I wrote this back in May of last year, but all the Bishop Eddie Long apologists I’m reading on Facebook brought it back to my mind and renewed its relevancy, at least to my thinking.
I will say the same thing here that I said on Facebook about some people’s refusal to be silent about the sexual abuse allegations against Bishop Long in the event of his death:
You recount the mistakes to distill the lesson.
The black community should’ve held Eddie Long accountable for the wrongs he committed while he was still alive if so many of its members find it distasteful to indict a dead man.
But what the black community shouldn’t do–through its parochial responses to Long’s accusers–is continue to make the black community unlivable for sexual abuse victims or make it a safe space for sexual predators.
That–if you ask me–is a sin.
Even though I grew up in a household that was an approximation of the black middle class ideal, I still wanted to be a Huxtable.
I wanted more siblings than my one baby sister, who, at eight years younger, could do nothing but annoy the hell out of me; I wanted to live in a brownstone in the biggest and busiest city in the world; I wanted to have all four of my grandparents within walking distance and visit with them regularly; I wanted a mother who allowed my friends to come and visit our home every day after school; and I wanted a father just like Heathcliff.
When I was young, my father was a workaholic with ambitions of becoming the next Johnny Cochrane; he was gone most of the time, and, when he was home, he was still busy with work. He had his own father’s heirloom sarcasm. He wanted his daughters to be ladies even though our mother was raising us to be women. His expectations could loom higher than a Detroit skyscraper at times, but his temper could be as ugly as the Detroit River. He never spanked me once in my life, but he did smack me up a time or two with doctrine—the proxy hand of God—when he thought I was getting too out-of-control with my damned independent thinking and insistence on eking out my own identity.
He was a lot more complicated than Heathcliff Huxtable–less fun and way more demanding–and, since I had that TV image with which to compare him, I often found myself wishing my dad was less himself and more like a sitcom character.
I would fantasize about him reacting to me in the warm, goofy way that Heathcliff reacted to his kids, and I would feel a bit cheated because it was work being his daughter, and no one applauded for me as I did it.
Now, at 39, I realize that work was some of the most valuable that I’ve ever don–that he–my father–and I were building me into a decent, hard-working, and responsible person (with a wicked sense of humor, enviable taste in music, an elegant sense of style, and a deeply-rooted notion of fairness).
I understand now that navigating one’s relationship with one’s parent(s) is one of the most influential parts of growing up, and I wouldn’t be anyone close to the thinker, writer, teacher, mother, sister, or friend I am if I hadn’t been my father’s daughter–and mother’s daughter–first.
I also see–in thinking through why Heathcliff Huxtable was such an appealing character to me–what a juvenile concept of the “father” most of black people retain throughout our lives.
This is important to point out because I think it has a lot to do with why so many us, who love(d) Heathcliff Huxtable, are having such a difficult time accepting that Bill Cosby is a rapist that deserves to be punished for his crimes.
Rather than an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, whispering to black people about what fathers are and are not, we have a fairy tale weighing on one shoulder and a pack of racist lies weighing on the other.
These two false images make it difficult for us to be realistic or real about our fathers and father figures.
The fairy tale is of the white father–a romanticized figure that is an amalgam of the Judeo-Christian God and Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. This man–because of his social privilege and inherent moral superiority and intelligence–conferred by his whiteness–is the perfect father. He is always there for his kids; he always has to proper solution for their problems; he can provide for his children’s every need; and he never fails them. He is the polar opposite, conceptually, of the paradigmatic black father.
The lies on the other end of the binary are that black men are inherently bad fathers. That slavery stole the ability to parent permanently from them. That institutional racism bars them–across the board–financially, emotionally, and spiritually–from adequately supporting their children. That being the victims of oppression, suppression, deprivation, and violence makes them ineffective and even damaging.
Charles Blow of The New York Times does an excellent job of describing this manifold misconception: “[We believe],” he writes, ” . . . there is something fundamental, and intrinsic about black men that is flawed, that black fathers are pathologically prone to desertion of their offspring and therefore largely responsible for black community ‘dysfunction.’”
Both of these mythoi–of the good white father and bad black father–conveniently–or inconveniently for black men–ignore the facts–which must be considered in order for black people to gain a more realistic–and serviceable–concept of the “father.”
The first is that, historically, many white men have failed spectacularly at parenting. See Joseph Kennedy, who had his daughter Rosemary lobotomized at age 23 without his wife’s knowledge or agreement, or Woody Allen, who had an affair with the adopted daughter—Soon-Yi Previn—of his long-time girlfriend Mia Farrow. They have proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that white men in general are not automatically “better equipped” for parenting.
On the other hand, black men are more than just the “serial impregnators” portrayed in the racist mainstream media.
Though 72% of black women having babies are single mothers, this doesn’t mean that they don’t live with the fathers of their children. It actually means they aren’t married to them. Many still live with the fathers of their children. Only 55% of black children live in single mother households.
And even though a lot of black fathers don’t live with their children, about 2.5 million black fathers do live with at least one of their children.
Too, according to the CDC, black fathers–in and out of the home–provide more actual child care than white or Hispanic fathers. Yes–black men regularly feed their children their meals (78.2% black>73.9% white>63.9% Hispanic), dress their children (70.4% black>60% white>45% Hispanic), and read to their children every day (34.9% black>30.2% white>21.9% Hispanic). They are not all flailing or failing to fulfill their parental duties, despite what even a large segment of the black community maintains.
It is fair to acknowledge, too, that many of the black fathers that are missing from their children’s lives are missing because of factors related to institutionalization.
As reported in The Washington Post, “Incarceration [is an] overwhelming [driver] of the gap [in the number of black women and men in the free population].
“Of the 1.5 million missing black men [out of 8 million] from 25 to 54 [the prime age span for fatherhood]–higher imprisonment rates account for almost 600,000. Almost one in 12 black men . . . is behind bars, compared with one in 60 nonblack men . . .”
These numbers prove that black men are not pathologically neglectful of their children.
Black fathers are still more absent from black homes than white fathers, but their patterns of abandonment can be linked to the historical legacy of slavery–how it has shaped today’s law enforcement and justice system, created genetic pitfalls for black people in terms of their health (which result in earlier deaths), and facilitated the demonization of black men in order to justify its reprehensibility.
Often, it is their internalized self-hatred–their own belief in their badness–that impels black men to leave their children alone–in the wrongheaded attempt to protect them.
Because black men struggle on a lot of levels to be present for their children at the same rates as nonblack men, and black people as a whole have a lot of misconceptions about how structural racism impedes parenting, the absences of black fathers lead many black people to cling to idealized father figures like Heathcliff Huxtable.
They set these father figures, usually found in entertainment, on pedestals because these men seem to have overcome whatever obstacles they needed to overcome in order to “get it right” for their children and co-parents (which are more often than not their wives).
Those that actually are or that just feel fatherless worship these figures in a sense, and this may be because one of the predominant figures in this improvised pantheon of imaginary surrogates is, in fact, the Judeo-Christian God.
Just listen to the way that many black religious leaders speak about God. They very liberally and munificently humanize Him. They do this because they know that so many black people suffer from an acute psychological sense of fatherlessness. They want to fix it, so they offer their congregants a God that is an eternal, omnipotent father.
They take that Biblical address, that ancient, enduring metaphor—“Our Father”—and literalize it–to effect some sort of spiritual healing from parental abandonment. They create a model of fatherhood that–while it may not shape the way that real black fathers do their jobs–shapes the way that the fatherless envision the role of the father. Then, celebrities, cultural icons, and imaginary characters like Heathcliff Huxtable do the same thing, but on a lesser level.
These famous “fathers” provide the fatherless with an unrealistic ideal that they attach to as “theirs” to fill the absence of an actual father. These “fathers” give the fatherless ridiculously high standards for what a father is, but, since they appear to meet these standards, they also inspire immense amounts of love and loyalty. It is this love and loyalty–and the painful prospect of losing yet another “parent”–that make it so difficult for people to accept it when father (or maybe it’s more apt to say “fatherly”) figures like Bill Cosby commit terrible acts.
Since so many black people do suffer from fatherlessness–or even from the idea that their “regular” black fathers are inferior–they do not want to give up their adoptive fatherly figures.
They do not want to face the fact that a character like Heathcliff Huxtable is a personage and not a person.
They want their fatherly figure to be innocent, or, if he cannot be innocent, they want him to be exempt.
So when their fatherly figure is put on public trial, these “children” argue that his positive contributions to society or culture or the black community must outweigh his crimes. They vilify his victims in order to lessen his culpability and depravity. They deny that his behavior is actually harmful, or, worse, they say that his victims are the ones doing the harm, by ruining the fatherly figure’s so-called legacy.
They make that same tired argument every time–that if Guilty Black Fatherly Figure were white, he wouldn’t be held nearly as accountable for his transgressions, as if that somehow justifies his transgressions. But the truth remains.
Despite how prevalent fatherlessness is in the black community, or how painful it is, we—the collective—cannot use it as an excuse to dismiss the crimes of our famous black men. Our imaginary “fathers” are no less responsible for their actions than our actual fathers. Fame, wealth, and talent–while they are rare–impressive–enchanting–still do not cancel out brutality, cruelty, perversity, or decidedly unchecked psychopathy.
The ugly truth is, then, that Bill Cosby is somnophiliac that–because he prefers to secretly drug women rather than gain their consent to have unconscious sex–has allowed the pursuit of his paraphilia to make him a rapist.
He has admitted on the record to drugging women and raping them. He has paid these women–by order of the court and on his own—as his atonement for raping them.
He has exploited his image as a fatherly figure, his power, and sexist stereotypes like that of the female groupie or gold digger to ruthlessly cover for his crimes.
He has been allowed and–yes–encouraged–by his wife, entourage, the Hollywood establishment, the legal system, the patriarchy, and, yes, the black community–that deifies him–to violate a group of 50 women–that we know of–between 1965 and 2008–without suffering any losses to his fame, wealth, reputation, or freedom.
And before any of you reading can make the reflexive argument that erroneously links the veracity of their accusations to how long it took certain of his victims to come forward on the record, let me let you know–
American culture and the nation’s justice system are criminally inhospitable to female rape victims, and this has a profound effect on their willingness to report their attacks.
In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that only 15.8 to 35 percent of all sexual assaults are reported to police.
This is because when women are assaulted by a friend or acquaintance (neighbor, classmate, coworker, boss), they fear they will not be believed.
They fear retaliation from the accused, other people finding out they’ve been assaulted, being branded as a rape victim, and/or being disrespected and/or mistreated during the trial process.
They believe that the police will not do anything to help them.
They believe that they have a lack of adequate proof or evidence.
They have their own misconceptions about what actually constitutes rape and do not actually know or believe that they have been raped.
Men may not be able to relate to these reasons–or they might refute them in order to abstain from inverting and being implicated by them–but women–if we’re being honest–know that they are very real.
Too many of us have either been raped or molested and experienced these paralyzing fears or doubts firsthand, or we have imagined being raped or molested and projected these fears and doubts onto our imaginary selves and into our possible futures.
Another reason not listed by the Bureau of Justice Statistics that women don’t report sexual assaults is the terrible lack of credibility attributed to them by certain principles of rape culture.
Patriarchal notions that men hold–about how desperately women want to please them, how deserving “promiscuous” women are of punishment, and how important maintaining a “good girl” image is to women–make it easy for men to believe that women are lying when women say they’ve been raped.
Men like this think women are so universally “afraid” of being typed as sluts that any and all of them would lie about having consensual sex–call it rape–to avoid retribution or requital for exercising their sexual freedom.
And these men hold to the unfortunate truth that some women have lied about being assaulted—they have falsely accused men to avoid shame, exact revenge, or hide infidelity.
In the case of Cosby’s accusers, we must also concede they were up against the unlikelihood that a woman that is a “nobody” would be believed over a cultural icon.
Look baldly at how his accusers have been treated, and it’s easy to see why so many of Cosby’s victims felt for so long that reporting him to the authorities would be pointless.
People conflate Cosby with Heathcliff Huxtable. They think Bill Cosby is Heathcliff Huxtable. And, as devotees of the character, it is impossible for them to imagine Heathcliff raping a woman. So they struggle with believing that Cosby is a rapist. Still, the numbers of victims—as well as Cosby’s own accounts of his encounters with them and court settlements to which he has agreed—make it impossible to ignore that Cosby is guilty of a pattern of illegal behavior for which he deserves to be punished.
It looks as if the same thing, unfortunately, can be said about legendary hip hop culturalist Afrika Bambaataa, who has been accused in the last couple of months by four men of sexually abusing them during the 1980s.
Allegedly, he showed them—as boys—pornographic materials then performed oral sex on them.
Along with assaulting them, he gave them shelter, food, and money when they needed it, and he maintained a “father-son” relationship with at least one of them into adulthood. That is—in fact—what the boys called him: “Poppy.”
It’s reasonable to assume that fatherlessness, shame, machismo, and a distorted sense of loyalty are what kept them from reporting their abuse until now.
Again, before those of you that are inclined start doing that victim-blaming “thing” we so often do when we hear that victims of sexual assault have waited to name their accusers, I want to go back to one really significant concept I brought up previously, and that’s loyalty.
I honestly believe that malformed and misdirected loyalty are what keep a lot of black people silent about the terrible things that other black people do to them or in their presence.
We have such a profound mistrust of law enforcement and the courts that we do not want to turn a supposed “brother” or “sister” over to them if we can help it.
So many of we black people refuse to report crimes committed against us by other black people—and we uphold our own abusers in a lot of instances—in order to show our racial awareness and solidarity.
We romanticize our victimization as a sacrifice of sorts, and we shame those that don’t adhere to this dysfunctional “code” of honor and silence. But this behavior is a throwback to the plantation and the inhumane treatment our ancestors often suffered when they didn’t cover and/or lie for each other.
As a people, we have to start moving past our past, in this sense. We either have to abandon this anti-“snitching” ethic and turn the offenders in our community over to the law, or we have to figure out our own ways to hold them accountable for their choices to damage others and refuse to seek help for their sicknesses.
I said it before—navigating one’s relationship with one’s parent(s) is one of the most influential parts of growing up. James Baldwin even said that loving someone—that act in itself—is a growing up.
It’s a process of shedding the pretty, pretend ideas we get from fairy tales, and the hyperbolic or fantastical ideas we get from lies, and embracing new ideas about ourselves—bolder concepts of ourselves—that protect and empower us, female and male.
And here are a few—
We can love Heathcliff Huxtable—what he represents—the will to father black children lovingly and joyfully—without reifying him.
We can admire Bill Cosby as an entertainer, philanthropist, actor, and producer without deifying him.
We can condemn Bill Cosby for raping those women without killing the image of Healthcliff Huxtable.
We can support a conviction of Bill Cosby’s guilt and maintain a sense of our highest and not our basest form of integrity.
We can condemn Afrika Bambaataa without indicting hip hop culture or erasing his contributions to the culture from its history.
We can support a conviction of his guilt.
Nothing can justifiably counterbalance wrongs like the ones Cosby or Eddie Long committed except confession, contrition, reparation, and rehabilitation.
So we cannot keep perpetuating this cult of fragile black manhood—this concept that black men cannot answer for their actions—if we want black men that ultimately inspire more than pity, mistrust, resentment, or fear in us. Or that can only truly be great when they are standing framed in our blind spots.
We cannot keep perpetuating this cult of fragile black manhood if we want to evolve into a culture that is characterized by more than its pathologies.
In order to grow out of the desperation of fatherlessness and demand what is actually attainable from our famous men–decency–we have to leave the childish notion that fathers are faultless behind us, once and for all.
We have to process the ugly truths about our fatherly figures. Topple them from their pedestals. Let them shatter and clean up the messes they’ve made.
This will help us to not only heal from their abuses, but it will help us to better appreciate our real fathers.
It will open us up to accepting that many of them are bending over backward, being their best for us.