Airing Dirty Laundry
Cosby and Poussaint’s book stirs up a caldron of commentary pro and con.
By Angela P. Dodson
Come On People: On the Path from Victims to Victors
by Bill Cosby and Alvin F. Poussaint, $25.99, Hardcover, Thomas Nelson (October 2007), ISBN-10: 1595550925 ISBN-13: 978-1595550927, 288 pp.
Remember the hilarious, kid-friendly father figure who made us beg for Jell-O pudding and run to the television set to see a normal, upper-middle-class couple loving each other and raising strong Black children? He does not seem himself these days.
For this book, Bill Cosby has joined forces with one of the nation’s most respected and often-quoted psychiatrists. Their message is simple, Black people need to get it together. No argument here. The premise seems sound: Our people need to take personal responsibility for their lives.
The execution of this work, however, is troubling. Its tone is often angry, and it offers vague data without comparisons and without citing the sources, while telling us “the numbers speak for themselves.” The authors have had a blitz of television appearances, and the book quickly achieved best-seller status (#14 on The New York Times hardcover advice list in mid-November). The work also has attracted no small measure of controversy.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, an author, political analyst and blogger, wrote, “While Cosby is entitled to publicly air Black America’s alleged dirty laundry, there’s more myth than dirt in that laundry.”
Conceding that “some knuckle heads” within the African-American race deserve criticism, he says, the book “makes a Grand Canyon size leap from them to paint a half-truth, skewed picture of the plight of poor Blacks and the reasons and prescriptions for their plight. The cornerstone of Cosby mythmaking is that they are crime prone, educational losers, and teen baby-making machines.”
Real data, Hutchinson argues, would portray a very different Black America with documented progress and success in all those areas.
In The Nation, Amy Alexander, who once co-authored a book with Poussaint, offers an explanation, if not a full-throated defense, of this book. “I take their argument at face value, and I appreciate the goal of encouraging self-determination,” she writes.
Laura S. Washington, a senior editor for the magazine In These Times and the Ida B. Wells-Barnett University Professor in journalism at DePaul University, cheers the authors on, saying, “Few can object to the book’s core propositions: Cherish your children. Get an education. Speak standard English. Listen to the elders. Banish gun violence. No more excuses. It’s a no-brainer.”
Unfortunately, it is not a no-brainer. It will take a lot of brainpower to fix the problems outlined in this book. It exhorts Black people, actually mostly the derelict, young Black fathers whom the authors seem to blame for all problems affecting the Black race, to do something. It is not clear what they are to do, nor is it clear how a book that is likely to be read by the elites of society, White and Black, is expected to persuade these young people to do anything, unless we all buy copies and hand them out in the “hood.”
The book seems to fault all Black people, and only Black people, for the plight of the mostly urban poor. That includes those of us who have always raised strong Black children, lived decent lives and accepted responsibility to help the less fortunate brethren.
Certainly, the educators who read this publication are doing more than their share.
Into this fray come findings from the Pew Research Center that many in our race see a major split on values and race identity within Black America, and 53 percent of African-Americans agree, “Blacks who don’t get ahead are mainly to blame for their situation.” More than one commentator tied the report to this book.
The Pew study also says 85 percent of Black people think Cosby is a good influence on the Black community, almost as many as the 87 percent who think Oprah Winfrey is and more than the 76 percent who think that of Barack Obama.
So, if we are in basic agreement on the problems and solutions, why are we are arguing and why the anger?
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