You could almost hear the glass shatter when Ebony magazine's November "Family Issue(s)" cover exploded across social media Thursday, shards of conflicting emotions piercing the soul of black America.
Front and center is the Huxtable family, minus Sandra, frozen as many of us remember them: happy, beautiful and black. The smiling face of patriarch Cliff Huxtable is distorted beneath broken glass and the weight of Bill Cosby's complicated legacy, the illusion he created so long ago not strong enough to sustain its fall.
The provocative imagery evokes a potent reaction. It is the manifestation of the rage and pain of Cosby's (alleged) victims, both those accusing him of sexual assault and those viewers who allowed him into their homes and hearts over the years. It is grief. And it leaves more questions than answers.
Did Bill Cosby's legacy, and by extension Heathcliff Huxtable's, really fall? Or was it smashed and thrown aside, the possibilities he dangled in front of black families in the form of a black family serving as collateral damage?
Is it possible to separate the myth from the man without experiencing intense, cognitive dissonance? Is a legacy more than the sum total of its parts?
Perhaps, most importantly, is any of this fractured tableau worth salvaging?
Last year, in a piece titled, "Has Bill Cosby Ruined the Legacy of The Cosby Show?" I tackled #CosbyVsCliff in the same vein that Ebony is doing now, placing the dueling legacies in the context of hip-hop, Reaganomics, the Los Angeles riots, crack cocaine and the Contras, writing:
Though Bill Cosby's significant, cultural disruption of the Republican terrorism of the 1980s provided immeasurable relief, The Cosby Show’s exceptionalism hinged on the embrace of Black respectability in a nation that doesn’t respect us and never has. It hinged upon an adherence to patriarchal norms that places Black women and by extension, Black families and Black communities, at risk. …
While many observers have challenged the authenticity of Bill Cosby's 'Heathcliff Huxtable,' he is not a lie. He is at once an uncomfortable and familiar truth, a reflection of the ever-shifting sociopolitical landscape upon which Cosby's tainted legacy is drawn.
The profound beauty and bravery of this Ebony cover—and the in-depth cover story written by Goldie Taylor—is that it grapples with that hard truth, straight, no chaser. It demands that we sit with all that which is uncomfortable.
Kierna Mayo, Ebony's editor-in-chief, does not dismiss, or mock, the emotional investment that so many people have in The Cosby Show, as so many others have done. Instead, she boldly confronts that investment, and without a word forces us to really see it and question its depreciating value.
"Here's what I'll say: this was not an easy decision," Mayo wrote in a Facebook post as a wide range of reactions to the cover began swirling around social media. "But I believe with everything that our collective healing (from this and all traumas) is tied to baring truths, confronting selves, and dismantling crutches. We aim to uplift. However, sometimes before you rise up, you break down."
As I read those words, I recalled Bill Cosby arrogantly stating that black media should be "neutral" when reporting on the dozens of sexual assault allegations against him, demanding an unflinching loyalty that he withheld as he toured the nation pathologizing black communities. What he really meant was that he wanted our silence.
Instead of obeying that veiled command, Mayo has opened up a critical dialogue against a landscape fraught with tension, bitterness and deep-seated (family) issues—both fictitious and real—and she is doing so while walking boldly in Johnson Publishing Co.'s 70-year tradition of speaking truth to power.
Black America is constantly lamenting the lack of media spaces that will inform, uplift and challenge us. Well, this cover, this story, this willingness to step into the fire and force black America to reckon with itself and its very concept of heroes, is exactly what we need.
"Informed debate is healthy and we need more of it," Mayo wrote. "We/I have very thick skin, so say what you must. But know this: I love you, Black people. And Ebony does too." #confrontation to #liberation; #blackfamilyissues.
We may never have a clear picture of Bill Cosby and The Cosby Show's legacy—at least not one that everyone agrees upon—but by shattering the old one, Ebony has forced readers to create a new frame in which to view it.