When it comes to Bill Cosby's legacy—or in this case, preserving what's left—it would be in his best interest to die.
The sooner, the better, for the legendary comedian whose formally pristine public image crumbled after more than 50 women accused him of sexual assault. Death wouldn't heal the fatal wound to Cosby's pioneering career, but it would stop the bleeding. It would force us to focus on what Cosby has already given us an entertainer, rather than speculate what lies in his future.
But Cosby is still alive, which means we must continue to grapple with how to view him, and eventually, remember him.
R. Kelly—another controversial public figure who was accused of sexual offenses against minors—recently commented on this conflict between Cosby's contributions to culture and his alleged misconduct.
The singer told GQ in an interview that when his kids were born, "I was Bill Cosby in the house. You know, the good one. You know, let's be clear there: how we saw Bill Cosby when we were coming up.” Kelly was referring to Cosby as “America’s Dad” and, for many of a certain age, the standard for what fatherhood should look like.
Unsurprisingly, when asked about the allegations against Cosby, he argued:
Well, my opinion on that is, I don't know what happened. I'm a fan of Bill Cosby's from the Bill Cosby show, of course—who's not?—and for me to give my opinion on something that I have no idea if it's true or not, all I can say is that it was a long time ago. And when I look on TV and I see the 70-, 80-, 90-year-old ladies talking about what happened when they were 17, 18, or 19, there's something strange about it. That's my opinion. It's just strange.
Kelly’s defense of Cosby and the fact that he cited him as a shining example of fatherhood attests to The Cosby Show's ongoing impact on generations of TV viewers, both black and white.
Heathcliff HuxtablE is a great dad, no matter who Bill Cosby may be in real life.
Whatever happens to Cosby, he will always be the first black actor to star in a TV drama, 1965's I Spy. Many continue to watch 1972's animated series Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids with fondness. Likewise, 1984's The Cosby Show was a pioneering sitcom that portrayed black people in ways the world had never seen before. Heathcliff Huxtable is a great dad, no matter who Bill Cosby may be in real life.
The same can be said for his standup concert film Bill Cosby: Himself, which I stumbled upon as a child, while rummaging through my parents’ VHS collection. Cosby will always be one of the greatest comedians of all time, and there's a reason why so many other great comedians have spoken so highly of him in the past.
The millions of dollars that he’s given to charity and educational institutions over the decades have helped many black men and women pursue higher learning. The allegations against Cosby also shouldn't take away from what he did to promote the importance of black art and artists.
Even before the accusations surfaced, I wrestled with what Cosby meant to me. As a black man from a lower-income background, I was angered by his “Conversation with Cosby” speeches of the early 2000s, in which he admonished African-Americans for not “holding up their end of the deal.” I knew then he was not what he claimed to be. Cosby only seemed to like black people of a certain stature; if you didn't embody his idea of what a black person should be, he didn't respect you. That’s not the kind of black pride to which I ascribe.
Unfortunately for Cosby, he can no longer control the narrative in an age where social media plays a large part in shaping the news—including his own story, which was actually buried a decade ago. Those who continue to defend him despite gaping logical holes are a testament to troubling patterns in society—including the acceptance of rape culture and celebration of celebrity culture—but mostly, they speak to people's strong attachment to Cosby and his storied career.
Creative geniuses are still capable of committing heinous crimes. I wasn't aware of the statutory rape allegations against David Bowie, but if we can still celebrate the work he did in his professional life, we can certainly do the same for Cosby. Hopefully, with increased awareness and respect for victims' stories of sexual assault, it won’t take death or decades for us to discover the truth about the character of our brightest stars.
Some fans may be conflicted over whether they’re able to enjoy Cosby's work without guilt or shame, while others say they can separate the art from the man.
To me, who an artist is in their personal life doesn't negate their professional accomplishments. Even if Cosby didn't live up to the ideals he presented in public, I'm not letting go of the good memories I have of his comedy and shows. As a gay man, I feel the same way about Bowie’s gender-bending ways and sexually liberated perspective.
Knowing more has made being a fan more complicated, but life is complicated. More of us just need to be honest about that.