Back in May, Bill Cosby got a lot of attention for chastising poor black folks, saying they didn’t know how to talk right and a lot of other stuff. Some folks — black and white — stood up and cheered, saying it was about time somebody told the truth. Others, such as myself, were pretty ticked off at Brother Cosby. Some were upset at what he said, while others — again such as myself — were more upset at how he said it. I figured the black poor have enough problems without having to listen to a black millionaire — and ex-member of the poor — beating up on them for letting the rest of us down.
Lately, according to the Associated Press, Cosby has been at it again. Apparently he wanted to get it on the record that he didn’t regret a single thing he had said earlier. After adding a few more choice observations about the declining condition of his brethren, Cosby essentially told his critics to grow the fuck up and pay attention to what’s really going on. For those who are worried that the white folks will now be exposed to our all-in-the-family secrets, otherwise known as “dirty laundry,” Cosby said, “Let me tell you something; Your dirty laundry gets out of school at 2:30 every day. It’s cursing and calling each other ‘nigger’ as they’re walking up and down the street. … They think they’re hip. They can’t read, they can’t write. They’re laughing and giggling, and they’re going nowhere.”
Cosby made these comments at the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition & Citizenship Education Fund’s annual conference in Chicago where he had been invited to speak by the organization’s founder, the Rev. Jesse Jackson. The fact that Rev. Jackson had invited him to speak got my attention. For one thing, it let me know that Cosby’s comments sparked a level of conversation and dialogue that isn’t likely to wither away anytime soon. When the story first broke I suspected this might be one of those quickly forgotten brushfire stories, but the flames seem headed for the forest. Hey, if Rev. Jackson is helping Cosby to promote a message so openly critical of the black community — something Jackson isn’t necessarily known for — then this issue just might have legs.
Reading what Cosby says still makes me somewhat uncomfortable, but to say that Cosby is way off the mark would only be wishful thinking. While I don’t think it’s fair to point the finger only at the black poor, because more than plenty of black middle-class youngsters are exhibiting the same behavior that gets the Coz so worked up, it is nevertheless impossible to ignore the fact that something is terribly wrong, and it is hardly a secret known only to the black community. By now everybody knows about the disproportionate number of black men in prison, the exceedingly high rate of functional illiteracy in prison, the high number of black kids dropping out of high school, the stomach-churning lyrics of many rap songs promoting everything from pimps to murder as a celebration of the “gangsta” lifestyle, and on and on.
“For me there is a time when we have to turn the mirror around, because for me it is almost analgesic to talk about what the white man is doing against us. And it keeps a person frozen in their seat,” said Cosby. “It keeps you frozen in your hole you’re sitting in.”
Reading what Cosby said this month as well as what he said in May caused me to think back on the few years that I lived in an apartment complex in the Harbortown area before moving to the West Side where I now live. The building was fine, but it got to the point where I dreaded coming home from gigs on weekends during the summer months — or from anywhere else late at night — because I had to come down Jefferson. The cars and SUVs would be back-to-back up and down both sides of the street full of young kids boiling over at the joy of being out of the house and raising hell. I never could quite understand how so many of these kids were driving big, beautiful, expensive, gas-guzzling vehicles when all I could afford while working a good-paying job at a major newspaper was a used Honda Prelude. Either I was working at the wrong good-paying job or I should have applied for a wealthier set of parents.
By the time I got near Joseph Campau where I had to turn off, I usually had to convince the police, who had blocked off my street, that yes, I really did live right there in that building and all I wanted was to get through the blockade so I could park my car, grab my gear, drag my tired behind up to my apartment and crash.
Only I couldn’t crash for at least an hour or more when I lived on the first floor just over Woodbridge Avenue. There was a nightclub down the street, and every weekend the cars full of young patrons in search of nonexistent parking would clog up Woodbridge; each car pulsed and vibrated with rap music turned up so loud I’m surprised they didn’t simply explode. My bedroom windows would shake to the point of breaking. If you told them to quiet it down because it was 2 a.m. and people who lived there were actually trying to sleep, you could count on at least several of those fine upstanding youngsters to curse you out. Then they would laugh. Then somebody in the building would call the cops. Again. Then the cops would come and eventually squeeze the kids out of there. That usually took more than an hour during which time there was frequently a police lineup of young black males spread-eagled up against the wall right across the street from my window. This happened every weekend.
Meanwhile, at the Shell station on Jefferson and Joseph Campau — I remember when the kids used to take that station over on the weekend nights to the point where nobody could get gas. The whole Shell station lot was packed with cars full of kids that, as far as I could see, were just parked there as they yelled obscenities back and forth at their friends. Eventually a police officer was stationed there so the place could do business with actual customers.
Yes, I raised more than my share of hell when I was their age. So did my friends. Yes, I regularly ignore the King’s English to this day, especially when hanging out with my buddies. I don’t just ignore it, I shoot it on sight. I freely admit that. I never thought the day would come when I would have to say, “I was young once.” But I also don’t think I ever foresaw the day when I would so often see such a level of raging disrespect and flaunted ugliness among so many of us. I still can’t adjust to it.
I don’t know all the reasons for it, and I’m getting to the point where I don’t really care. And that’s not good. It’s not good at all. It’s ugly.
And that’s exactly what is making Cosby shout out loud.Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org