Dozens of rape allegations leave historically black colleges, recipients of much Cosby cash, wondering what’s next
America’s once-favorite dad was on the line. It was an early weekday morning. “It’s the Bill Cosby machine,” the comedian announced. “Wake up, man! I wanna talk about these colleges.”
It’s tough to remember now, but there was a time when Bill Cosby seemed next in line to be carved into Mount Rushmore. He was so big, so pioneering, so damn likable that even black folks were willing, for the most part, to forgive what had become an embarrassing tic of sorts; a kind of media-induced Tourette’s in which Cosby, often unprovoked, would take the stage and rant endlessly on modern black life in America—witty if not misguided assaults on everything from irresponsible black teen mothers, to gun-toting gangsta youth, to hyperethnic, hard-to-pronounce black birth names.
More recently, though, what has become painfully apparent, too, is the extent to which Bill Cosby, in these artful soliloquies, has skirted his own personal failings, foibles, and perhaps even criminal proclivities; which, no less, include an ever-growing list of women alleging that, starting as far back as the early 1970s, Cosby drugged and raped them. While Cosby has denied or declined to address the various allegations, and even his own 2005 court deposition in which he admitted drugging a woman with Quaaludes for sex, his many accusers recount incidents of sexual assault and abuse that contradict everything we had imagined about him.
And yet in the perennially fragile world of HBCUs, where good press and large dollars remain in short supply, Bill Cosby’s fall from grace represents something close to an apocalypse. The black college doomsayer searching for a sign of imminent extinction can only relish the woes of Bill Cosby. However, few figures living or dead can boast the impact that Cosby has wielded across the black higher education landscape, whether it was the millions of dollars he gifted schools from his own pocket, or the millions he helped raise hosting HBCU fund-raisers, or the credibility he gave the institutions by simply sporting a black college sweatshirt through an airport.
Admittedly, there has been some suspicion about his agenda, an unsettling sense that maybe the man had become too rich, powerful, and detached to empathize and comment credibly on modern black life and its struggles. The fact that most had grown up in households that revered Bill Cosby as an entertainer, family man, and black citizen of the world started to become less relevant than his cultural shape-shifting; that the Jell-O pudding man, before our eyes, had morphed into the grumpy old sage and scold of black America. Like those kids on his ’90s TV show, Bill was suddenly saying the darndest things. “What part of Africa did this come from? We are not Africans. Those people are not Africans; they don’t know a thing about Africa. With names like Shaniqua, Taliqua, and Mohammed and all of that crap, and all of them are in jail.”
Yet as unsettling as Cosby’s transformation was to watch, Cosby’s views on black people, and especially young black people, have undeniably shaped popular black identity. Fat Albert, Claire Huxtable, and even Little Bill are like bells in the black subconscious that cannot be unrung; not any more than yanking down the six Chicago Bulls championship banners from the United Center would erase from a hoop fan’s memory Michael Jordan’s soaring dunks. Even amid the scandals, it’s unlikely that a generation of black folks can—or are even willing to—let go of their fond recollections of A Different World, that funny, socially conscious ’80s sitcom set in fictitious Hillman College, Cosby’s paean to black college life. The trials of Whitley Gilbert and Dwayne Wayne did more to attract black college kids to black campuses than those “A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste” public service announcements ever could.