I’m Not a Social Policy Expert, But I Play One on TV

Has it ever all been so much that you just wanted to scream?

Have you ever had all you could take of the job, the spouse/significant other/main squeeze, the kids, the parents, the neighbors, the economy, the war, the movies, the computer, the dogs, the cats, the roaches, the rats, the garbage, the nonsense, everything? Have you ever felt like you were going to explode if you didn’t let it all out?

Have you ever been so besieged by whatever that no words could express your anguish? Have you ever pined for release at the top of your lungs, a bone-chilling one-note aria that sent all the angst out of your bloodstream and into the ether? Have you ever just needed to get away, shut the door, run off into the woods, stand on the rooftop and just scream? Not the Edmund Monch existential-dread kind of scream, not the Howard Beale/Network catchphrase-as-political-statement kind, and certainly not the Macauley Caulkin mock-terror variety, but a primal scream straight from the gut?

That’s essentially what Bill Cosby did about a year ago. Except that his wasn’t an actual scream as in “aaaaaarrrrrggh!” (or, since you’re reading this online, “AAAAARRRRRGGH!!!”), but a speech, a series of speeches to be precise. And he wasn’t lashing out at life in general, but at a specific aspect of life, and a specific group of people. What he found was that many people felt the same as he did, and his scream became theirs, as if he had dared to scream the scream they didn’t think they were allowed to scream themselves. And the scream struck such a chord that it became synonymous with the screamer, and pundits would take to the airwaves and preachers to the pulpits to debate the propriety of the scream and the wisdom of the screamer.

Cosby was screaming about the black poor and their failure, in his eyes, to be proactive about ending their poverty. He screamed about the babies they make, he screamed about the partners they make them with, he screamed about the names they give their babies, he screamed about the way they raise them. He screamed about the babies themselves, about their lack of schooling, about their lifestyles, about the sneakers they buy, about the crimes they commit. He screamed about their apparent lack of any sense of personal responsibility. He screamed about how they had all but single-handedly reversed a half-century’s worth of black American progress.

He screamed about them — but not to them, not even at them. His audience for the first scream was gathered at the Howard Law School in Washington, DC, at a gala celebration of the 50th anniversary of the US Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which opened the legal door to school desegregation. His audience was decidedly not poor, but members of the black professional class. Many felt his scream was not appropriate for such a venue and event, even as they screamed along with him. But Cosby continued to scream, and such was the momentum behind his scream that at the NAACP convention a few weeks later, he was expressly told not to scream again, lest his scream upstage the annual meeting of the oldest civil rights organization in the world.

Now, I haven’t been using the word “scream” here to describe how Cosby spoke on those occasions. I’ve heard soundbites from a version of the scream he gave in Chicago, and really he spoke in his normal, modulated tone of voice. I refer to his pronouncements as ‘screams’ because they were, essentially, expressions of exasperation. Cosby was, and probably still is, suffering from an acute case of the same “Inner City Blues” that Marvin Gaye felt in 1971, the kind that, Gaye sang, “make me wanna holler, throw up both my hands.” Cosby looked around the bleak landscape of life in black America circa 2004, and felt a need to call it out, to call out poor black people for their failings and misdeeds, because he could not fathom how it had come to that point, so far away from the lofty optimism of life after Brown.

I equate his speeches to screams also because that’s about how much effect they actually had. Let’s go back to that moment when you were off somewhere screaming at the top of your lungs. When you were done screaming, had any of the things that had driven you to scream in the first place gotten any better simply because of the screaming? No. All it had gotten you was a bit hoarse. You might have felt better for the moment, having released some endorphins or experienced some other physiological reaction, but the world’s messiness was patient enough, or discreet enough, to let you blow off some steam before going back to assaulting you some more. Screams only tell the world that at that moment, you’re having a problem. They don’t actually solve the problem.

And so it has been one year after this whole thing started. Cosby drew more attention to how some poor black people live their lives than he might have ever expected. But not a single ounce of that attention ever got translated into doing something about it. Folks spent all their energy talking about what Cosby said, and whether he was right, and whether he should have said it when and where he did, and then all were apparently too worn out from all the jaw-flapping to actually talk about poverty. The moment was perfect for shifting (okay, forcing) the issue onto the plates of the Bush and Kerry presidential campaigns, if only for a moment or so. But that never happened (and neither candidate, possibly spooked by the whole racial aspect of the scream, ever went there). No one, to my recollection, even made a point of inviting the black poor themselves to the political debate. Even when the conversation is all about them, the black poor remain invisible in America, even to other blacks. The issue was (and is) poverty, but the spotlight remained (and remains) squarely on Cosby, who is anything but poor.

Even those who offer ideas counter to Cosby’s place Cosby, not poverty, at the center of their arguments. In his new book, professor/author Michael Eric Dyson skillfully advances the notion that, while it is fair to expect that poor people should not contribute to their continuing poverty, to single them out for scolding and not include the political and economic systems that conspire against them is short-sighted at best. He even offers an explanation of the disdain that the black middle class has historically extended to its poorer brethren. But the book is titled Is Bill Cosby Right? (Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?) (Basic Civitas Books, April 2005). In his book Dyson spends much of his time examining Cosby’s track record as entertainer, educator, husband and father, as if any poverty-stricken person alive gives a damn what Cosby wrote in his dissertation.

Why, then, does the whole debate seem to be about Cosby? Because it was Bill Cosby who set it off, and Bill Cosby, plain and simple, is a star. No, not even that: Halle Berry is a star, and so are Gladys Knight, Michael Vick and 50 Cent, but if any of them had said the exact same words Cosby said in the exact same time and place, it would have cycled in and out of the news in a week, tops. Bill Cosby is more than a star: he’s a brand. He’s not just an entertainer; he is a man of conscience and substance. He values education, decorum, and integrity. He and his wife are generous philanthropists. He created a sitcom that did not portray blacks as buffoons, and millions still watch it in syndication (including my daughter, who was not even alive during its network run). He’s good with kids. Therefore, when Bill Cosby comes down on the poor with both feet, millions buy into that like they buy into Jell-o pudding. They buy it above and beyond their own opinions about the issue. They are convinced that if Cosby is doing the screaming, then there must be something to it.

Please note that nowhere in that previous paragraph did I refer to Cosby as a political or social activist. Supporting education and the arts is not the same as reforming a broken educational system or advocating for public arts funding. Making a great TV show is not the same as keeping the FCC honest over media ownership or decency standards. Being at wit’s end about what poor people do or don’t do is not the same as fighting to increase the minimum wage — or helping poor people gain the tools, knowledge and self-awareness they need in order to improve their conditions themselves.

But because we love Bill Cosby the brand, we extend him credibility even when he goes off-brand. We do it also because no one else is out here taking the weight. In the absence of an over-arching political dynamic within today’s black America, we treat anybody with access to media and a political opinion as political thought leaders (black folks aren’t alone in this practice, not with Arnold Schwartzenegger as governor of California after handily beating, among others, Gary Coleman). Jeff Chang, in his detailed, entertaining Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation (St. Martin’s Press, February 2005), notes that Public Enemy and Spike Lee experienced a similar reaction once they emerged in the late ’80s. Chang quotes PE cohort Bill Stephney at a 1987 panel discussion, in which it was asserted that rappers should take on the mantle of revolutionaries:

He argued, “Woe be it unto a community that has to rely on rappers for political leadership. Because that doesn’t signify progress, it signifies default. Now that our community leaders cannot take up their responsibility, you’re gonna leave it up to an eighteen-year-old kid who has mad flow? What is the criteria by which he has risen to his leadership? He can flow? That’s the extent of it? If our leadership is to be determined by an eighteen-year-old without a plan, then we’re in trouble. We’re fucked.” (emphasis Chang’s, pg. 275)

Cosby’s probably not going to much appreciate my equating him with an 18-year-old with mad flow, but Stephney’s distinction is as deadly accurate now as it was then. Celebrities expressing themselves on the issues of the day — even those as generally respected as Cosby — should not be confused with leaders of a movement, or people charged with affecting social policy. Celebrities have the same freedom of speech every other American has, and although much of the post-scream debate was about whether Cosby should have screamed about the black community’s dirty undies in public where white people could bear witness, no one has ever suggested that he should never have spoken on the issue. But that’s the extent of a celebrity’s actual power. Celebrities can draw attention to an issue, but it remains for politicians, activists and communities to do the heavy lifting. Last year’s scream-fest never advanced to that point, which may in fact indicate how difficult, unpopular, and intractable the problem has become; apparently we’d rather talk about talking about poverty than do something radical like tackling it head-on.

It’s neither Cosby’s problem nor his fault that no black person in an official position of leadership had struck that particular note lately (never mind that Louis Farrakhan has been sounding many of those very themes for more than a generation). In fact, it’s legitimate to wonder why it took a comedian, of all occupations, to put the issue of poor people and their responsibilities on black America’s front burner. All the attention paid to Cosby’s screaming, attention paid primarily because it was Bill Cosby doing the screaming, has probably been a disservice to him. He was expressing his gut feeling as a concerned citizen, but the rest of black America and much of the media took it like a political platform and ran with it. It certainly was a disservice to the poor, who are just as poor now as they were when all the screaming started, if not more so.

If Bill Cosby feels the need to scream about the poor, so be it. If others feel the need to scream along with him, cool. And if still others hold that the scream was off-base and ill-considered, all to the better, if it advances the thinking on how to approach the problem they’re all screaming about in the first place (Dyson’s book certainly does that). I hope they all scream until they’re blue in the face, if that’s what it takes to get the hurt, confusion, and frustration out of their systems. Then, if they actually want to do something about poverty and not just argue about what some celebrity thinks, they need to turn off the TV, get the stars out of their eyes, roll up their sleeves, and get busy.