Editor’s note: In the wake of the Cosby verdict, former Ebony Editor-in-Chief Kierna Mayo reflects on her “shattered glass” Cosby Show cover and how it highlighted a great divide.
Wednesday, when the news broke, my stomach reacted first. I was home writing when the CNN ticker flashed: COSBY FOUND GUILTY ON ALL COUNTS. The rush of emotions that followed was confusing—not fully placeable, if you will. I texted a few friends (COSBY!!!!) and then I sank back into my sofa, heart racing, belly in knots. What the hell is wrong with you? began the internal talk. I just wanted to understand the sensation. I needed to feel something less indecipherable. My nerves were a wrap; I reached for the vape.
Two years ago, after the soul-stirring funeral of a friend’s beloved mother, a glamorous, gorgeous, silver-haired black woman of a certain age approached me in a parking lot filled with hundreds of mourners. She stopped right in my face and grabbed my hand.
“I wanted to send you roses,” she said.
Initially, I had no response. I had no idea who she was, and no idea what she meant. I was frozen, struck partly by her unique beauty, but mostly by her odd comment and sheer intensity. Lady, I’m emotionally spent, I didn’t quite get out.
“Thank you so much. For that cover. For supporting me. I was one of his victims.”
One. Of. His. Victims. All of a sudden it clicked. She was talking about Bill Cosby. The cover she was referring to was the November 2015 issue of Ebony magazine. I was its editor-in-chief at the time. After a raucous debate about what image should cover our Family issue, a staff member suggested The Cosby Show. The sexual assault accusations against Cosby had been pouring in by the day. First five women, then 12, then 30 and so forth.
As journalists, we were steeped in discussion about it for months; the entire black community had been. The problem was that there was a deep divide: those who were inclined to believe the women and wholly rejected Cosby’s social status as a reason to think he was incapable of the crime, and those who believed that white women, with the help of some black women, acted as agents of “the white man” and were all conspiring against an otherwise standup family dude, also known as Dr. Cliff Huxtable.
The magazine cover, featuring a classic shot of the original Cosby Show cast, was dropped with a press release, and before the issue hit stands, I was being booked on cable news shows. The sweet image of that darling black TV family under an overlay of shattered glass (the crack began over Cosby’s face) struck a chord. As editors, we were attempting to capture a cultural moment: The Cosby Show mattered to America, to black America, but the black “respectability politics” that it trumpeted, for better or for worse, were being metaphorically challenged by the crimes of its star. Something about this perfect black family image was cracked, something was indeed shattered, and Ebony didn’t do it. But that didn’t stop the vitriol from coming.
“John Johnson (Ebony founder) would be turning in his grave,” read one comment from a reader. For some reason, that one stayed with me. Would he be? He had been friends with Cosby, of course.
I admitted to CNN’s Brooke Baldwin that I hadn’t slept in two days in anticipation of the release. I knew that the pain, frustration and anger we held over the accusations against Cosby were deep and real. Wendy Williams asked me on camera if I felt physically intimidated by some of the backlash I was receiving. I responded half-jokingly by looking over both shoulders, and then explained that it was exactly what I did walking out of my house to come to her studio.
After nearly a year of publicly talking about the accusations and intently listening to whole swaths of black America debate the facts—and the feels—on that day in the parking lot I was standing in front of a black woman who claimed that she had actually been raped by Bill Cosby. Both of us already a mess from the service, we simply cried and held each other the way we both clearly needed. For about an hour, I listened to her story. Her young model-actress life. How they met. The what, when and where. All I could hear, though, was the weight of her irreconcilable sense of guilt.
“I still feel so guilty,” she said, weeping. “I just feel like I really, honestly let black people down.”
She never wanted to tell. Not because it didn’t happen, but because “we need unity with our men.” She was sacrificing the self for the whole.
“Don’t say that! We are completely here for you,” I heard myself halfway lie. But is black America here for the victims of black men?
I reposted that old Ebony cover on Instagram yesterday. And I’ve since confirmed that what I felt in the moment of his conviction was an emotional lack of clarity that actually made sense. Because there are no absolute winners here.
For Cosby’s victims, there may be some resolution; for his family—his stoic wife, Camille, in particular—there must be devastation, especially now that Cosby is 80 and legally blind; and for his people, confusion. Looking at my Instagram, there is still palpable heartbreak and, for some, frightening denial. Why our Dr. Huxtable? Why???
A few comments on my post right now:
“Fuck that metoo movement. I used to support it but its taking down successful black men and I’m not with it.
“This show will never be broken. It is one of the few things that was whole in Black history.”
“I don’t believe not one of these women.”
“We needed to see his shattered image. He is flawed! He is clearly capable of being twisted in spite of the contributions he’s given to our culture.”
“This cover is literally one of the bravest most amazing things done in media in the past few years.”
We were split and shattered by Bill Cosby. And I promise that a single magazine cover didn’t create the maelstrom. After this verdict, the courage to face the truth about one black man and to really be “completely there” for his victims and for the countless other women who are sexually assaulted every year is our clear option.
Which way, black America? My profound hope is that with the Cosby conviction, we have turned a page as a community. There was, sure enough, a time when we confused black genius, and the illusion of what is “respectable,” with lived black decency, black integrity and black life.
Perhaps after yesterday, we’ll crack all the illusions that cover up great lies.
Kierna Mayo is the former editor-in-chief of Ebony and Honey magazines. She is a veteran cultural critic whose writing has appeared in national women’s publications from Essence to Marie Claire. Mayo was most recently the senior vice president of content and brands for iOne Digital, where she developed and launched the new millennial culture brand Cassius.