I was in high school when I first picked up one of the books that would shape both my writing and my thinking about the meaning of being a black man in America and being an American in the world.
The book was "Soul on Ice" by Eldridge Cleaver, who went to prison in the late 1950s, converted to Islam and became an acolyte of Malcolm X. After being paroled, Cleaver became the minister of information for the Black Panther Party, and after the American government dismantled the Panthers, he became a conservative Republican.
In Soledad state prison, he wrote of his comrades: "We cursed everything American—including baseball and hot dogs. All respect we may have had for politicians, preachers, lawyers, governors, presidents, congressmen was utterly destroyed as we watched them temporizing and compromising over right and wrong, over legality and illegality, over constitutionality and unconstitutionality. We knew that in the end what they were clashing over was us, what to do with the blacks, and whether or not to start treating us as human beings."
Cleaver was not the first nor the last person to write about what scholars used to the call The Negro Question. More than 20 years before Cleaver published "Soul on Ice," the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal wrote about America's "Negro problem," saying the dilemma represents a kind of moral uneasiness for white people.
"To many, this takes on the proportion of a menace—biological, economic, social, cultural, and, at times, political. This anxiety may be mingled with a feeling of individual and collective guilt. To all it is a trouble," he wrote. None of this has changed. As I write, the radio is broadcasting stories about white American men menaced, in their minds, by guests in their nation: the 150 white militiamen in the American West who took up arms in defiance of the federal government (and, by extension, its black president) and Donald Trump droning on about illegal immigration. In local news, politicians here in America's poorest state want to cut franchise, self-employment and income taxes. This way, Mississippians with money—mostly whites—keep more of their money instead of giving it to poor people—who are disproportionately black—who rely more heavily on government services that the doomed taxes pay for. Fewer government programs would all but guarantee a continuation of cycles of poverty, another American dilemma that can't be unlinked from our race problem.
This cycle was evident in the life of Cleaver himself, who said his father often beat his mother. When the family moved to Los Angeles, Cleaver frequently came into contact with police for offenses ranging from stealing bikes to selling reefer. But the crime that sent him to prison was rape. He said that he started by practicing on black girls in the ghetto because the chances of being caught, much less punished, were slim to none, before moving to white women, which he considered at the time "insurrectionary."
A black woman friend told me once that Cleaver never apologized for his monstrous crimes against black female bodies, so she could never consider him the literary genius many people, myself included, believe he was, let alone a civil-rights hero. Naturally, like most men whose worldview was shaped by listening to too many men, I mansplained that Cleaver did his time in prison and gave a lot back to black people through his activism even if he never said he was sorry to victims. And even if he was imperfect—an unrepentant rapist, who leveraged white American supremacy to traumatize black girls—he shole was a damn good writer, right?
My friend and I agreed to disagree back then. I was fine with where I left that conversation: Shouldn't you be able to separate a person's works from their private deeds? If not, where does that leave Martin Luther King or Hunter S. Thompson? And if Dr. King and Raoul Duke get passes for being masters of their crafts even if they were less than kind to the women in their lives, shouldn't we extend the same consideration to Eminem and Chris Brown and their art?
I thought back to this conversation when the news went viral that Dr. William H. Cosby Jr. is also a rapist. Although I don't struggle with the question of Cosby's innocence or guilt, I do understand some people's urge to defend him as a symbol of black American success.
It is not unreasonable to believe that the people who control America couldn't break someone of Cosby's stature with the stroke of a pen. It's also not that big of a stretch to imagine that the men who control the state of Ohio, where a grand jury recently declined to press charges against a police officer for killing Tamir Rice, could collude with the men who run Pennsylvania to have Cosby arrested, knocking the Rice story from the top of the news and, possibly, avoiding Ferguson and Baltimore-style protests.
There's a big problem in applying these scenarios to Cosby's case: Bill Cosby is not a victim of white people who run America; he is their creation. I still think "The Cosby Show" was brilliantly written and acculturated white America to black people in ways other attempts at social integration fell short. Where "Good Times" and "Sanford and Sons" provided windows into black working-class life, "The Cosby Show" showed us that some black dads are doctors who tell goofy jokes.
"The Cosby Show" also low-key perpetuated black respectability politics. In one episode, Cliff Huxtable used Monopoly money to teach his son, Theo, how capitalism works. And remember the handwringing of the Huxtable parents over their kids not attending the right colleges? It was not only Cosby's fictitious persona who held and espoused these American values, it was also the man himself. Don't forget that in 2004, delivering what became known as his "Poundcake Speech" to the NAACP on the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, Cosby criticized black children "with names like Shaniqua, Shaligua, Mohammed and all that crap, and all of them are in jail."
"Looking at the incarcerated, these are not political criminals," Cosby said then. "These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! Then we all run out and are outraged: 'The cops shouldn't have shot him.' What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?," he said. Using that reasoning, I suppose, cops killing a boy named "Tamir" isn't worth getting bent out of shape about.
When it comes to Cosby, the central question for me is whether his crimes will upend what we learned from him about success and failure, heroes and villains, about what it means to live in America. After all, black folks have been aspiring to the Huxtables for almost 30 years now. It's also the standard to which white America has been unfairly trying to hold black folks all this time.
If "America's dad" is a rapist, doesn't that mean we've all been living a lie? What other lies have we been telling ourselves? What truths are we afraid to know?