Pundits and bloggers have been weighing in on the latest offering from Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint, generally by focusing on their appearances on Oprah and Meet the Press last week. I have held off in voicing my opinion because I wanted to read the actual book before commenting.
Now that I've both read the book and watched MTP on the web, I have to express my commendation and my concern. I want to commend Cosby and Poussaint for their role in restoring the conversation about the relative importance of personal behavior and systemic adversity in determining the future of Black people. I appreciate the passion, candor, and caring for Black people that I saw in the book and heard in the interview. I agree wholeheartedly that self-defeating attitudes and irresponsible behavior are crippling some Black people, especially youth. And God knows that as a single,educated Black woman who wants to be married to a Black man, I am heartbroken because of the lost and wasted talent, energy, intelligence of Black men who populate prison or who wander aimlessly.
The book is easy to read, divided into short sections that offer practical instruction about subjects from crime to childrearing, health care to financial management. All of these subjects are intended to speak holistically to the African American condition and respond to the need for guidance that Cosby and Poussaint perceive. Unfortunately, the most nuanced discussions are found at the end of the book, by which time the faint of heart might have already given up on being inspired and instructed rather than simply patronized and insulted.
The tone of the book gives me pause, especially its disdainful dismissal of every countercultural or subcultural aspect of Black life, especially hip hop music and Black English. Although Cosby's life as an entertainer has given him the notoriety that makes his opinions publishable, the rhetorical conventions and the tendency to exaggerate that characterize comedy may be counterproductive to advancing his message.
It is one thing to acknowledge the need for developing skill in standard English, especially when interacting with the dominant culture. It is another to repeat that "You can't land a plane in Rome saying, 'Whassup?'" (7) At such moments, and there are a few in the book, an ugly air of condescension calls the expressions of compassion and concern into question.
I too dislike the fashion statement of jeans so baggy that the underwear is exposed. But the solution is not to heckle the wearer, but rather to demonstrate that modesty is sensible and that different occasions call for different uniforms. It's not true that you can't get a job or can't work a job dressed in urban fashions. The question has to be what kind of job do you want, and are you really willing to do what it takes to grow into a position that will allow you the freedom of artistic expression in your dress.
Ultimately, as I watched Cosby and Poussaint I realized how much this debate exposes a significant generation gap. Oprah's website dubbed Cosby "America's Favorite Dad." But for what generation? The Cosby Show, though in syndication, was for another generation. Cosby's Fatherhood was published in 1987. I wonder whether Cosby and Poussaint have the relationship with their target group that will allow the best parts of their message to take root. Generations past heeded the voice of the elders because they had reason to trust them, not simply because the norms of the community demanded that elders be respected.
There is no doubt that the time of reckoning has come for our community. If we do not address some of the issues that Come On People raises, we will not survive. Despite some weaknesses, Cosby and Poussaint have written a book that is driving that conversation.