The Sharks are Coming for Fat Albert

I grew up with Bill Cosby. I watched iSpy with my parents. I watched Fat Albert on Saturday mornings (“Nah nah nah, gonna have a good time!”) I saw Mother, Jugs, and Speed at an age when technically the theatre should not have let me in without a parent. The first comedy album I owned was To My Brother Russel, Whom I Slept With. Willie Sobel and I had the album memorized in 7th grade and we would recite entire passages, complete with sound effects. I saw Bill perform live at Concord Pavilion, watched The Cosby Show. And when he took to the page and the stage and challenged young men to be better dads, I listened to his advice and resolved to be a father of whom Cos and my own dad would approve.

I was white, male, and Jewish, and Bill Cosby was my role model. He transcended race, creating a post-ethnic space that made it possible for young white men to have black role models who weren’t athletes. Equally important, he became a stepping stone into a world where black voices were not just speaking to blacks, but were speaking to all men. Malcolm X died when I was a toddler; Dr. King died when I was in pre-school. They never meant to me what Cos did. Cos arguably opened the door for Morgan Freeman and Samuel L. Jackson, but in some respects, he did the same for  Colin Powell, Thomas Sowell, and Condoleeza Rice. In short, he was proof that the future of America would be integrated and diverse, and that for it to be anything else was foolhardy.

He was an icon. And for that reason, I wanted to believe the best about him. When he admitted in a paternity suit in 1997 that he’d had an affair with Shawn Upshaw of Las Vegas, I believed that it was an isolated transgression in an otherwise ideal marriage with his wife Camille. When questions arose about whether or not he deserved his Doctorate in Education, I believed them to be the jealous sniping of academics trying to score points on each other. And when he stood up and criticized young black men for not being better fathers, I believed it was tough love from a man who had wrestled with his own parenting challenges and won.

I will leave questions of his parenting for his children to answer, but the glow of the rest has faded. The award of his doctorate and possibly his Master’s degree appear less justified than first glance, not only because he never completed an undergraduate degree, but because of an allegedly weak thesis, spotty academic work, his strong-handing of both the university and his doctoral committee, and the fact that he was given academic credit for appearing on “Fat Albert” and “The Electric Company.”  And now it appears that the L’affaire Upshaw may not have been a once-in-a-marriage misstep, but the leading indicator of a long love life lived away from the marriage bed, and allegedly under extremely unsavory circumstances.

I am trying, however, to reserve judgments on each the crimes of which he is accused. Having spent most of my adult life living in a land where a person is guilty until proven innocent, I am enjoying the luxury of sustaining a reasonable doubt about Cosby’s guilt of each accusation until a jury of his peers has had their say. I suspect that not many will join me in that. Cosby has been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion, and many view his court proceedings as a formality.

That is a shame, not for Cosby, but for us. If we truly believe in our system of justice, it is our obligation to remember and remind ourselves that we are obliged to hold a man innocent until he is proven guilty in a court of law as judged by a jury of his peers. When we stop doing that, we undermine the monopoly our system of justice has on punishment. In a day when a man must live or die by his public reputation, participating in a trial by public opinion is the moral equivalent of vigilantism.

Let us allow justice to be done. And then let us pass our own verdicts.

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Author: David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.

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