It was October of 2015 when Ebony magazine took a step out on the limb and depicted Heathcliff Huxtable, the iconic dad from The Cosby Show played by Bill Cosby, in the form of a shattered picture frame with one of the greatest Black families ever portrayed on television.
It was a moment in history as we all witness to what it looks like when Black institutions understand the importance of challenging the African-American community on topics that far too often get swept under the rug. In this case said topic is alleged sexual assault committed by a revered public figure.
However, as karma would have it, Ebony and Bill Cosby have both been put on trial as of late in the court of public opinion, causing many to draw lines in how far they will go to protect Blackness, even when it isn’t protecting us.
Cosby’s last two years have been nothing short of a fall from grace. With the number of accusers now at over 60, one would’ve thought the final nails would be sealing the coffin by now. Many in our community, however, are unwilling to let the man, Bill Cosby, be taken down at the expense of losing the character, Heathcliff Huxtable, the role model and dad that resonates with so many.
As his trial began last week for the 2004 allegations made by Andrea Constand, Cosby, now 79, stood looking much like a shell of the man we saw on TV so many years ago. There to lend support was none other than his Cosby TV daughter, Keisha Knight Pulliam, walking arm in arm with the comedian to the courtroom. Several others, such as Phylicia Rashad, are also scheduled to make appearances on behalf of the embattled star, as many others within the Black community remain divided between the positions of “innocent until proven guilty” and “where there is smoke there is fire.”
Although many remain defensive of Cosby and his “legacy,” he has never minced his words when describing the Black community from an elitist point of view. Cosby has made several public statements critiquing the black community, in particular his 2004 “Pound Cake Speech.” To summarize, Cosby demeaned women for being single, unwed mothers and having multiple babies by different men. He also alluded to the fact that people being killed by police for stealing pound cake was justifiable.
He has also demeaned Black men, telling them they need to “pull up their pants,” a quote that now haunts him during his sexual assault trial, where many are punning that he should’ve practiced what he preached. Yet, Black people, many of whom fall under these categories of critique, are unwilling to do so against the star. The allegations of Cosby’s improprieties, which directly contradicts the lovable character from The Cosby Show, have gone without much critique from the community.
It wasn’t until Ebony magazine’s controversial cover story that others felt more willing to discuss the issue, as fear of backlash or isolation from the community is greatly felt. Twenty months after the publishing of its Cosby cover, Ebony is getting a dose of its own medicine, as the historic publication’s reputation stands in the balance after dozens of writers claim they’ve yet to get paid for their work.
For about two months, the #EbonyOwes hashtag has taken over Twitter. Started by freelancers who the magazine had gone months (and in some cases years) without paying, it was an attempt to bring visibility to the problem of what can happen when we choose to protect Black institutions at all costs. Many of those who are owed, understanding the importance of visibility and representation, were willing to protect the now tarnished brand, rather than publicly hold the publication accountable. This is especially the case when one considers the decline of Black media publications in a overwhelmingly white-centered field.
Enough was enough, however, and many freelance journalists began telling their truth. Several articles had been written, and the list of names joining the hashtag continued to grow as did the amount owed, now totaling over $30k. Rather than Ebony see this and respond accordingly, (or simply cut the checks) they began unfollowing and blocking some of the top Black journalists in the country who decided to speak up. They even took it a step further and got many of the tweets from the hashtag removed as “spam.”
As people took notice, more offered critique until new owner Willard Jackson was forced to publicly respond, promising that all freelancers would be paid. Still, the damage has already been done as many will never write for nor support the publication again.
Critiquing Blackness as a Black person is complicated, complex and requires much nuance to navigate the conversation. There is a two-fold danger that comes into play when doing so, which is why many remain hesitant. The first being loss of community support. As with Ebony, many feared that the backlash could lead to loss of professional connections and future income if they ever stood up to the publication. The many who have done so now know they can never again write for Ebony, which was once heralded as the pinnacle of Black journalism. Additionally, speaking up on what is owed to them may also make other publications think twice before hiring them as well.
On the other hand, being critical of our own presents a feared reality that it could validate the discrimination and stereotyping of Black businesses, and by and large Black people. The case of Bill Cosby best describes this, as we do know that challenging the iconic figure could lend credence to the belief that Black people are more violent, sexually deviant, and perpetuate the destruction of the image of the Black man. However, inaction on critique can be just as dangerous as it creates a false image of perfection, denying those who are unable to attain these projections the right to be imperfect.
As a community we find ourselves in a conundrum where we must be able to critique our own while protecting the overarching ideals of Blackness from those who attempt to damage our culture.
As the public trials of Bill Cosby and Ebony magazine continue, we as a community must learn that all skinfolk ain’t kinfolk; that protecting Black institutions and Black people only becomes toxic when these same institutions and people don’t reciprocate those very same protections. Silence against what is wrong is equal to complicity, and no one should be protected from wrong doing simply because they are Black.
George M. Johnson is a journalist and activist based in the Washington, D.C. area. He has written for EBONY.com, TheGrio, JET, Pride.com, Thebody.com, and The Huffington Post on topics of health, race, gender, sex, and education. Follow him on Twitter: @iamgmjohnson.