I have to listen to Bill Cosby’s accusers

Like most 1980’s babies, I grew up with the weekly genius that was The Cosby Show. While the majority of the world saw the Huxtable clan as America’s family, as a young black boy, the Huxtables were a black family first. It was a radical departure from the black and working class tropes played up on other hit shows like Good Times, What’s Happening, and Sanford and Son.

For many of my contemporaries, Bill Cosby not only ushered in the utopian vision of the black family but lit the path to get to Huxtable status via A Different World. Even a cursory survey of black college graduates will reveal its implicit or explicit influences on educational aspirations. A Different World either made us want to go to college, got the college-ready more interested in college, or caused us to take a closer look at the nation’s historically black colleges and universities through the eyes of the fictitious Hillman portrayed on the show.

In the eyes of America—black America particularly—Bill Cosby could do no wrong.

During a stand up performance in November, comedian Hannibal Buress ripped off the fabric covering the Band-Aid and the Band-Aid covering the scab that threatened to derail Cosby’s squeaky clean legacy ten years ago.

Bill Cosby has the fuckin’ smuggest old black man public persona that I hate,” Buress said. “He gets on TV, ‘Pull your pants up black people, I was on TV in the ‘80s! I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom!’ Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches.”

And just like that, Cosby’s house of cards began to crumble. There was the cancelled TV pilot that would’ve seen Cosby return to the small screen to delight a new generation of viewers and reintroduce old fans to his comedic genius. There were also cancelled concert dates.

The accusations? Sickening. Cosby stands accused of drugging and assaulting more than a dozen women, going back decades. Social media has been ablaze with Cosby defenders, who discredit those supporting the accusers with enough zeal to make one think they are paid members of the Cosby legal or crisis communications team.

I am not among them.

I cannot defend Bill Cosby. I will not defend Bill Cosby.

As one who has conducted workshops on the realities of domestic violence for young men and boys, my spider senses tingle at stories about sexual assault—in the media and in my personal life. The Average Joe I know accused of the things Cosby is accused of would no longer be welcome in my home if he wasn’t able to muster—at a bare minimum—a murmuring of innocence. That Cosby, a man who hit the lecture circuit to excoriate Black America on the virtues of personal responsibility, is unable to do that makes me think there’s fire beneath the smoke of these accusations.

More importantly, defending Bill Cosby requires me to betray everything I know about domestic violence and sexual assault.

It’s safe to assume that the vast majority of men know at least one victim. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network estimates that one in six women will be a victim during the course of their lifetime. That number jumps to nearly one in four for black women.

I’d like to think everyone in my company is one of the five, or among the three for black women. I’d like to delude myself into thinking that only people accused and convicted of violating a woman’s most sacred space are the ones who did it. And if I were ignorant and arrogant enough to shout victims into silence when this topic comes up—by asking what she  did to deserve it, by wondering if she really wanted it—I’d be successful at this utopian fantasy.

As an introverted man, I listen twice as much as I speak. I’ve heard the stories from my earliest years of college through the present. One by one, friends and ex-girlfriends reveal their secrets, that they too have been on the receiving end of a sexual assault. A few by men they didn’t know. The majority by men they did. Their stories are recounted with a remarkable amount of detail.

While sexual assault is an act of barbarism, the stories I’ve been told are largely absent the brutish nature we’d like to ascribe to the perfect victim. The victim that actively resists, the victim that fights, the victim who is savagely beaten or held at gun or knife-point. Most just want to make it out with as little physical damage as possible, opting to deal with the mental scars at a later date.

The number of victims I know is too many to count. The number who have filed a report? One. The number who took it to court? Zero.

When I read the stories of Cosby’s accusers, I’m taken back to those instant message and in-person conversations with the women I know. Those who, despite all rational thought to the contrary, blame themselves and wonder what they could’ve done differently.

When I read Beverly Johnson’s account, I was reminded of domestic violence training and how reluctant women are to get “good” black men mixed up in a criminal justice system that is not often kind to us to begin with:

Still I struggled with how to reveal my big secret, and more importantly, what would people think when and if I did? Would they dismiss me as an angry black woman intent on ruining the image of one of the most revered men in the African American community over the last 40 years? Or would they see my open and honest account of being betrayed by one of the country’s most powerful, influential, and beloved entertainers?

Due to the statute of limitations, Cosby will never face these allegations in a court of law. This provides an all too convenient cover for those who wish to dismiss the claims of these women as a vast media conspiracy to bring down a black man who hasn’t been at the height of pop culture since the ‘90s.

The court of public opinion has no such statute of limitations and the Cosby legacy—rightly or wrongly—will be tried much like he rose to fame: in front of an audience.

For the men quick to vocally dismiss Cosby’s accusers for not being the perfect victims, I can only suggest a more compassionate stance.

If you listen closely and talk slowly, you’ll find Beverly Johnsons and Barbara Bowmans in your circle.

Listen to them.

More importantly, believe them.

This post originally appeared on The Good Men Project and has been reprinted with permission.

Illustration via Crystal/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)