Bill Cosby is frustrated, but unafraid to push his message

August 11, 2006|By CLARENCE PAGE

Here's a scoop for you, America: Bill Cosby has a hard time getting his message out.

"The media love to choose what they want to use," he said. "I can't go door to door to tell everyone what I really mean."

But William H. Cosby Jr., Ed.D., did manage to get a hold of your humble scribe on my cell phone during my vacation, scoring some rare cool points for me in the process by saying hi to my teenage son.

Mr. Cosby is like my 100-year-old Grandmother: You never know what to expect. My heart pounded. Was he calling to praise? To complain? To sue?

As it turned out, he was calling to complain, but not about me. He appreciated my recent column about the national debate he ignited with his now-famous speech on the 50th anniversary of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision.

No, Bill Cosby was calling out of frustration, he said, over failure of other media to report what he has been trying to say. The Washington Post, which first reported the uproar over his 2004 speech, and other media have focused too much, in his view, on his sarcastic language. Too little attention has been given to the problems about which he was speaking: crime, violence, school dropouts, out-of-wedlock births and other self-inflicted troubles among black youths who were left behind by civil rights reforms.

"Our children are trying to tell us something [with their self-destructive behavior], and we're not listening," he said.

The last straw for Mr. Cosby appears to have been Michael Eric Dyson, a University of Pennsylvania humanities professor and a Cosby critic. In a July 21 op-ed essay in the Post, Mr. Dyson lashed out at what he calls the comedian's "blame-the-poor tour" for ignoring major political and economic forces that continue to reinforce black poverty - low wages, outsourcing, urban disinvestment, unemployment and substandard schools.

"None of these can be overcome by the good behavior of poor blacks," Mr. Dyson declared.

But, of course, that statement is wrong, dangerously wrong in the disrespect it pays to the value of good behavior. As generations of successful black families can attest, good behavior won't solve all problems, but it beats drugs, crime, abuse, child neglect and other destructive behavior.

Mr. Cosby offered two stellar examples, Jachin Leatherman and Wayne Nesbit, who defied the usual young black male stereotypes by graduating at the top of their class from Ballou Senior High School, which has one of Washington's worst crime, poverty and dropout rates. Having survived distractions that included the shooting death of one of Wayne's football teammates, the two athletes are headed for College of the Holy Cross this fall.

At a July forum in Washington on black men in America, the two students were asked how they did it. They praised their fathers and their athletic coaches for "staying on top" of them.

"There's the answer right there," Mr. Cosby said. "Why won't the media cover that?"

In newsroom terms, the lads are a heartwarming but play-it-inside-the-news-pages human-interest article. Want more attention for your honor students? Let them hold up a liquor store.

Some people think Mr. Cosby, who has given millions for scholarships and black colleges, has come down too harshly on black parents who shun personal responsibility, blame police for incarcerations and let their children exalt sports and improper dialect over books and proper English.

I suggested earlier that Mr. Cosby might not have been harsh enough. For all of the burdens that we African-Americans have to bear from a legacy of historical and institutional racism, we also need to call each other to account for the damage we do to ourselves.

For starters, we could use a lot more fathers like those of the Ballou scholars. Unfortunately, good dads and good moms don't grow on trees, as my own dad used to say about money. If we, as a society, do not do all that we can to help families in crisis and encourage parental responsibility, we will reap the ugly dividends later in our streets.

That's Mr. Cosby's message. At least he has what some critics call his "bullying pulpit" to help get his message out - and he's not afraid to use it.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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