Columnist Gregory Kane retells a by-now infamous Malcolm X story. The civil rights leader, standing outside of a black housing project, asks his followers how many reference books and dictionaries they'd expect to find if they searched every apartment therein.
"Enough to fill a trunk of this car? Enough to fill a suitcase?"
That the question was worth pondering betrays its answer — not many. Certainly not enough.
"Malcolm was saying," Kane explains, "that being black and poor didn't absolve poor black folks of their responsibility to 'hold up their end of the bargain' in education. If there are no reference books, dictionaries, and other reading material in poor black homes, then who's to blame?"
Since deciding, in 2004, to speak out on the social ills that mar the black community — violence, illegitimacy, and miseducation chief among them, Bill Cosby has been branded with the scarlet letter of elitism.
But Cosby's latest effort, Come On, People: On the Path from Victims to Victors, a collection of testimonials from Cosby's Call-Outs from the last several years, overlaid with Cosby's own commentary, seeks to clear the air.
There's a thin line between tough love and outright contempt, and Cosby's critics, led by University of Pennsylvania professor Michael Eric Dyson, believe he's crossed it.
Dyson, who could not be reached in multiple attempts, is author of the 2006 bestseller Is Cosby Right? and self-styled defender of black Americans "left behind" after the civil rights revolution.
Cosby's critics claim the entertainer's interest in the black community is new-fangled. That Cosby, for decades, never spoke about race, preferring "universal themes."
But the notion that Cosby's roots with the black community are only three and a half years deep is laughable. Since co-starring in I Spy, 42 years ago, Bill Cosby has been consistently put his fame and talents to use in the black community.
Cosby's epic $20 million donation to Tuskegee University in 1989 kept the historically-black college's doors open. Spike Lee's epic Malcolm X wouldn't have seen theaters but for Cosby's largesse. And according to Poussaint, Cosby has sent scores of black youth to college over the years, and sought neither credit nor publicity. Perhaps that's why Cosby's critics are so foggy on his record.
Indeed, Cosby wouldn't have met his co-author but for his work in the black community. The two met, over 30 years ago, at a BlackExpo event at which Cosby was performing. Cosby the entertainer made fast friends with Poussaint the doctor.
Astute readers will remember Poussaint as a consultant on The Cosby Show, a partnership that's persisted into other ventures, including The Cosby Show's spinoff, A Different World, based in fictitious historically-black Hillman University.
"Part of my job was to make sure that the show wasn't stereotypic, and that it was psychologically believable," said Poussaint, now director of the Judge Baker Children's Center at Harvard University. Poussaint's work at Judge Baker involves troubles children with emotional problems and the impact of sexualized media on young girls.
Poussaint's task, in Come On, People was to put Cosby's ideas into words. Much of the book is derivative from dialogues at Cosby's Call-Outs, but Poussaint's expertise in media as relates to child development came in handy.
"It was always important, to Cosby, that we stressed education," Poussaint recalled. "That's why he'd wear sweatshirts from black colleges on The Cosby Show — he wanted black parents thinking about sending their children to college, and he wanted black youth thinking about going to college."
"And [Cosby] absolutely wanted to highlight the importance of fathers in the home environment."
When asked about Dyson's carping, Poussaint takes the high road. "I don't know what's going on in Michael Eric Dyson's head," Dr. Poussaint answered, tersely.
But, no good deed goes unpunished, and Cosby's haven't. Still, if Cosby's history doesn't free him from criticism, then Dyson's certainly doesn't, as Cosby asserted at a Washington, D.C. Call-Out in May 2006.
"Bill Cosby can be a very funny guy," wrote Clarence Page of The Chicago Tribune, "but he does not suffer fools gladly."
After a heckler insisted that Cosby address Professor Dyson's criticisms head-on, Cosby leapt from the stage and came down near the heckler. Page reported the scene: "I'm sick of you and your Dyson," Cosby declared. "Dyson is not a truthful man."
"How much does it cost to go to Penn?" Cosby demanded. "How many black students go to Penn?"
Then Cosby struck the kill blow: "If Dyson taught at a school like UDC (University of the District of Columbia), that serves mostly lower-income non-whites, then maybe he could talk."
Still, one of the more effective criticisms of Cosby's approach is that no one likes a sermon. Why, it's been wondered, does a man who has made a career of humor based on what Poussaint referred to as "universal themes" choose, now, to finger-wag and give speeches?
Those critiques have been well-heeded.
Tracy Dell'Angela and Johnathon E. Briggs, also of The Chicago Tribune, reported the scene from a December 2006 Call-Out, at which Cosby seduced — not scolded — his audience, to great effect. "Instead of railing about teenage pregnancies," they write, "Cosby urged the crowd to set straight any young girl who says she wants to have a baby because she wants someone to love her. "Tell her to her face: "The baby has not signed the contract,"" he said, drawing laughter and some head shaking."
When Cosby preaches finger-wagging Jeremiads against the lifestyles of poor blacks, all the history in the world doesn't matter, because no one likes being judged. But when Cosby plays the charmer, he can get away with most anything.
Black America can handle tough love; all it asks is that Cosby not forget that second element.
Maybe it's true, after all, that it's not what you say, but how you say it.