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I’ve had people ask me why I wasn’t publicly talking more about the recent wave of Bill Cosby allegations, and all I’ve said is that I believe the victims and I honor them choosing to speak out, as well as those in the media who are disseminating their stories. I cherish their voices, all of their voices, in the times when I am not up to the task of more vigilantly defending my defense of them.
Personally, I had heard rumblings of rape allegations against Bill Cosby many years ago. Some news report or another made its way into my young consciousness but seemed to disappear as quickly as it came. The current shitstorm, on the other hand, is not disappearing anytime soon.
Many attribute it to a viral clip of comic Hannibal Burress’ standup in which he flat out calls Bill Cosby a rapist and then tells the audience “When you leave here, Google Bill Cosby rape.” Shortly thereafter, Barbara Bowman detailed her alleged rape by Mr. Cosby to the Washington Post, Joan Tarshis came forward with detailed allegations, and many more women began publicly alleging similar stories of being drugged and assaulted.
On social media, I see amateur Cosby Defenders arguing every day, shaming the women making the allegations and demanding hard evidence. In addition to your basic garden variety victim-blaming, there is also a racial component at play.
There are huge swaths of black people convinced that this is a conspiracy orchestrated by some unknown white entity to take down a Powerful Black Man. Some also think that Unknown White Entity has orchestrated the chorus of allegations as a distraction from other pressing matters affecting black people, ostensibly to leave us confused and unfocused and (I suppose) perpetually repressed as a people.
I would love to just dismiss these conspiracy theorists on sight, but they’re a dangerous flavor of fool. They’re black celebrities with large followings, like Jill Scott, Faizon Love, Pete Rock, and Azealia Banks, who tweeted last week that “them bitches frontin’ like they wasn’t trying to get some of that pudding pop!!!!” They’re friends and family showing their incredibly misogynistic true colors online or at holiday gatherings. They’re otherwise rational people that grew up feeling like Cosby Kids who refuse to let that go.
Then along came Beverly Johnson. In a stunning essay in Vanity Fair, Ms. Johnson not only adds her formidable name to the very long list of Cosby accusers, speaking of how she was drugged but ultimately escaped Mr. Cosby’s home before further assault could occur, but she also beautifully articulates the racial burden as one of her multiple reasons for not having said something sooner:
“As I thought of going public with what follows, a voice in my head kept whispering, ‘Black men have enough enemies out there already, they certainly don’t need someone like you, an African American with a familiar face and a famous name, fanning the flames’…As I wrestled with the idea of telling my story of the day Bill Cosby drugged me with the intention of doing God knows what, the faces of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and countless other brown and black men took residence in my mind.”
I can’t speak for Ms. Johnson, but I know that when I bring up Trayvon, Michael, or Eric (or John, Tamir, the list goes on…) it’s not for shock value or media cred. It’s not fun to be on the cable news talking about the darkest moments of our lives or weeping for a murdered soul who will never see justice.
We say these things because they are true, because we have to look at the ugliest parts of society if we’re going to heal them, and sometimes because we need to say them out loud and someone else, someone that we may never even know, needs to hear them.
When Beverly Johnson’s spoke of her fear of being “dismiss[ed] as an angry black woman,” I felt it in my gut. I live with that fear every day. Our legitimate complaints are constantly met with that label. If I remain mum, I’m silenced. And if I object, I’m “angry” just like they said I was.
When I was raped, my attacker was also someone I knew. I didn’t tell anyone for years, and he’s just an ordinary piece of shit rapist, not America’s Dad. The myth that rape always happens by a Big Bad Stranger in a dark alley is already pervasive enough; Bill Cosby represents the ultimate Good Guy to so many, enjoying benefit of the doubt granted by status and idolatry. I never had any defense or silent complicity to offer Mr. Cosby based on blackness, but as Ms. Johnson so eloquently wrote, it is always a consideration. To speak out against him or support his accusers carries the burden of possibly being seen as a race traitor. He’s been elevated to deity status in the minds of many, because they believe he’s “done more for the image of Brown people [than] almost anyone EVER,” to quote Jill Scott.
Such selective idolatry overlooks the fact that over the past decade, Mr. Cosby has been on speaking tours wherein he “calls out” black communities for their “apathy,” and complaining about things like slang use and people who name their children “Shaniqua, Taliqua and Muhammad and all that crap.”
So we can add to the Cosby Defenders’ Buffet of Irony and Foolishness the plain fact that Mr. Cosby would probably look right down his nose at many of the young black men coming to his defense.
As would much of law enforcement, it would seem. Our country has buried too many black men (and boys, and women) this year alone at the hands of police for it to make any sense for black men to suddenly trust wholeheartedly in the law and due process when the subject turns to Bill Cosby, demanding cross examination like they’ve been to law school and calling for rape kits as though those aren’t just two words they heard on TV.
Yet because we’ve seen the unjust loss of so many black bodies (male and female, of course), that fear of contributing to the systemic denigration of our own can inhibit even the most justified of complaints. In an already unbalanced system, the danger of contributing to that is significant when calling out an individual’s transgressions in a society that doesn’t honor our individuality or humanity.
Then come the personal attacks. Every time I speak out about street harassment, someone assumes I’m speaking exclusively about black men (I’m not), and sends vitriol my way. There are black men whose displaced anger at certain legitimate threats gets repurposed and delivered to those of us who speak on it, and there are women who need to be down with the patriarchy so badly that they’ll blindly follow and sling accusations as well.
I wrote here about how disgusted I was when Hollaback’s hidden camera street harassment video went viral because it featured almost exclusively black harassers. I step up for black men. I would hope that those who seek to question me would check my receipts, but sadly such is the level of systemic denigration that it’s easy to lash out at even those trying to help. In that context, it can be tempting to err on the side of caution in the name of social justice, even if that risks injustice to oneself.
Then along came Beverly Johnson.
Those who blindly defend Bill Cosby said it was just white women conspiring against a black man. They said the women were “old” and “didn’t make it” career-wise, so they’re looking for money or book deals or fame. When a more famous face came forward, they called Janice Dickinson every kind of drunk and junkie.
Then along came Beverly Johnson.
I hate what I’m about to say, but I’m going to say it: Beverly Johnson may be the “right” kind of victim in this scenario to open more minds up to believing the victims. Not only is she black herself, but she’s no slouch in the Inspiring Our People department, having been the first black woman on the cover of Vogue in 1974, a successful actress and entrepreneur in recent decades, and a personal role model to me. Ms. Johnson has no reason to lie, but many reasons to tell the truth:
“Over the years I’ve met other women who also claim to have been violated by Cosby. Many are still afraid to speak up. I couldn’t sit back and watch the other women be vilified and shamed for something I knew was true.”
I wish she had never been victimized and I imply no celebratory tone in using the word “right.” For these women to have had to endure all of this pain for so long is decidedly wrong, and in reality, there is no “right” kind of victim.
But in a world where I have been hearing non-stop excuses like “Why would a rich and famous megastar even need to rape anyone?!” reality can seem like a far-off dream. Sex workers, men, women, wives, husbands, domestic partners; anyone could be a victim, and it’s not fair that our lives are dissected and everything from our looks to our wardrobe to our behavior is held up for scrutiny or possible “cause” when we speak of our assaults. It is not fair to think that some victims are more “believable” than others. But none of this is fair. We just have to keep speaking up.
As of this writing, Beverly Johnson is both changing minds and getting blowback for her courageous words. What she said resonated so deeply with me that I was shaking. Bill Cosby may still have legions of defenders, but I salute Ms. Johnson and every single woman on the lost list of accusers. Rape is the rapist’s fault, and as Ms. Johnson says:
“Finally, I reached the conclusion that the current attack on African American men has absolutely nothing to do at all with Bill Cosby. He brought this on himself when he decided he had the right to have his way with who knows how many women over the last four decades.”
Your story may scare you and you might be afraid of what they’ll call you, but if you want to, you can tell it. “They” may ask why you waited, but the collective courage of these women is showing us that it’s never too late to say something.