When I was a teenager Bill Cosby had already established himself as an up and coming comedian, with a calendar full of public appearances and successful comedy routines that introduced us to characters including Fat Albert, Junior Barnes, Old Weird Harold, Crying Charlie and Neanderthal Man.
As I grew Cosby continued to distinguish himself in television, movies and books. He was there on records in the barracks at the Marine bases where I was stationed, relieving the boredom and the difficulties of Marine life with his tales of growing up -- "We had never seen The Belt, but we had heard of it" -- tales that many of us could relate to regardless of our race. Eventually he morphed into the Everydad who dispensed wisdom and life's lessons to a television family and a generation of viewers on The Cosby Show.
Bill Cosby started out as a black man from a poor neighborhood whom everyone could like and ended up as a highly educated and effective black man who was listened to and emulated by responsible parents from all walks of life.
He did this before and throughout the Civil Rights Era, when America was aflame, literally, with the passions of change and the demand for equality. Not everything he tried was an overwhelming success, and he certainly had more than his share of personal difficulties and tragedies. But he was always there, moving on, moving forward, whether his latest project was a sitcom, an animated series, best selling non-fiction, or a cable TV special, never lacking in courage and dignity.
I'm not sure how he felt about the Vietnam War; I don't remember him publicly discussing it. I know how he felt about civil rights, but I don't remember him as a radical calling for warfare between the races and further divisiveness, rather showing by example how the races could work together, and how much alike we are.
Cosby was criticized in those days by radical elements in the black community who claimed he should have been among the chorus of voices working to ensure the races never moved beyond the transgressions of the past, and that race relations should always be based on blame, guilt, and reparations in one form or another.
But in an interview from that time Cosby said he didn't think it was appropriate for the races to insult each other, even through comedy, and that he'd rather point out the similarities in the human experience.
Lately Cosby has been the focus of criticism from some in the black community again, this time because he had the temerity in a 2004 speech to tell black youth that they are responsible for their successes in life, or lack thereof, and that black leaders who preach divisiveness, animosity and low living are doing a disservice to black America.
But Cosby is not alone in his beliefs or his willingness to speak out on them. This month National Public Radio and Fox News commentator Juan Williams has joined Cosby as a new voice and new conscience for the black community. He too is being unfairly criticized and covered with unflattering labels that all boil down to the term "sellout."
Williams' new book, Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America -- and What We Can Do About It. takes dead aim at what he calls a culture of self-pity and defeat. Not surprisingly the strongest criticism comes from those in the black community who profit the most from continuing that culture.
Before I go any further, I should point out that politically, there is little I agree on with Juan Williams. I regularly see him on television talk shows, especially Fox News Sunday, and listen to him on NPR. My views are usually 180 degrees out from his.
In fact, since James Carvelle has scaled back his appearances on prime time television talk shows, Williams is the man most likely to prod me into melting my television screen with a blistering response to his positions.
I seriously doubt I will suddenly find common ground with him on political matters, but I do agree with the premise of his book.
In fact, I believe that Cosby and Williams figured out something that other black leaders want swept under the rug. Once Civil Rights legislation was enacted in America, the playing field became even, and the success rate of each individual and race was based 100 percent on personal dedication, ability and performance, not on artificial quotas and programs.
If we take a close look at the advancements made by black American in the past two generations it is obvious that most black people figured that out too, and there is much to celebrate, for blacks and all Americans.
According to the annual report Buying Power of Black America, black households had $656 billion in earned income in 2003. That is more than the entire Gross Domestic Product of most nations in the world.
This income didn't come from government handouts and feel good programs. It came from hardworking black Americans going to their jobs, getting educated, improving their lot in life and passing it on to their children.
Sure there still is insidious racism in America. There still are people who blame their shortcomings on others and work to continue ethnic and social hostility. But when the laws changed in the 60s, the efforts of those who prefer to keep the races at each others' throats instead of working together became more of a social nuisance and less of an effective strategy. The buying power of black America is testament to the effectiveness of laws ensuring equality and the ineffectiveness of victimization as a social strategy.
Juan Williams and Bill Cosby are showing tremendous courage in bucking the public trend to blame all the inequities of black society on "The Man," or "Whitey" or on some nameless, faceless entity conspiring to "Keep the black man down."
The fact is, many black men, and of special note, many black women have figured out that if they make education and hard work a priority, they have every bit as much a shot at succeeding in America as anyone else. And with financial independence comes financial and social attractiveness.
Teaching black children to emulate criminals, celebrate drug abuse, degrade females, dress like circus clowns, and put rampant commercialism ahead of family values and common sense is to ensure that the next generation will be just like this one and the one before. But to point out the failures of that culture and to celebrate the time tested and traditional values of education, hard work and long term goals is to ensure not only continual improvements, but an increasingly viable position in determining the direction of government and society.
Juan Williams and Bill Cosby should be regaled as men of principal, character and vision. Their willingness to speak up and speak out says volumes about them, and will spur incalculable positive changes for the black American community. More than anything, these efforts are likely to mark their lasting legacy.
Saturday, August 26, 2006