And now, round two. You are aware that Bill Cosby has been going around the country telling poor black folks (indirectly) to get their act...
And now, round two. You are aware that Bill Cosby has been going around the country telling poor black folks (indirectly) to get their act together. Well, now Michael Eric Dyson, who championed hip-hop culture in previous books, has counterattacked.
His new book, “Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?” dissects both Cosby and his criticisms.
Dyson, a professor of African-American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, is in Seattle today talking about his book and about what he says is an assault on the poor by black middle-class folk.
“I think it is easy to jump on the poor,” he told me in a phone conversation Tuesday, in between radio interviews in Los Angeles. “Jumping on poor people is a national habit.” It’s what we do, he said, instead of finding and fixing the causes of poverty.
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Dyson is talking about social responsibility. Cosby has been speaking about personal responsibility.
The two things aren’t mutually exclusive, and, in fact, we can’t do much about poverty and its attendant ills without employing both. Dyson acknowledges as much in his book, and much of his criticism of Cosby derives from the comedian’s silence on the ills of the greater society and its failure to address poverty and racial inequality.
Last year at an NAACP dinner, Cosby let loose.
Author appearance today
Michael Eric Dyson will be discussing his book, “Is Bill Cosby Right? Or has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?” at noon today at Elliot Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., in Seattle.
“These people marched and were hit in the face with rocks to get an education, and now we’ve got these knuckleheads walking around,” he declared.
“The lower economic people are not holding up their end in this deal. These people are not parenting. They are buying things for kids — $500 sneakers for what? And won’t spend $200 for ‘Hooked on Phonics.’
“I can’t even talk the way these people talk: ‘Why you ain’t,’ ‘Where you is.’ “
I understood his frustration with people who fail themselves and society, but I took issue with his willingness to condemn all poor black people and the absence of any critique of middle- and upper-class black folks, his peers. And what about the rest of society?
Dyson says the lack of morality, the materialism and promiscuity that is condemned in poor black folks is the stuff that makes Paris Hilton a star. Those failings can be found throughout our society.
Cosby threw out statistics on education, crime and other issues that were decades out of date, and worse, he was plain mean in some of his comments.
Dyson brings some of his own nastiness to the party.
He justifiably applies the same standards to Cosby that the entertainer applied to the black poor, but he takes too much space doing it and diverting the reader from the solid, informative history and social analysis that makes up the rest of the book.
Dyson rips Cosby for his own poor performance in school and for getting a doctorate based on writing about his “Fat Albert” characters. He goes over the various allegations of extramarital relationships, and writes about Cosby’s daughter Erinn blaming her father’s absence for many of her personal problems.
He also lashes Cosby for staying aloof during the peak of the civil- rights movement, avoiding saying or doing anything that could offend his white fans. He makes only brief mention of the millions Cosby has given to helping educate young black people.
Dyson is better discussing the long history of black middle-class disdain toward the poor, much of which is rooted in a desire not to give white people a reason to look askance at them.
It’s a mixed history of leadership and aid from the black middle class on the one hand and scorn on the other. (Rich people of other races of course love poor folks of similar hue.)
Dyson writes of the desire black folks have to get beyond the stereotypes created by white people. People embrace archetypes of virtue, like the characters Sidney Poitier played, to counter vile or subservient images. They want to talk only about the good and glorious.
But, he says, there is a step beyond that, what he calls the antitype. He lists Dave Chappelle and Richard Pryor as embodying that willingness to talk about the good and the bad, to recognize the entire community.
This isn’t an entirely black debate. In one of his comments, Cosby said white people are laughing at us, a statement that reflects a lack of faith in the good will of Americans who are not black. Often that fear lies at the root of middle-class impatience with any behavior that might give other people justification for poor treatment of all black people.
Black people who are more hopeful are also more open.
I don’t think the black middle class has lost its mind, but sometimes we all need to take a deep breath and consider what is in our hearts before we engage our mouths.