The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. Psalm 118:22-23 NRSV

Friday, October 19, 2007

Come On People

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.


T.Daniel said...

I am a 54 year of Black man that applauds Dr. Poussaint and Bill Cosby's audacity to fire a wake up volley across the country's collective consciousness. While I would not agree nor disagree with everything that they present, I would say now is the time to turn their constructive criticisms into action. I have experienced many of the very worst examples of negative and destructive behaviors that are prevalent in our communites and familes. Conversely, I have also experienced many of the better behaviors. The Black community isn't about negativity. It's about people struggling daily to survive. Parents attempting to provide basic security needs that many in the greater society take for granted. If I were to respond to "Come on People', my response would be thank you. Give me and my people a reason d'etre, motivation, a rallying call, and even anger. Most of all, "Come on People" should cause Americans, especially African Americans, to transition beyond outrage and meaningless debate to concrete solutions. The solutions are in the communities, one family at a time, ground zero, where church members live and worship. Parents and families partnering with school administrators to ensure our children receive the very best teachers have to offer. Churches, non profit organizations and city agencies providing parenting and family support programs. Programs that offer alternatives for people that are more susceptible to falling prey to destructive behaviors. The solutions are about providing a way out to families, one family at a time.

My family is an example of one of many Black families that applied solutions and with purpose rose beyond the community's low expectations. It all began with my mother. She understood the parent's role and ensured the kids understood theirs. That meant attending school and being "good" students. Her quality was parenting and the ability to invoke real fear if we did not obey. The streets might have been tough, but the expectations at home were tougher. Home was a safe haven where nurturing took place. My mother wasn't unique. There were other parents like her in our projects. It is time that these parents receive the tools they need that would allow them to transform communities. In summary, it's all about parenting, the key to preparing our children to challenge the the world as positive contributors. And when our kids do good, and that's frequently, tell the stories. Lift them up.

Not to be wrongly accused of hypocritical mouthing off, know that I and many men in my community actively support our church's Youth Detention Program, tutoring and mentoring programs. The work is plentiful but the laborers are too few and I will never grow tired of this life long journey. T. Daniel

Leslie D. Callahan said...

I applaud you Mr. Daniel for what you are doing and I applaud Cosby for what he has done and is doing for the community.

jlw said...

Thank you for this, Professor Callahan! Very astute and informative take on Cosby.

One Luv,