DEAR MR. HUXTABLE: AN OPEN LETTER TO BILL COSBY
I was raised in a television household. On the rare occasions that our family was together, we would gather in front of the TV, cycling between Food Network and whatever movie was on TBS that night. Watching TV together would go on to shape who I am today. I watched shows that developed my healthy sense of humor and movies that changed my outlook on life. For an eight year old girl whose idea of fun was reading underneath her comforter – and eleven years later, I'd still be down – being able to stay at home with my parents and sister on a Sunday night instead of going out and having pre-planned “funtivities” (a term I’ve heard used in my friends’ suburban homes) was a source of joy in my life for many years. Television was a fun escape for my family and me.
One of the crown jewels of TV night, of course, was The Cosby Show. I’m not quite old enough to have watched its original incarnation, but, like most millennials, I was brought up with good ol’ syndicated TV. As I grew up biracial in white bread Minnesota, my dad always looked for ways to make sure my sister and I understood our ethnic makeup. He still does. Mr. Cosby, you would probably be proud of him, being an advocate for all of these things you stood for. By watching The Cosby Show, I realized that successful black families did, in fact, exist, despite what was portrayed all too often in the media. I always dreamt about living in a Brooklyn brownstone and having the same experiences that the Cosby kids had. As I grew older and Nick at Nite expanded its programming schedule, I discovered the equally funny show The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. My parents told me that without shows like yours, Fresh Prince probably wouldn’t have existed. I quickly learned that you were a real influence on how people of color were perceived not just by the media, but the public. I didn’t know exactly why, but I could tell that you were important.
Years went by. I grew up and continued to watch reruns of your show whenever they were shown on TV Land during the days I was home sick from school or on the weekends. I can still quote lines from The Cosby Show, and I know who my favorite characters are. I loved Vanessa and envied her 1980s wardrobe. My sister had a soft spot for Theo when it was discovered that he was dyslexic, because she too struggles with dyslexia. We both loved Olivia, just because we grew up watching That’s So Raven every week and still harbor sizable obsessions over Raven Symone. The show was embedded into our childhoods, just as it was for the people who grew up watching it in real time.
Like most people, didn’t become aware of the sexual assault and rape allegations against you until comedian Hannibal Buress started bringing them up in a stand-up routine. Initially, I didn’t want to believe it. I was younger then, and I still contemplated whether or not I should believe these claims. I wasn’t totally aware of how serious an accusation like that is, or how when stories like yours are brought up on the news, they’re usually couched in language that makes everything seem much less serious than it actually is. (God forbid we talk about sexual assault and rape using words that truly express how horrible those things are, right?) It felt so strange to have someone I looked up to being torn down for something I wasn’t even sure was true. Although I wasn’t old enough to understand what was going on, I did know that you had done something unforgivable. Just being accused of something like that is hard enough to hear when you’re that young.
A few weeks ago, New York Magazine released its article interviewing the women who had come forward with their stories. I sat in my bedroom and read their anecdotes, and started to feel a kind of disgust I’ve never felt before. My skin crawled. My brow remained furrowed. I couldn’t believe any of what I was reading. I thought of the little girl who watched you on TV, gathered around the couch with her family, bright eyed and bushy tailed, who looked to you as an example. I then thought of the women who went to you with the same bright eyes and bushy tails, just a bit older than me. They also looked to you as an example. I thought of what you saw them as and felt sick to my stomach.
I am incredibly proud of these women. They have managed to reclaim their agency and have held their heads high after what you put them through. I can only hope that one day, I will be able to look fear in the face like these women did. Some of them did right away. Some of them waited to find the right thing to say. Some of them didn’t know what to say. That’s okay. I stand in solidarity with these women. They are all beautiful and powerful and incredibly courageous – something that you will never be.
When I see people protest the pulling of your show from syndication, I want to grab them by the shoulders and shout something along the lines of “don’t make the same mistake I made!” I have to admit, it’s hard to tear myself away from the father figure image you hold in my head. There will always be a part of me that sees you as Cliff Huxtable, that funny, hoagie-loving father who was always there for his wife and children. However, the people are missing out on one important thing: you are not Cliff Huxtable. American society as a whole is prone to hero worship, especially when the celebrity in question stars in your favorite TV show. I’m guilty of it myself. The only difference is, I can separate the man from the myth. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for us all to take a step back and look at who you are, Mr. Cosby. Of what these women feel when they see your show being rebroadcast late at night. They see you telling jokes and getting laughs while they feel stifled and forgotten.
If I’m ever to see an episode of The Cosby Show again, I will always think of how I projected the image of Cliff Huxtable onto my own father, and how he has gone above and beyond my eight year old self’s expectations. I am very lucky to have a loving and supportive father who lets me fight my own battles, but is always there on the sidelines with some water and a pep talk.
That part of me, however, is silenced by the larger part of me that now knows the truth. I know about the reprehensible things you did to the women who trusted you, and how unfair it is that you believed these women owed you something. These women looked to you as a friend, mentor, and father figure. Sometimes, I think of the young girl who watched The Cosby Show and think of what she would have done if she knew then what she knows now. I think she would be somewhat the same. Hurt, angry, and confused.
But what a lesson she’s learned.