PHILADELPHIA — It is difficult to overstate the pride, admiration and sense of ownership many black Americans felt watching Bill Cosby at the height of his career in the 1980s and ’90s.
As Dr. Cliff Huxtable, Cosby starred in a top-rated network sitcom about a loving, successful black couple and their wholesome children. “The Cosby Show” shifted the paradigm for millions of viewers for what a black family could look like. And it made Cosby an idol to many African-Americans in an era long before the country would see a black family living in the White House.
All of which explains why the comedian’s downfall Thursday was met with pain, disappointment and conflicted feelings in the black community. For many black people, news of Cosby’s sexual-assault conviction was hard to hear, even for fans who believed his accusers.
“We have been split from Day One about his innocence because of our need to have a hero that looks like us,” said Tarana Burke, the black woman who created the #MeToo hashtag in 2006 and recalled growing up listening to albums of Cosby’s comedy routines and later watching him as “America’s Dad.”
She warned against confusing Cosby with the roles he played.
“Cliff Huxtable was a good person, but that character doesn’t reflect the character of (Cosby’s) life,” Burke said. “Fat Albert is not a serial rapist. Bill Cosby is.”
Cosby carefully crafted his persona over half a century in public life and on the big and small screen. In the 1960s, he became the first black actor to star in a network show, “I Spy.” He later created the children’s cartoon program “Fat Albert,” based on childhood friends, and then “The Cosby Show.”
He would go on to win the 2002 Presidential Medal of Freedom and made it his role to admonish blacks to take personal responsibility, his stinging commentary hitting home because of the man, husband and father many believed Cosby to be.
When word of some of the allegations against Cosby broke in 2014, in part because of a stand-up routine by black comedian Hannibal Buress, many African-Americans who had long admired the TV star were hurt. All told, more than 60 women would accuse Cosby of sexual assault.
Some black people who grew up watching shows like “The Cosby Show” and the Cosby-created spinoff “A Different World” were conflicted about continuing to watch.
Rutgers University women’s studies professor Brittney Cooper said it’s time for black people to drop their support for the entertainer and his work.
“There’s an ongoing conversation about can we love the art and dismiss or disavow the artist,” said Cooper, author of the recent book “Eloquent Rage,” which explores the Cosby allegations. But “we have to stop deciding that art is a reasonable spoil of war, that we will ignore all the casualties. We can’t separate Cosby from his art.”
For some, this is easier said than done. In a rare front-page essay, New York Times critic-at-large Wesley Morris laid bare his emotional strife over having to divorce himself from Cosby’s work in the wake of the verdict, and told of how the comedian was a formative influence in his life.
“Mr. Cosby made blackness palatable to a country historically conditioned to think the worst of black people,” wrote Morris, who is black and was born in Philadelphia, where Cosby is from.
“Mr. Cosby told lots of jokes. This was his sickest one,” Morris continued. “How do I, at least, cleave this man from the man he seduced me into becoming?”
Cosby was prosecuted after rumors of sexual assaults swirled for years. He was protected, his detractors say, by power, money and racial loyalty.
Supermodel Beverly Johnson said her reluctance to come forward as an accuser was tied to her allegiance to African-Americans and a disinclination to hurt a member of her community.
Since then, #MeToo has become a global phenomenon that has brought down powerful men in politics, entertainment and the media, including Hollywood studio boss Harvey Weinstein. Some observers have said the movement contributed to Cosby’s conviction.
It may also have given some African-Americans permission to finally hold their hero accountable.
“It took away the heft of the narrative, in black communities in particular, that this was some kind of grand conspiracy to take down a powerful black man,” Cooper said. “It placed Cosby in conversation with folks like Weinstein, to say this is about the kinds of things that powerful men do when they feel like they can get away with it.”
Cosby, at 80, is now looking at the possibility of dying behind bars.
“He is now part of a broader narrative about Hollywood, mainstream men doing this kind of thing,” Cooper said. “He’s not the singular, black, male monster.”
ERRIN HAINES WHACK, Associated Press National Writer