Three to 10 years isn’t nearly long enough, but maybe it will bring his 60 accusers some peace.
Bill Cosby was sentenced Tuesday to three to 10 years in a state prison for drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand at his home 14 years ago. Judge Steven O’Neill ruled that Cosby will be classified as a “sexually violent predator,” a determination that requires lifetime registration, mandatory sex offender counseling, and notification to the community. As part of the sentence, he was also fined $25,000 plus the costs of prosecution.
After the sentence was handed down, Cosby was escorted from the courthouse in handcuffs and booked into Montgomery County Correctional Facility. For many, it was the final fall for a man once known as “America’s Dad,” who built a number-one rated sitcom off a successful stand-up and film career.
The Cosby Show was beamed into American households for eight seasons from September 1984 to April 1992. The sitcom centered on the Huxtables, an upper middle-class African-American family living in a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights, New York. Patriarch Cliff Huxtable, played by Cosby, was an obstetrician, son of a prominent jazz trombonist, and husband to attorney Clair, played by Phylicia Rashad.
The Huxtables were raising four daughters and one son: Sondra (Sabrina Le Beauf), Denise (Lisa Bonet), Theo (Malcolm-Jamal Warner), Vanessa (Tempestt Bledsoe), and Rudy (Keisha Knight Pulliam). The show took us through their daily family struggles, punctuated by Cosby’s unique brand of physical humor and beloved ugly sweaters.
Despite its comedic tone, the show dealt with serious subjects like dyslexia, teen pregnancy, and drug use, offering moral lessons while exposing the public to black culture.
With the Huxtables full assimilation into upper-middle class white society, some criticized The Cosby Show for not being a true representation of the Black experience. But its portrayal of a successful black family broke racial stereotypes, paving the way for a host of other sitcoms with predominantly African-American casts while generating $2.5 billion in advertising and syndication revenue.
As a kid growing up in the 80's, I loved The Cosby Show. Every Thursday night, I sat so close to the TV that my mother would yell I’d lose my eyesight. I would move back on the carpet, only to inch imperceptibly closer each time she threw her head back in laughter.
The Huxtable family was big like ours and, just like us, there was always a lot going on at their house. But growing up in a Nigerian immigrant family, we had a different culture, language, and traditions. I was just as captivated by learning about black American culture, something my parents couldn’t teach me, as I was by the image of successful black people on TV.
I loved Dr. Huxtable — mostly because he bore a slight resemblance to my own father, but also because he was the funniest, smartest, kindest man I’d ever seen. And Claire. She was elegant with a honey-sweet voice, tough as nails with a warm heart. The perfect mother.
Through the show, I imagined becoming a doctor or lawyer, studied how the Huxtables spoke to their white friends, wondered what it would be like to be Rudy, envied Denise’s fashion style, and first heard the music of Ray Charles.
In hindsight, I was studying how to be black — at least, a version of blackness that fit nicely with my parents’ model-immigrant emphasis on education, hardwork, and the American Dream. And deep down, I wished our family was like the Huxtables, with trivial problems that were resolved by the end of every 30-minute episode. If I could have climbed into the TV screen, trading our more complicated lives for theirs, I would have.
In the ninth grade, I wrote my very first research paper on the Black shut out in Hollywood, inspired by an Ebony Magazine article of the same name. The paper discussed the paucity of roles for African-Americans in Hollywood, arguing that the absence of African Americans on the small and silver screen could have a profound psychological impact on the imaginations of black and brown youth. The Huxtables figured largely in that paper and, though I didn’t immediately think of myself as a youth in need of inspiration, I fantasized about seeing more images of people like me — mainly immigrant families and Africans — on TV.
In college — while on domestic exchange from Stanford to Spelman, where I took an African-American history course with Dr. Jelani Cobb — I wrote a research paper on black comedy as social resistance, tracing black humor from its folkloric origins to the 1960’s. It was then that I began to understand Cosby’s major contributions to the field, and the role of black comedians in challenging mainstream assumptions of black identity.
Bill Cosby began his career doing stand-up in the 1960’s. While many of his peers used comedy to explore matters of race and politics, Cosby’s act rarely mentioned race at all — a fact that sometimes drew criticism, though he was ultimately regarded as a comedian who helped soothe race relations.
Cosby’s impact grew in 1965, when producer Sheldon Leonard cast Cosby in an ambitious new show, called I Spy, that featured Cosby and Robert Culp as a team of hip undercover agents. It was the first time a black man co-starred in a TV drama. He went on to Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, an animated 1970s series about inner-city kids, and his biggest success on The Cosby Show, which spawned a spinoff series, A Different World, about a university modeled after historically black colleges like Morehouse and Spelman.
Also while at Spelman, I would learn about the Cosby family’s philanthropic contributions to education, and periodically hear Bill admonishing black people to “pull their pants up” and stop blaming racism for their financial and social failures — comments which fueled the ire of many in the black community.
But little did I know that, years later, shows like The Cosby Show would inspire me to attend NYU Film School and create images of my own.
And when sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby (re)surfaced in Hannibal Burress’ stand-up comedy act (see timeline), the conversations among my colleagues were complicated and conflicted. People wondered about Cosby’s legacy; the fate of the show in syndication; the residual payments to its predominantly African-American actors, many of whom, like Geoffery Owens, hadn’t found steady work in the years since; the Camille Cosby problem, standing by her man and against the women accusers; the fate of Cosby’s endowed professorship at Spelman, and whether the Cosby Academic Center would have its name changed; Bill’s co-chairmanship of University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s fundraising campaign; and his seat on the Board of Trustees of his alma mater Temple University.
Former series’ actors made statements about the loss of income. Colleagues were defending their right to survival, downplaying the impact of re-traumatization on Cosby’s alleged victims.
It was a complicated mess; not just the loss of a hero and icon, but the dismantling of a veritable African-American cultural institution, both by and at the expense of women, many of whom were also black.
Some called it a conspiracy to bring a black man down while others implicitly believed the women. Still others took great pains to separate the allegations from Cosby’s comedic legacy, condemning sexual assault in general while casting doubt on the decades-old accusations leveled by specific women. They implored us to forgive him, as an old, feeble, legally-blind man who limped with a cane into arraignment. To forgive him in order to preserve a childhood fantasy, fond memories that were forever tainted by the stench of assault.
As they struggled to preserve the image of “America’s Dad” that had brought as much comfort to their lives as it had to mine, it gave a sense that 60 women’s lives were worth the sacrifice.
But in my view, Cosby was a sexual predator who would continue to abuse if not prevented by infirmity or steel bars.
He had expressed no remorse, even dismissed some allegations with laughter. He was a diabolical man, exactly the kind of person who needed to be removed from society to end his decades-long reign of terror. To hear of the elaborate schemes his colleagues devised to support his behavior, I wished more charges could’ve been filed against more people.
But now that Bill Cosby has been locked up, what do we make of the man and his enduring legacy?
The thing is, Bill Cosby was and is a brilliant comedian. So brilliant and so transformative it’s hard to imagine what the entertainment business, our lives, and the world would be like had he never been.
But he’s also, simultaneously, a sick man who can’t admit to his wrongdoing. Who can’t recognize that the last 30 years of his career have been on borrowed time, or see the pain of his victims. Had the authorities done something sooner, it’s possible he would have already been in jail. Ultimately, he put himself there by serially raping and drugging women. He destroyed their dreams and lives, and his own.
While nothing can erase the impact of Bill Cosby on television and comedy, we can decide that the lives of these women matter more.
How could we continue to watch and laugh at a scene with actress Lili Bernard, taped just after Cosby allegedly raped her, as though this context, her life and experience do not matter? Just as surely as his imprisonment is justice for the survivors, so too is ending syndication of The Cosby Show.
We can survive the loss of our heroes and icons, but we cannot afford to lose our humanity.
We can let go of a remorseless, tyrannical predator who so masterfully used our vulnerability against us, beaming into our homes, making us laugh, earning our trust, and conning us all. We can hold each other through our collective healing and holding space for the survivors.
Through Bill Cosby’s imprisonment, I rejoice with women, whose lives have been forever altered, feeling the first glimmer of hope for the future.
I take great comfort in knowing that there are plenty of comedians, actors, writers, and directors creating new cinematic legacies for blacks in the diaspora. Creators who, coming of age in the #MeToo era, will be held to a higher standard of ethics and equity, or face stiff repercussions. I long for the day when legal and workplace protections can prevent the predatory reign of a Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein.
Until that day, we have to make tough choices and be clear about where we draw the line in the sand.
In an interview, aired Thursday on Democracy Now, Ms. Bernard said:
At the end of the taping, when the hundreds of people in the audience were applauding, and I was feeling like I was about to faint because of what had just happened a couple of months prior, you know, where I had come home drugged and sexy assaulted, in this case to my boyfriend at the time, who’s my husband, and we both confronted Bill Cosby together, and he threatened serious consequences to our life. And I’m standing there as the audience is applauding, barely able to sustain myself. My knees were trembling and weak, and I thought I was going to pass out. And he said to me, with a smirk — because, you know, in the courthouse, he laughed so heartily while the victims cried, that you could see his shoulders bounce up and down. And with that same kind of sardonic, unapologetic scorn, he said to me, “Fooled them again.”
P.S. My name is Iquo B. Essien and I’m a writer, director and consultant based in Brooklyn. When I’m not busy helping artists and creative businesses, I’m working on my first feature film and a memoir.
Every week I send out fresh writing, an image and inspiration via my personal email list. Subscribe and let’s keep in touch!