America’s Dad is a pervert. Sadly, he’s not our first freaky father.
I grew up watching the Cosby Show. Even though the first episode of the historic television series aired well before I was born, the show has always been a part of my background. We’d record episodes on VHS so that my mother could watch them (she had choir rehearsal on Thursdays – the same day as NBC’s once vaunted “Must See TV” comedy lineup). Cliff, Clair, and the Huxtable children were embedded in my consciousness. Like many was an integral part of growing up.
Flash forward two decades and we find ourselves beginning to erase “America’s Dad” from our national consciousness. Where Dr. Huxtable once represented the model of quality fatherhood, Bill Cosby, the man who created him, has become the definition of the creepy, perverted, sexually insatiable old man. Cosby has long been accused of drugging and violating multiple women. For years, various women have risked public ridicule and shame by insisting that they were raped by Dr. Cosby. Their accusations were typically met with denial and disdain from the general population. Few were willing to accept the possibility that the man who transformed black TV and made JELLO an American icon could be guilty of such heinous acts. Only recently has the demand for answers from Cosby grown strong enough to shift the story. Sadly, this was instigated by a joke from one man and not the serious accounts of many women.
For months now, Cosby has been battered with accusations, demands, memes, and jokes. He’s been labeled a rapist. His new sitcom was canceled before it ever saw the light of day. It was too much. A federal judge finally unsealed documents from 2005 containing testimony in which Cosby admitted to buying Quaaludes for women with whom he wanted to have sex. Although this was not an explicit confession to rape, the admission, along with other information in the documents, has confirmed in the minds of many that Cosby is guilty.
The response shows just how much Cosby has contributed to our national and world culture. He was a towering figure on America’s entertainment landscape for decades. He captured and fulfilled a vision to transform how African Americans viewed themselves and how they were viewed worldwide. He put middle class black people and historically black colleges and universities on prime time television. In short, Bill Cosby was one of the most monumental figures in US culture in the 20th Century.
Monuments to our Fathers
If you grow up or live in or near Philadelphia, you will likely develop an awareness and appreciation for the great figures in American history. Personally, as one who appreciates history, I move in physical spaces that are littered with reminders of those who have shaped our culture. I routinely drive on a street named for George Washington because he used it during the Revolutionary War. I worked in a home that was likely visited by Harriet Tubman. My church sits on one of the nation’s oldest streets, a thousands-year-old thoroughfare that was used by the founding fathers to escape the invading British. My mom went to the same high school as Wilt Chamberlain and Will Smith. I attended Temple University, just like Bill Cosby.
In Philadelphia, as in many cities, we make monuments to great men and women of the past. This Father’s Day we spent some time as a family at the Spruce Street Harbor Park on the banks of the Delaware. We spent a lot of time near one of the Delaware waterfront’s most conspicuous features: a monument to Christopher Columbus. Although the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria landed nowhere close to Philly, the city decided to honor Columbus with a monument that was dedicated in the 1990s. In between taking pictures, I stopped to think about how odd it is (or isn’t) that we so recently decided to build such a large and maybe visually inappropriate monument to a man who ushered the western world into a new era of theft, racism, violence, and rape.
Come to think of it, how many founding fathers were perverts? True, none of them admitted to buying Quaaludes for women they wanted to bed, but they were still creepy old dudes. Owning people? Creepy. Owning people and getting them pregnant? Really creepy. Owning people, taking them as your mistress, and impregnating them all while being an civic leader in a society where you get to own the children you sire (and their children and their children’s children) so long as you also own their mother? That’s venturing deep into pervert territory. No matter how many excuses we make for them, we know in our collective heart-of-hearts that many of the founding fathers were some grimy dudes.
Only about a month after pondering these things while standing under the big Columbus stick, plans were in place to remove a monument to Bill Cosby. In light of the controversy, Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program has decided to accelerate the removal of a Cosby mural in North Philadelphia. When I first heard the news, the little self-righteous man who lives inside me rejoiced. Cosby was getting what he deserved. After decades of excessive moralizing, his own misdeeds had finally caught up to him. However, I quickly realized that we have a double standard in play.
A Double Standard?
We’re removing a tribute to Cosby because he’s a disgusting pervert who’s actions oppose our value system, but we’re taking no steps to remove monuments, memorials, and tributes to other equally perverted figures. At the same time that so many are agreeing to publicly shame Cosby, we’re involved in a heated debate over whether state governments should embrace the Confederate flag, historically a symbol of racism, hate, segregation, and treason. I still routinely drive on a street name for our slave owing first president. What’s the difference between Bill Cosby and George Washington or Thomas Jefferson or Christopher Columbus? Yes, it is true that without the founding fathers the United States as we know it would not exist. They contributed greatly to the essence of who we are. So did Cosby, even if to a lesser extent.
Cosby’s brilliant work helped to unravel the tangled racial mess that many of our founding fathers helped to create. He helped to define fatherhood and redefine blackness. He mastered the art of the sitcom. He contributed to the careers of many entertainers. We will soon find that erasing him from our story is an impossible task, just as we have realized that we can not erase great leaders like Washington or Jefferson simply because they were perverts.
This latest chapter in the epic story of Bill Cosby forces us to confront the uncomfortable truths about our heritage. What we must now reckon with is the fact that Cosby is not an exception to the rule. He is just another in the line of America’s perverted founding fathers.