Recently, The Kennedy Center honored Bill Cosby, giving him the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Chris Rock made a joke about being able to feel equal in the presence of country music legend Willie Nelson, but when in the presence of Bill Cosby, Rock said that Cosby let him know that Cosby was the elder and deserving of commiserate respect. My mind must have processed something about having seen this clip because I awakened with a revelation about Bill Cosby, what he appears to represent to black education, black people and why he seems constantly to get into trouble with us.
Let me explain.
First, I have to discuss Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the father of Black History Month. He started Negro History Week, wanting to establish a tradition, ensuring that black people would desire to learn more about themselves. The problem is that one of the many history books he wrote is now being widely read — The Mis-Education of the Negro, written in 1933. This book was a response to what co-founder of the NAACP and Renaissance man Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois called, “the talented tenth.”
According to Du Bois, the talented tenth, the top ten percent of educated black people, would lead the rest of the race to liberation from the tyranny and impunity of American lynching, race riots, segregation and discrimination. Today, however, members of the talented tenth, like Cosby, represent, not liberation, but assimilation. Since black people still seek liberation, especially from police brutality and homicide, imprisonment, and now, the ever-encroaching white backlash for the Obama Administration, Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro has resurfaced.
Woodson’s book posits that Western education was designed specifically to elevate the white race as supreme to all races and to destroy all other cultures, labeling them as inferior with special emphasis on the black race. This emphasis is shown in the negative — editing out of all texts the entire contribution to the world of black people. In Western education, Woodson says, blacks are only mentioned to “prove” black “inferiority”. Any cursory glance at Western textbooks from Woodson’s time period, 1933, would easily demonstrate what Woodson says. Although, today, special efforts to mention black people and other peoples of color are made, their contributions to world development, specifically those of Africans, are not mentioned or they are not placed in their proper contexts.
Dr. Woodson recommended that black people study themselves first and then study others. He suggested ways to heal the wounds of this neglect and mis-education. Also, he prophesied what would happen if black people continued to learn Western education without first developing an understanding of themselves, not just as Americans, but as Africans.
Bill Cosby appears to represent the mis-educated Negro, one who is thoroughly learned in Western education with little regard for what the lack of African history in education means. As mentioned before, Cosby can be classified as a member of the talented tenth. Instead of that group leading black people to liberation, many blacks consider that the talented tenth have merely led themselves to the bank, white neighborhoods and high level positions in white-dominated fields. “Is this all of the progress that we can expect?” some ask.
Although Cosby and his wife have donated millions of dollars to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, they seem to epitomize a growing separation within the black community that Woodson warned against. The Cosbys have been portrayed by the media as a couple who has conformed to Western society (the society that enslaved their ancestors) and adopted its standards as the highest that humanity can offer. I do not believe that the Cosbys see themselves in this manner, but they do appear to promote Western education without stipulation.
What is the harm in this?
I met a young black man at the bus stop in my hometown, Shreveport, La. The city council had just passed a law against wearing sagging pants in public. The young man, of course, was sagging so I asked him what he thought about the law. He dismissed me until I told him that I was against legislating one’s manner of dress.
He agreed with me and explained his disapproval of making a law against someone’s freedom of self-expression. Knowing that this young man was deliberately defying the law, which was adopted during the administration of the first black mayor, I pointed out that among all the other states, Louisiana had the highest percentage of its population in prison, comprised overwhelmingly of black people. During our exchange, the young man mentioned to me that he wanted to be a doctor. Immediately, I thought to myself that unless he conformed to society’s standards, which seemed unlikely, his dream would never come true.
The inconsistencies of this young man caused me great grief. It is very easy for a young man like him to end up in prison. Although he was obviously intelligent enough to become a doctor, he seemed unaware of why he adopted the sagging culture in the first place. He seemed to care more about defying a law that limited his personal freedom. Also, he seemed unconcerned about the consequences of defying that law. Finally, and, most importantly, he seemed ignorant of the total devastation that Louisiana criminal law could bring to a young man such as himself. Remember the Jena Six? An unpaid ticket and a little attitude could snowball, very easily, into life imprisonment.
The issue of conforming or assimilating into white culture was hot when Woodson wrote The Mis-education of the Negro. One could say that Bill and Camille Cosby are pieces that are helping to make clearer the puzzling effects of the talented tenth. Ronald Reagan’s trickle down economic policy did not work for him. Similarly, the trickle down liberation policy of Du Bois has not worked for black people. It merely has caused separation, abandonment, and the barren fruit of hopelessness. This imagery is even more striking while viewing the conformity of President and Mrs. Barack Obama. Their assistance to the black community is more indirect and implied than actual fact.
So, what is the answer to this never-ending debate of black education? Do we rant and rave about the talented tenth? Absolutely not. It does no good, anyway. We celebrate them as a great and noble experiment. They represent a theory that has been tested and found wanting.
Thank you Bill and Camille Cosby. Thank you Barack and Michelle Obama. Thank you to all black people who have contributed greatness in the name of the United States of America.