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Is Bill Cosby Right? or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?

Michael Eric Dyson

(Basic Civitas Books)

Is Mike Dyson Right? Or Have Hip Hop Intellectuals Lost Their Minds?

Black America’s favorite hip-hop intellectual Michael Eric Dyson has squared off against black America’s favorite father, Bill Cosby. Responding to Cosby’s recent charges that America’s black poor are not taking proper responsibility for their condition in society, Dyson meticulously dissects Cosby’s comments toward offering a scholarly rebuttal to the comedian’s claims.


Is Bill Cosby Right? offers the type of in-depth, critical analysis that we have come to expect from Professor Dyson. His demonstrated understanding of the complex issues plaguing poor and working class black Americans exhibits the sociological proficiency of William Julius Wilson and economic insight of Kevin Phillips. In this regard, the second chapter, “Classrooms and Cell Blocks” is worth the price of the book. Further, Dyson’s writing style reflects the best of James Baldwin’s rhythmic prose and Notorious BIG’s lyrical wonderment. By describing the neighborhood knucklehead as a dispossessed pavement poet captured in a bloody urban drama, Dyson will actually make you believe that Raquan is robbing you to feed his family.


Despite this, I am not sure about the point of this book. Dyson states that this is his attempt to “offer a principled defense of poor black folk”. According to the author, for Cosby to chastise the black poor without challenging social factors that preclude social mobility is irresponsible and mean-spirited. This I understand. But due to the wide acceptance of Cosby’s comments among the African American middle class—the group that Dyson somewhat sophomorically labels the Afristocracy—he spends the majority of the book interrogating bourgeois notions of racial uplift and “politics of respectability” themes that inform black middleclass thought. Therefore, aside from the second chapter, Dyson spends less time defending the poor and more time attacking the middle class.


This creates a problem. Professor Dyson’s preoccupation with the insecurities animating the behavior of the middle class flattens his defense of the poor. The poor must be right because the middle class has always been wrong. From zoot-suits to throwback jerseys, the black middleclass’ inability to appreciate the creative flair of Tyquan and Sheniqua appears to justify the actions of the latter. As if somehow the assimilating fumes of white supremacy have asphyxiated only blacks of a certain economic level while poor blacks have remained pure. Of course Dyson does not say this and admonishes the reader against such essentialist claims. But one gets the sense Dyson is winking at himself the entire time.


Then there is the issue with Dyson’s frontal assault on Cosby. Fortunately Dyson’s scholarly acumen holds the author accountable in ways that his personal bias does not. Dyson’s thorough examination of Cosby provides evidence that the comedian is capable of a more nuanced analysis of the black poor than his drunken harangue before the Congressional Black Caucus. In Cosby’s doctoral dissertation and a later Playboy interview Cosby provides the type of reasoned structural analysis that Dyson desires. However, the author’s apparent disdain for the elder comedian skews his conclusions. One cannot help but wonder if this would be an issue if Dyson afforded Cosby the same kind of grace evidenced in his well-known fetishization of Tupac.


For example, there is Dyson’s characterization of Cosby as a “colorblind comedian”. I understand the author’s point. Cosby’s intent to efface race from his stand-up routine in order to emphasize the interconnectedness of humanity could be read as a cowardly cop-out. This is particularly true amidst the tempestuous political climate of the 1960s when persons on the front lines of social change needed all the help they could get. But, as Dyson points out, placing emphasis upon shared humanity and the deconstruction of race was a common theme employed by countless trailblazers of justice in the civil rights era. Thus, it is hard to say that Cosby’s actions border on the terrain of cowardly Uncle Tomism—an implicit claim that Dyson seems to ensconce within his repetitive use of the “colorblind comedian” moniker.


Moreover, the black aesthetic of The Cosby Show resists Professor Dyson’s mantra that Cosby is a “colorblind, race avoider.” All one has to do is look at the Huxtable’s artwork, musical tastes, educational choices, and overall sense of style. Yes, I admit, I never saw Cliff and Claire attending a “Free Mumia Abu Jamal” rally. But, then again, I never saw JJ, Re-Run, or Lionel out fighting for the cause of freedom either—except for the one multiracial rent strike on What’s Happening?. Remember? “No Roger, No Re-Run, No Rent!” Anyway, these characters, like most poor or middleclass black people in America, live their lives by waking up, going to work, loving their families, and allowing the voices of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and John Legend to work out the stress and strain of life. Does this make them race avoiders?


Finally, I must ask Professor Dyson: In order to defend the black poor was it necessary to disclose the details of Cosby’s alleged personal indiscretions? Discuss Cosby’s personal relationship with his daughter(s)? Extract skeletons from his kids’ closets? Is this appropriate Reverend Dyson? The author breaks the culturally understood rules of “playing the dozens.” I can imagine Camille somewhere hollering, “Hell Naw, Folk. You Dun Up and Dun It!” Justifiably so. The fourth chapter “Family Values” is nothing but a personal attack on her husband and children.


Don’t get me wrong; in principle I agree with Dyson. I think Cosby’s comments were as wrong as Creflo Dollar at a Martin Luther King Day parade. They were unoriginal, unimaginative, and ill-tempered. Yet two wrongs don’t make a right. The author’s dive into the murky waters of tabloid discourse and exposé journalism does not contribute anything to the text. Rather, it proves to unsettle the moral high ground upon which Dyson believes himself to stand. I pray the desire to sell books has not compromised Professor Dyson’s moral decency. His mind is too sharp, analysis too thorough, and cause is too just to resort to such un-Christ-like tactics. To be sure, with such an acute understanding of the mores and anxieties of the contemporary black middleclass it is quite possible that Dyson has penned the Black Bourgeoisie of the post-civil rights era. Thus Dyson continues to indelibly etch himself upon the pages of intellectual history. But like E. Franklin Frazier’s classic text, the stench of personal resentment and unpleasant animosity directed towards the subject matter overshadows an otherwise insightful sociological and cultural study.

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It is Dyson’s ability to make himself and his work accessible to lay audiences -- ironically much like grassroots activists -- that makes him a target for those folk within the academy and elsewhere, who don’t believe that his work is rigorous enough.
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Dyson illuminates the complexities of King's identity and challenges the boundaries in which King and his legacy have been forced to inhabit because of desires on the part of the King family, traditional Civil Rights leaders, and the mass media to neuter (pun, absolutely intended) his persona and his politics.
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