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As a controversy, Bill Cosby’s Come on People: On the Path from Victims to Victors is hardly controversial. The new book, co-authored with Harvard psychiatrist Alvin F. Poussaint, is an old-fashioned, conservative cultural critique that offers an eat-your-vegetables, teach-your-children, pull-your-pants-up polemic.
In 2004, Cosby roiled the racial waters when he blasted the pathology of black failure at an NAACP dinner in Washington, D.C. The iconic comedian, known as the jolly JELL-O man and playful patriarch of The Cosby Show’s Huxtables, stunned the nation with a bitter diatribe against low-income African-American families.
He hung our dirty laundry out to dry.
Three years later, his words still sting: “The lower economic people are not holding up their end in this deal. These people are not parenting,” he ranted at the stone-faced crowd of America’s black elite. “They are buying things for their kids – $500 sneakers for what? And won’t spend $200 for Hooked on Phonics!
“I can’t even talk the way these people talk. ‘Why you ain’t?’ ‘Where you is?’ … Everybody knows it’s important to speak English except these knuckleheads. You can’t be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth.”
Back then, Cosby didn’t get a lot of “Amen, brothers!” from that crowd, nor from many others back in the ‘hood. At least, not out in the open.
Cosby’s critics excoriated him for delivering his rant from an elitist ivory tower without offering solutions. They argue that the black poor are the helpless victims of white supremacy and institutional racism. In other words, it’s not their fault – the deck is stacked just too high.
But he was right then. And he is right now.
Come on People has replaced Cosby’s vitriolic speechifying with firm but loving essays that urge blacks to eschew their pathological embrace of victimization, violence and despair.
The authors respond to their detractors. “Certain people tell us that we are picking on the poor. Many of those who accuse us are scholars and intellectuals, upset that we are not blaming everything on white people as they do. Well, blaming only the system keeps certain black people in the limelight, but it also keeps the black poor wallowing in victimhood.”
The mere act of putting our shortcomings on paper is revolutionary. Black folks ferociously cling to the age-old code of honor that pledges to keep the “race secrets” – for fear of having our own deeds turned against us. “Don’t tell ‘whitey,’ ” we whisper.
Few can object to the book’s core propositions: Cherish your children. Get an education. Speak standard English. Listen to the elders. Banish gun violence. No more excuses.
It’s a no-brainer.
As the scholars and intellectuals drone on from college campuses to legislatures to C-Span, their so-called “victims” are never in the room. The elites don’t ask the folks who are toiling, suffering and, yes, striving. Cosby, on the other hand, has been asking.
Come On People is packed with anecdotes gleaned from “Call Outs with Bill Cosby,” a series of public gatherings in cities and towns across the nation. Cosby’s town hall meetings convened blacks in cities from Compton, Calif., to Kansas City, Mo., to Washington, D.C., to respond to his call and come up with solutions.
One of the most enduring of African-American taboos is that we don’t acknowledge the out-of-the-box rates of infant mortality and teenage pregnancy in black communities.
The book quotes Xylina Bean, chief of neonatology at the King Drew Center in Compton, calling young women out on what she calls “incidental babies.”
“We all know you’ve got to do something in order to have one, OK?” she tells the crowd. “So it’s not accidental. It’s not incidental. And one of the things that I am really tired of is all of these incidental babies. They just ‘incidentally’ happen.”
Priority number one should be protecting the child, she says. “You get to decide who gets to be your baby’s daddy.”
It’s a conversation we should have had a long time ago. Come on, ladies. While African Americans have long treasured their children, we have grown far too casual, even cavalier, about making babies. We have heard all the excuses. I forgot to take my pill. I don’t want to marry the guy, anyway; I just want a baby. I don’t believe in abortion. I have low self-esteem.
Thanks to Bill Cosby, more of us are saying the excuses just don’t cut it anymore.
You know that old saying about what the truth can do? Come on, people – set yourselves free.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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