Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Of Cosby and Cleaver

Bill Cosby is in the news again, as the Associated Press reports on courtroom testimony from 2005 that they finally got unsealed, in which he testified to buying Quaaludes for the purpose of drugging women in order to have sex with them.

Which is pretty much what a bunch of women have accused him of, while not taking him to trial, for a long time.

When comic Hannibal Buress forced the allegations back into the news last October by calling Cosby a rapist during a standup routine -


- a new string of women came forth to accuse Cosby. The sheer number of them made it harder and harder to believe that they were all lying, and shifted my thinking from the question, "Is it true?" to the question, "If any of it is true, what kind of person is Bill Cosby? What kind of person would do those things, over and over and over?"

An obvious answer is, "A man who hates women."

But then I noticed that all of the accusers I saw were white (that has changed, but the overwhelming majority still are). And a sliver of memory popped up to suggest a different answer: "A black man who hates white people."

A man like the young Eldridge Cleaver.

The sliver of memory came from Cleaver's autobiographical "Soul on Ice," in which he describes engaging in a campaign of raping white women (after practicing on black women). Biography.com summarizes the campaign thus:

During his incarceration, Cleaver began to develop his own political philosophy. After his release in 1957, he raped an unknown number of women, both black and white. He felt that his rapes of white women were "insurrectionary" rapes, justified by what African Americans had suffered under a system dominated by whites.

I didn't remember exactly what Cleaver wrote, but have found the relevant quote online:

”Rape was an insurrectionary act. It delighted me that I was defying and trampling upon the white man’s law, upon his system of values, and that I was defiling his women — and this point, I believe, was the most satisfying to me because I was very resentful over the historical fact of how the white man has used the black woman. I felt I was getting revenge.”

When I read Cleaver's words in 1969 or 1970, they did not merely shock me, they terrified me, because he seemed to suggest that any black man might be expected to rape white women in revenge for racism. I was in my first year of college, I was 17 or 18, I was living away from home for the first time, I was exploring the world. and I was discovering what type of man I would become in response to what I saw. What terrified me was the sliver of possibility that I might become what he had been, that I might develop such a dehumanizing, objectifying hatred.

For the record: I didn't.

But that passing awareness of the sliver of possibility has come back to mind with the case of Bill Cosby. Could white America's favorite, most non-threatening Black man have carried a simmering hatred for white folk that matched Eldridge Cleaver's? He was only two years younger than Cleaver; would he have shared enough of his generation's experiences with racism to stoke such a hatred?

I don't know. Maybe there's a therapist out there who can suss it out. I just thought the possibility was worth mentioning, if only because it would make the horror of which he is accused  (and which we now know he did at least once) more comprehensible. Not less horrible, just less completely opaque.
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