My parents divorced in the ’90s when I was relatively young, so memories of my mom, dad and siblings under one roof are few and far between. One vivid memory is clear: me, my sister and my parents piled into their bed watching The Cosby Show every Thursday night at eight. In our religiously conservative home, there were few pop cultural phenomena my sister and I could be a part of, but the respectable, family-friendly The Cosby Show made the cut.
The show was, of course, named after the man playing the lead, but I only had eyes for his partner, Clair Huxtable. She was everything I wanted to be—a smart, gorgeous Black woman with fabulous hair that shook when she delivered that sinfully infectious laugh. I imagined her as a shark in the courtroom, glamorous in her trench coat flapping behind her as she strutted home to Brooklyn, and firm but nurturing to her five children once she dropped her briefcase. Like my own mother, she wasn’t to be messed with but she loved her babies. I vacillated between wanting Clair Huxtable to be my mother and wanting to be her myself. She had it all and I was spellbound.
Decades later in 2004, I was a freshman at Howard University, Phylicia Rashad’s alma mater, and had the chance to attend a speech given by Bill Cosby on campus. As a surprise, Rashad floated on stage to introduce him and earned a standing ovation in Cramton Auditorium before saying a single word. It felt like the applause extended for several minutes while she regally smiled, looking every bit like the legend that she is. Finally, she lifted her hand and in an instant, we were silent as she introduced “her friend, the one and only, Bill Cosby.”
I don’t remember much about what he said—just that he seemed a bit ornery and underdressed for the occasion. He wore sweats, threw up the Omega hooks, and when the Ques barked in response, he yelled, “OK, now what’s your GPAs young men?!” Nervous laughter broke out, but he wasn’t joking. Of course, this was the early 2000s and we were Black college kids; we were well-versed in getting lectures from older Black folks that leaned towards a scolding we hadn’t exactly earned. He railed on for a while as we felt chastened, not quite sure why, but sure that we’d deserved it.
However, the next few weeks when I told people about the day, all I could talk about was the chance to breathe the same air as Phylicia Rashad. How she hadn’t aged a day, how I would never forget being so close to the woman who had, in my telling, “practically raised me!” via 30 minutes a week.
Of course, all people, even beautiful, Emmy-nominated Black women, are human, fallible creatures. Yesterday, when I got the notification that accused serial rapist Bill Cosby would be released from prison because of a technicality (he’d confessed to the crimes he’d been accused of, but his confessions couldn’t be used in the criminal cases), I thought, “Yet another case of people getting the criminal justice system they can afford.” I sighed and moved on. In my own life, sexual assault had gone unpunished. My expectations of our country’s consequences for rich, powerful men—Black or white–were so low that I didn’t even have the energy to be outraged.
And then I saw the tweet from Phylicia Rashad:
I let out an actual gasp of disappointment, which in retrospect was naïve. This was not the first time Phylicia Rashad had defended her colleague. In 2015, when asked about the accusations, she said “Forget these women…What you’re seeing is the destruction of a legacy, and I think it’s orchestrated.” We often extend grace to our idols—people who we don’t know at all—even when we shouldn’t. I was displeased but rationalized that it must be difficult to reconcile that the friend you love also allegedly caused irreparable harm and trauma for at least 60 women (At the time, 24 had come forward).
This was also not the first time that an older Black woman I’d revered as a child disappointed me as an adult. Growing up, I recalled Black aunties and moms whispering about my female classmates who were “fast.” My mother nicknamed one of my classmates “hot butt” based on rumors she’d heard about her promiscuity. As a child, I thought these wise women were armed with discernment about who was good and who was bad. As an adult and mother, I realize that sorting girls in this way wasn’t discernment; it was a misplaced judgment of girls learning how to navigate a world that taught them their value was about what they could offer men. It was a type of victim blaming that women never quite get to shake off. It was something I expected from defensive men; It hit me in the gut when it came from Black women.
In the years since then, Rashad went on to have a guest role on Empire, a lead role in the film Creed II and eventually landed as a recurring guest on the moving TV series, This Is Us.
It was then that I fell under her spell again. She starred as the mother of Beth, portrayed by Susan Kelechi Watson, also a Howard alumna, and once again, I conflated the traits of her regal character with her own personality. When she graciously accepted her fictional granddaughter’s relationship with a non-binary teen, I swooned. In a scene where Rashad holds a Toni Morrison book in her lap while speaking with her fictional daughter, I snapped a pic with my phone, sending it to my friends with the caption, “Look, three Howard grads in one frame!”
Rashad ceased to provide her public opinion on her colleague, and in any event, Cosby was ensconced in prison, unable to harm further victims. It was easy to let bygones be bygones.
At the same time, the last few years felt like a renaissance for my alma mater; Howard’s own Chadwick Boseman shined in the Marvel blockbuster Black Panther; our country’s first Black vice president, Kamala Harris, credited her time at “The Mecca” as her launchpad to the White House. And after Boseman’s untimely passing, in an announcement that was universally celebrated by her alum, Howard established the Boseman College of Fine Arts and named Phylicia Rashad the new dean. My friends and I joked about returning for a second degree just to get the chance to be under her tutelage.
And then she tweeted.
My first thought was a selfish one: “What did Phylicia think about women like me who’d experienced sexual assault at the hands of a powerful figure? Would she believe that I lacked credibility? Would she chide me the way she famously did to her misbehaving kids as Mrs. Huxtable?”
My next thoughts were of the students, namely the women at Howard University, many who were likely excited to call her dean. Did their faces fall to see their leader celebrating a man who himself had admitted to drugging women with prescription drugs? Was she one less person they could count on to support them if they experienced an assault on their college campus, a place many young women first encounter sexual violence?
I thought of the elder Black women we all know, well-meaning elders who taught young Black girls the importance of modesty; of smoothing our kinky edges—both literally and figuratively; who warned us that if we called first, we were being fast; who reminded us that if we dressed a certain way, we were asking for it. And if we happened to be entangled with a powerful man, it was obviously because we’d wanted it or had a financial scheme in mind. These women who were often our fiercest protectors, primary caregivers and support system, were also often our first encounters with damning patriarchal ideals.
I thought about all this and the spell was broken, likely for good.
When Bill Cosby was convicted of sexual assault, much ado was made about whether people should continue to watch The Cosby Show. I leaned toward thinking it was unfair to penalize the entire cast and crew for the horrifying acts of the leading man, but newly appointed Dean Rashad is making that case a bit harder. How much “big fun” can I have watching a freed rapist costar with his defender? I’m not sure.
For the sanctity of my childhood memories and the quality content The Cosby Show gave us, I hope I can one day separate the art from the artists. But I cannot separate Phylicia Rashad from the cover that many apologists have provided for people like Bill Cosby, and that hurts, because she is one of my own.