Cosby’s legacy reveals generational divide

Terry Tang
Associated Press

Keon McGuire has no real attachment to Bill Cosby or his landmark show.

As a black man, he’s aware of the sitcom’s place in pop culture, but he was barely in elementary school when “The Cosby Show” went off the air. Years later, he mostly tuned Cosby out after a widely panned speech to the NAACP in 2004, when the star ranted about black mothers, clothing choices and language.

“That for me was kind of an emotional — I won’t say reckoning — but it made me reposition how I felt about Bill Cosby as this figure within the larger representation of black leadership,” said McGuire, a 32-year-old education professor at Arizona State University.

McGuire’s mindset reflects a broader generational divide over Cosby, who is scheduled to be sentenced Monday in a Philadelphia courtroom for drugging and molesting a woman. The sentence – anything from probation to 30 years in prison – will mark the final chapter of the 81-year-old entertainer’s resounding fall from grace.

Those who grew up viewing Cosby’s NBC show struggle to reconcile the conviction with the wise, warm television father they knew. But many millennials see him as long-irrelevant figure, and the #MeToo era has cast him as someone who was deservingly vanquished, like so many other misbehaving men in power.

“The generational gap plays a huge role in the contrasting, at times conflicting, views of Cosby’s cultural importance,” said Michael Eric Dyson, a sociologist at Georgetown University. “Those of us who are older have memories of Cosby as a cultural ambassador, a black icon and an American hero.”

Jon Francois, a 26-year-old radio deejay in Lyndonville, Vermont, was too young to have grown up with “The Cosby Show.” But he became a fan as a child when he found his parents watching reruns on cable. He didn’t see it as a rarity until he later compared the show to older sitcoms that depicted the black experience as more lower class. Cosby’s Cliff Huxtable was a doctor and his wife, Clair, a lawyer in New York City.

“It wasn’t until I got older and kind of studied ‘The Cosby Show,’ that I realized ‘Oh hey, this was a groundbreaking thing to have a black family portrayed like this as upper middle class.’ ”

When sexual assault allegations started to surface against Cosby in large numbers, Francois said, younger relatives were more objective about it. The claims by women were too much to ignore. But his mother and aunt had the hardest time believing the accusations.

“They were still stapled on the idea of Bill Cosby, the man they enjoyed and loved so much on TV, America’s dad, that they just didn’t really want to acknowledge the fact that he’s an alleged rapist,” Francois said.

An underlying issue is the lack of humanizing portrayals of African-Americans in popular media, he added.

“If anything, that’s a serious indictment on the culture, that someone would feel losing Cosby is losing a positive representation of black folks,” he said.

The entire ordeal leaves him with mixed emotions – mostly sadness and disappointment.

“If all this sexual assault stuff didn’t happen, he could have retired and went off into the sunset and had this great legacy left behind as a groundbreaking comedian-actor who paved the way for so many African-Americans,” Francois said. “It’s so surreal even now he’s being convicted.”