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Today I heard a colleague rejoice, celebrate, pump her fists, give a high five, do everything but dance in the end zone when she heard that Bill Cosby had been sentenced to three to ten years in prison. This woman celebrated as if a cure to cancer had been found. It was as if she woke up and realized she had won the lottery—the big one.
I quietly regarded my co-worker and wondered, “What are you routing for in life if Bill Cosby’s prison sentence brings you this much joy?”
It’s in these moments that I feel most uncomfortable in working while black. I sat silent while a white colleague celebrated a black man’s fall from grace so deep that black people will feel it for the next ten generations. I felt my spirit weeping because to her Bill Cosby was just another black criminal. But to me and others of my hue, Bill Cosby stood for excellence… until he didn’t.
Non-melanated people won’t understand why we hurt so much even though we can concede Cosby’s guilt. They mock us with their taunts, “A criminal is a criminal.” Except Bill Cosby wasn’t always a criminal.
Bill Cosby lifted the black collective consciousness and gave us aspirational highs no drug could ever fill.
He flooded America’s living room with the intelligence, possibility and prosperity of black people. He showed the world that we were beyond your servants, your mammies, your maids, your janitors and your nannies. He spoke up for black people when you looked at us as little nappy headed negroes with no purpose and no chance. He said, “We are doctors, lawyers, college educated, spirited, talented, creative and the product of our ancestors.” And then we learned he was accused of drugging and raping women.
Too confused to know how to register the allegations, many of us sat and cried on the inside. We cried for every time we saw Denise or Theo in ourselves or Vanessa or Rudy. We screamed because we wanted Dr. And Mrs. Huxtable to be our parents. We broke down because we believed in the life and the story that Cosby created for us. And now? What do we believe now?
Many of us acknowledge his guilt. Many of us understand the evidence, the accusers and the allegations. Many of us respect the prison sentence. But, it doesn’t mean we don’t hurt. And, I’m not mad at my white colleague.
She’ll be the same person routing for the leniency of a white man who has committed some criminal act but is tone deaf when I mourn for Cosby.
I cannot explain to her what it is to have a black monument erect itself in the middle of concrete and become bigger than the Statue of Liberty. I cannot explain to her what it is for a person to take generations of black people, allow them to believe in you, your virtue and their own possibilities, only to be found to be less than virtuous.
Black men, innocent and guilty, have been taken out by a system that has been historically unjust to black people. It matters not to so many of a different hue. I’m not here to excuse anyone for committing a criminal act. I’m simply saying that we can’t hear each other because we can’t see each other.
For those of us who saw Cosby as a sort of messiah for black folks’ hopes and dreams, we’re heartbroken.
But those who never saw Cosby’s contributions and quite honestly never cared for a black man to make that kind of money anyway, you’re glad for his downfall because in your mind that’s where he belongs. To you, he never belonged in your living room. To you, he never belonged making those Cosby millions. Cosby’s entire success has been inconvenient to you. His success forced you to realize that with talent and opportunity black folks might be something one day. Black folks might be even better than you.
So today, I dedicate this essay to every black person who had to sit in a break room, or stand by the water cooler and listen to a work colleague celebrate Bill Cosby’s downfall. They were rejoicing. We were mourning. Yet another polarizing example of working while black.