When BET’s new show The Quad launched on February 1, 2017, it joined a long history of fictional works depicting black college life. Most people are familiar with its predecessors in TV and film, such as A Different World, School Daze, Stomp the Yard, and Drumline. But there are also novels of black college life that go all the way back to the early years of these institutions. One of the first black college novels, Imperium in Imperio by novelist and minister Sutton Griggs, was published soon after the first black colleges came into existence in the post-Civil War era, in 1899. The literary critic Hugh M. Gloster, president of Morehouse College from 1967 to 1986, was one of the earliest critics to analyze Griggs’ work. Imperium in Imperio was followed by other notable depictions of black college life in literary history, such as Nella Larsen’s Quicksand in 1928, J. Saunders Redding’s Stranger and Alone in 1950, and Ralph Ellison’s indelible depiction of a fictionalized Tuskegee University in Invisible Man in 1952.
These works can be read as counter-narratives to racist depictions of black people, and came from the need and desire to represent the complexity of black academic and intellectual life against white supremacist ideas about black intelligence and educability. Readers and viewers embraced these depictions of black college life because they offered alternatives to racist media depictions of black people as criminals or buffoons. Ralph Ellison, for instance, explicitly wrote about how he wanted to give his narrator in Invisible Man a kind of intellectual life that he didn’t see in the fiction of his time (including Richard Wright’s Native Son). By showing black characters as students, professors, and administrators, these works helped to normalize black intellectual life, and inspire young black people to see this life as a possibility for themselves.
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Having studied this topic for a while, I’ve realized that Bill Cosby’s presence looms over any attempt to talk about representations of higher education in popular culture. This was really his wheelhouse. The Cosby Show wasn’t exactly a college narrative, but just barely. Heathcliff (Bill Cosby) and his wife Clair (Phylicia Rashad) were graduates of the fictional Hillman College, and their daughter Denise (Lisa Bonet) followed in their footsteps. It was the daughter’s storyline through which The Cosby Show spawned the college-themed spinoff A Different World set in Hillman College. The Cosby Show and A Different World were both influential in their depictions of what W. E. B. Du Bois dubbed “The Talented Tenth,” a class of “exceptional men” who would lead the African-Americans in post-slavery America.
However, for reasons that should be obvious by now, we can’t innocently accept Cosby anymore. And a serious evaluation of his problematic legacy actually raises some of the most pressing issues in black academic fiction as whole, including matters of class, gender, respectability, and elitism.
In fall 1997, I played in the first home game of the season against Morgan State University — a game that was dubbed The Ennis Cosby Classic — as a sophomore defensive tackle on the Morehouse College Maroon Tigers football team. It was less than a year after Ennis Cosby, the son of Bill and Camille Cosby, was murdered in a carjacking near Interstate 405 in Los Angeles. Ennis was an alumnus of Morehouse, and the Cosbys were generous financial supporters of Morehouse and Spelman. That afternoon, Bill Cosby himself was roaming the sidelines. Like many black college students in the 90s, I grew up with a weekly Thursday night dose of The Cosby Show and A Different World. It was a head trip to stand on the same field with him.
So believe me when I say it brings me no joy to see how his legacy has been tarnished by his heinous and hypocritical actions. And no, this is not about attacking a black male celebrity for his transgressions while letting white men like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski off the hook. And it’s not about railroading him from buying NBC, either (as the internet conspiracy theory goes).
Even before the news about Bill Cosby’s crimes became public, The Cosby Show was already a bit of a problem. The show was celebrated for diversifying images of blackness on television by showing an upper-class black family headed by two professionals, a doctor and a lawyer. The show won over white audiences by presenting the Huxtables as exemplars of blacks who had triumphed over racism without any complaints about injustice. But that performance for whiteness was part of its problem. As the writer Kiese Laymon eloquently said, “Bill Cosby seemed obsessed with how white folks watched black folks watch ourselves watch him.”
For the loyal Bill Cosby defenders, the goalposts have already moved. His supporters can no longer dismiss the sexual assault complaints against him as outlandishly false. We’re talking about someone who went around to churches and community centers all across the country lecturing black people on promiscuity and irresponsibility while also doing drugs and having sex with numerous women. (Even if it was all consensual — which is unlikely — Cosby’s hypocrisy is staggering.) We’re talking about someone who stood up and gave sanctimonious lectures about promiscuity and personal responsibility knowing that he had already fathered a child with at least one woman other than his wife, a fact that Cosby himself has admitted.
What Cosby did is shameful, but his actions serve as an opportunity to reconsider his particular brand of respectability politics, and an opportunity to rethink how black higher education comes with certain expectations of misogyny and anti-blackness. Respectability politics have too often marginalized black women and black LGBTQ persons. Too often have the black elite turned women, queers, the poor, and the uneducated into scapegoats for systemic inequalities. In Manning the Race: Reforming Black Men in the Jim Crow Era, author Marlon Ross identifies a concept he calls “the paradox of Jim Crow masculinity.” Ross states, “The more black men attempt to man the race through a fit masculinity patterned on dominant gender norms, the more they risk emulating the white ruling men whose Jim Crow racial/sexual codes unman them.” By attempting to man the race through a rigid heterosexual patriarchy, Cosby emulated the worst aspects of white supremacy’s norms: the routine, uncontested rape and abuse of black women, men, boys, and girls. He emulated its moral hypocrisies, publicly claiming piety while committing crimes.
I think back to that football game in 1997 with painful and complicated feelings. That game was a celebration of the life of his son, — a life lost violently and too soon — and it was meant to be a celebration of the Cosby family’s ties to my alma mater. But those ties have already eroded. As I watched institutions rescind the honorary doctorates they gave to Cosby, I kept my eyes on my sister school, Spelman College. The Cosbys gave Spelman over $20 million dollars, one of the largest gifts made by a black donor to a historically black college and university (HBCU). Spelman had the Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby, Ed.D. Academic Center, and The William and Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby Endowed Professorship. In July, 2015, Spelman College decided to terminate the name of the professorship. I knew Spelman was not going to make a rash decision and persecute one of their biggest donors with no evidence. And so I had to follow my sister school’s lead: Bill Cosby and I are done.
That said, the shows that Cosby created are undeniably important cultural artifacts. And there were many people who starred in and worked on them who still deserve to be celebrated. I can’t erase The Cosby Show from memory like former lovers did with each other in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I still get enjoyment out of A Different World, and the show is still a source of pride for HBCU alumni and an inspiration to high school students applying to black colleges. Like many fans of A Different World, I’m getting a kick out of seeing one of its stars, Jasmine Guy, play a professor on The Quad.
I’ve decided that Bill Cosby represents everything that I don’t want these works to represent for me. I see him now as a cautionary tale about the ways educated black people can be weaponized against other black folks. I study black academic fiction because I think these stories insist upon a complexity of black life in a way that I find inspiring, and I love the way that the history of black colleges is celebrated and even interrogated in these works. I hope we see more of that complexity in shows like The Quad, and in other novels, films, and television shows to come.