Only Black America can pull Bill Cosby from the fire—Should they? Will they?

Bill Cosby is among the most, if not the most, pioneering of Black entertainers in his generation. The unfolding trial against him, centered on allegations that Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted dozens of women during his career, has certainly shaken his supporters and cast a shadow over a responsibly crafty, intentionally designed and decades long campaign to redefine the image of what it means to be Black and in the public eye.

Cosby’s legacy—hard-fought battles for respectability of Blackness in the entertainment industry, in front of and behind the camera—is also on trial, and the verdict in this case has extrajudicial consequences that deserve to be considered. Like Jack Johnson, Paul Robeson and Michael Jackson before him, Cosby is, and certainly represents, more than the sum total of his accusers’ testimonies. Cosby’s trial and Black America’s definitive response will stand as a go-to memorandum on how communities of color deal with the undoing of leading famed figures by a justice system that is, in all honesty, neither post-racial nor benign to participants of a certain hue. 

The accusations Cosby faces in court deserve full consideration and evaluation, not just the sensationalized treatment that the media has, expectedly, given. Timing, motives and authenticity must be factors that are vigorously considered as our society navigates this latest celebrity legal thriller. By no means should the claims of the women involved be taken lightly. But, if fairness and objectivity are still a fundamental part of American jurisprudence, so must the narrative that Cosby has quietly and consistently put forward detailing his innocence and private moments of lusty amorality.

The complexity of the trial notwithstanding, what also must be considered are Cosby’s professional actions and ambitions, which lend themselves to the idea that the man legitimately had a target on his back. It is no secret that Cosby made considerable efforts to amass controlling shares, if not outright ownership, of NBC and related print entities. The tight white circle of male executives at the helm of mainline American broadcasting and media surely had something to fear by having someone with Cosby’s degree of “negritude” joining their ranks. It is not far-fetched to envision a clan of sorts conspiring to prevent it from happening. To what extreme would such a group have gone to stop Cosby and in doing so intimidate and undermine lesser figures from even dreaming about doing the same? Phylicia Rashad best summarized the immediate emotional response that undoubtedly entered the minds of Cosby’s Black colleagues and constituents when she opined during a recent interview with ABC. “Someone has a vested interest in preventing Mr. Cosby’s return to network television,” she said.

Indeed, the swift actions to indict Cosby, a handful of days before the 12-year statute of limitations applied, is in itself suspect. So are the concerted efforts to snub the icon by excluding him from special historically celebratory television specials, the conscious and vigorous efforts to destroy his wider social legacy and retaliation against those whose careers he was instrumental in launching who have the courage to defend him. As is the glaring assertion put forward by Cosby’s lauded attorney, Brian McMonagle of Philadelphia, that there is no physical evidence linking the 79-year-old to any crime. Inconsistencies of accusers’ investigative statements aside, Cosby’s prosecution reeks of racism, retaliation and the contagious piling-on of victim-hood that only greed or desperate career revival can motivate. As deliberations advance in the less than progressive setting of Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, Cosby himself has finally conceded, as reported in a recent Los Angeles Times article, that racism and opportunism are aggravating factors in his sexually charged dilemma. “I truly believe that some of it may very well be that [racism],” Cosby stated. “When you look at the power structure, when you look at the individuals, there are some people who can very well be motivated by whether or not they are going to work. Or whether or not they might be able to get back at someone.” 

So it seems that the time is nearing for the criminal and public opinion courts involved in this ordeal to hear from Cosby’s people. People who owe more than a debt of gratitude to the man for doing a yeoman’s job of tirelessly pursuing their liberation from a future of racist, stereotypical and exploitative portrayals on every perceivable mode of projection. People who know, intimately, that the lynching of Blacks by our broken and more often than not hypocritical criminal justice system is always a clear and present danger. People who understand that being burned at the stake is, unjustly, still a part of the sick and uniquely American rite of passage for Blacks who breathe too deeply the rarified air of success and achievement. The most circumstantial of embers have already and effectively been flung onto the easily and hurriedly kindled pyre of Bill Cosby, but the questions remain: Should we or will we do nothing at all to pull our beloved blind brother from the fire?