Dr. Bill Cosby has long used his comedic genius to shed light on American culture. When he launched “The Cosby Show” 25 years ago, he single-handedly changed the way African-Americans were portrayed on television.
But today, the 72-year-old Philadelphia native doesn’t find anything funny about the large number of Black children who drop out of school ill-prepared to enter a global work force. He’s also troubled by the increase in Black-on-Black crime and the lack of fathers in the home.
Despite criticism, the actor and philanthropist refuses to remain silent, barnstorming the country to talk to anyone who wants to listen about the problems that impact Black children and families, all the while encouraging an ethic of personal responsibility.
“I am very, very optimistic,” Cosby told Diverse in an interview in which he reflected on his activism over the past few years. “I just want people to go and get past being embarrassed. I want people to believe that it is possible for mothers and fathers to not care about their kids, but I also want people to believe that a child still needs an honest grown-up in their life.”
Cosby’s tough talk has been echoed in packed town hall meetings across the nation where activists and educators gather to strategize on how best to solve the many problems that beset Black children.
But his work hasn’t stopped there.
In September, Cosby signed on to serve as Honorary Chairperson of the “Call Me Mister” program at Cheyney University, a teacher leadership program headquartered at Clemson University aimed at training and placing more teachers from diverse backgrounds in at-risk communities.
And since July, he has used social networking Web sites like Twitter, MySpace and Facebook to sound an alarm on education issues and the impact that they have on communities of color.
“I am a No. 2-yellow-and-a-legal-pad guy,” says Cosby, who started Twittering after his wife Camille introduced him to the technology. “I just do what she tells me to do. It’s all weird to me but it’s a way of reaching people who are addicted.”
Cosby, who was recently awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, has also ventured into new terrain with the release of his latest project, a hip-hop album titled “Bill Cosby Presents the Cosnarati: State of Emergency.” The LP is an effort to connect with a younger generation. The album features a diverse group of musicians like William “Spaceman” Patterson and rappers Jace the Great, Brother Hahz and Supa Nova Slom.
“I had some things that I wanted to say and I don’t know how to rap and I don’t want to rap, but I got some rappers and fellas together who write their own material, and I could not have been happier with this group of young men,” Cosby says.
Although Cosby made national headlines for a controversial speech he delivered in 2004 at an NAACP Legal Defense Fund event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, his roots in education reform go back several decades.
His passion for education is cemented in part by his credentials — an earned doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst — which set him apart from other celebrities who champion social justice causes.
“We’ve got to grab, we’ve got to hold the line, we’ve got to teach and we’ve got to look at our children,” says Cosby, whose voice becomes animated when he discusses the impact adults can make on children. “I don’t care how old you are, you’ve got to try to find a way to speak because children do listen to their elders.”
Cosby dismisses the criticism he has received over the years from Black scholars like Georgetown University professor Dr. Michael Eric Dyson and Columbia’s Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, who fault him for promoting a rhetoric that demonizes poor people.
He calls these scholars “excusionists,” a word he created, and “protectionists” and criticizes mainstream media for its failure, he says, to report on issues that impact Black families for fear of being branded as racist.
“They [the media] seem to be afraid to look like they are telling Black people what to do, so they would rather look at it with controversy,” he says.
For his part, Hill, an associate professor of education, notes that Cosby has “toned down his rhetoric” since that 2004 speech, but he’s not convinced Cosby recognizes the “structural issues” that contribute to Black poverty.
Cosby says parents have to become more involved in their children’s lives.
“Parenting is in the home,” he says. “You’re supposed to go and see the teacher of your child. You’re supposed to check on your child’s homework. Now, there may be some exceptions to the rule for why someone couldn’t but there’s no exception to the rule if I say to you: ‘Don’t you have a cousin, an aunt, somebody you can trust to talk to and look at your child’s homework while you’re running down three jobs,’” he says.
“The fact that you’re holding down three jobs and your health is not that good and you don’t have enough money to pay your bills, isn’t that even more of a reason to try and make sure that your child goes for an education to get into some kind of career? It’s not a guarantee that your child won’t be laid off. Excusionists say that I’m saying, ‘You’re broke because you’re too lazy.’ No, I’m saying: ‘Get up. It’s not the time to give up.’”