr. Cosby has become a lightning rod for comment in black communities since his remarks at the NAACP’s 50th-anniversary celebration of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school-desegregation decision. In those remarks, he criticized low-income blacks for devaluing education and hard work.

“I am talking about these people who cry when their son is standing there in an orange suit,” he said at the 2004 event, according to published reports. “Where were you when he was 2? Where were you when he was 12? Where were you when he was 18, and how come you didn’t know that he had a pistol? … In all of this work, we cannot blame white people.”

Since then, Mr. Cosby has received criticism and praise from black leaders and has toured the country, speaking to mostly black audiences at town-hall-style meetings.

Yesterday, he continued to voice a tough-love message, criticizing young black mothers for having children “for the wrong reasons.”

“A woman says, ‘I want something that loves me.’ Stop her. Duct-tape her to the closet,” he said, drawing laughter with this line at all three schools. “Give her a dog.”

Mr. Cosby, who has been married for 42 years, told parents to “feed your children properly” and told students that those who say studying hard is “‘acting white’ … don’t know what they’re talking about.”

He also rebutted oft-repeated complaints that there are not enough jobs for young blacks and that the government is building too many prisons. “Let them build them,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you have to go there.”

Mr. Cosby also talked about God and Jesus Christ, and at all three schools, his speeches began to sound like church sermons, with adults in his audience applauding and voicing their agreement.

At the end of the day, he spoke about responsible fatherhood to a crowd of several hundred at Heritage United Church of Christ.

All of yesterday’s events were organized by Coppin State University President Stanley F. Battle and other school officials.

Mr. Battle, in his fourth year at the school, said that Mr. Cosby came to Baltimore at his own expense and plans to return later this year.

“What he’s done this morning is amazing,” Mr. Battle said.

Mr. Battle and Coppin State officials work closely with Rosemont Elementary/Middle, funneling many of its students to a two-year-old high school on Coppin’s campus. In addition, Mr. Battle is a member of Heritage United.

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