I watched the "Cosby Show" for the first time in a year over the holiday weekend. I’d unofficially sworn off the series that had raised me last fall, when the numerous allegations of rape and sexual assault against Bill Cosby resurfaced in the news. My decision not to watch the show (which, before the scandal erupted I had marathoned every year), wasn’t wholly moralistic. It didn’t feel "right," but not just because of the nature of the allegations against the 78-year-old comedian. To be perfectly honest, I was afraid I would no longer be able to enjoy my favorite black sitcom or, worse, I would actually enjoy it and then I’d feel guilty.
By refusing to watch something I had once loved, I was protecting my own nostalgia. Nostalgia is a powerful thing. It shapes identity, distorts memory, and sits precariously at the intersection of the bitter and the sweet. Re-watching "The Cosby Show," in light of Cosby’s recent arraignment, was the very definition of bittersweet. There’s so much weight in this show, its legacy, its cultural impact, and the impact it had on me as an individual. For me, like so many other black people who grew up with the show either during its original run or through re-runs, the Huxtables weren’t just a collection of colorful, fictional TV characters. They were something closer to family.
I watched my two favorite episodes — the one where Vanessa runs away to go have "big fun with The Wretched" and gets chewed out by Claire Huxtable in a way only a black mother could, and the one where Theo is desperate to get an expensive Gordon Gartrell shirt to impress a girl. My favorite part: the screech of Theo’s cracking voice as he screams "Denise!" from upstairs, and the subsequent reveal of the knockoff shirt his sister sewed for him in all its hilarious, discombobulated glory.
I chuckled at a few jokes, even at the moments I’ve seen hundreds of times. I got the same warm fuzzies I’ve always felt when I saw the Huxtable family huddled together on the couch of their brownstone living room, or heard the jazzy theme song go over the iconic credits. But mixed in with all that familiarity was, as expected, a feeling of unease and uncertainty whenever Cliff Huxtable was on screen. His knowing smile, his playful teasing and his witty one-liners all felt disjointed and out of place. Maybe even a little sinister. It was fascinating, because nothing has changed about this show. But everything has changed.
There’s been so much debate about what to do with "The Cosby Show" in the wake of Cosby’s rape scandal. Some people have questioned how justified it is to pull the series from syndication and streaming services. They’ve argued that, regardless of whether or not you "believe" that Bill Cosby is a rapist, people should be able to separate the man from the character and the legacy of the show. And yet, how can you separate two things that are so intrinsically linked?
When reports of Bill Cosby’s alleged history of sexual abuse resurfaced last year, a part of me wanted to hold on to the distinction between Bill Cosby, the accused serial rapist and Cliff Huxtable, America’s Dad. I think an argument can be made, in some cases, for separating an entertainer’s personal life, however messy it is, from how one feels about their art. But the fact that Cosby used his Cliff Huxtable persona as leverage for allegedly perpetrating and hiding his assaults makes that impossible for me to do.
During its heyday, "The Cosby Show" was groundbreaking. But its cultural importance and impact were very much tied to the time in which it was released, and to the way American pop culture interacted with blackness. Its legacy has reverberated through television and pop culture, informing and paving the way for TV shows from "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" to "Black-ish."
The show, its legacy, and Cosby’s persona as the wholesome savior of the black community have been used as "proof" of his innocence in the aftermath of the numerous allegations against him. "I’m respecting a man who has done more for the image of Brown people that almost anyone EVER," singer Jill Scott said in 2014. It’s a sentiment that so many Cosby defenders stand by.
One cannot deny the impact the show made during its prime, or the significance it held for the black community. But what "The Cosby Show" meant in 1984 is very different than what it means in 2016. And to insinuate that the show’s social impact alone is a more convincing marker of Cosby’s innocence than the testimony of 60 women is of his guilt is to fall into the trap of nostalgia. Being talented and building a legacy does not prevent you from being a monster.
Letting go of "The Cosby Show" means letting go of Bill Cosby as we knew him. And that’s scary. It’s a kind of loss of innocence. The innocence lost from the Cosby scandal strangely dovetails with a kind of innocence lost surrounding the idea of the Black American Dream, something we have tightly clung to. "The Cosby Show" exemplified the idea that black people could be "good,""relatable" people — if they were respectable enough. It’s a narrative that Cosby himself has clung to in the decades since the show ended, chiding black folk for "ghetto" names and baggy pants.
But today, in the age of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Ferguson, it’s clearer than ever that respectability has very little to do with the way black people are perceived and treated. Indeed, it is completely irrelevant. And in that sense, "The Cosby Show" is completely irrelevant. It feels almost heretical to make that declaration. But the false deference and reverence that so many black people have placed on this show, and by association, Bill Cosby, is equally strange.
So many of the defenses surrounding Cosby have hinged on race. People have denounced the allegations as a "conspiracy," have pointed out a double standard between the treatment of Cosby and white celebrities who’ve faced allegations of sexual assault or had sex scandals, like Woody Allen and Bill Clinton. They’ve questioned why these women would wait so long to speak out, or even choose to be alone with a "known married man." They’ve done mental and emotional gymnastics to protect their own feelings of nostalgia.
Last week, when comedian Eddie Griffin came to Cosby’s defense in an interview for Vlad TV, insisting that there is "a systematic effort to destroy every black male entertainer’s image," user comments on the gossip site The Shade Room responding to his stance were overwhelmingly in agreement:
What’s disturbing is that, in seeking to defend Cosby’s reputation, so many of his defenders have done so by shaming and blaming his accusers. It makes sense to feel an attachment to the legacies and personas of our black heroes. So many of them have been unfairly vilified and demonized in the name of white supremacy. Our black heroes are, after all, reflections of ourselves. When they fall, a little bit of us goes with them.
Watching "The Cosby Show" in the wake of Cosby’s trial doesn’t make you a bad person. But using "The Cosby Show" to defend Bill Cosby, perhaps, does. That is my biggest takeaway after returning to the series.
"The Cosby Show" was and is a great sitcom. But a work of fiction, no matter how culturally potent it is in the minds of the viewers who loved it, is still ultimately just that. Maybe, as we strive to redefine what it means to be black in America, it’s time to take our American Dream into the future and leave the shadow of Bill Cosby behind.
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