In the October 29, 2007, issue of Publishers Weekly, a book called Come On, People: On the Path From Victims to Victors held the No. 5 spot on the nonfiction bestseller list.
Written by Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint, MD, the book is a three-pronged hybrid advocating increased black self-determination and government accountability, and featuring personal testimony from Everyday Black Americans who turned up at the many community “call outs” that Cosby has recently hosted around the country. Its main question is not new: what must be done to improve the conditions of masses of African-Americans still mired in poverty?
It sounds simple enough, and indeed black academics including W.E.B. Du Bois and William Julius Wilson; politicians including Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama; artists including Stevie Wonder and Harry Belafonte; and clergymembers like Martin Luther King Jr. and T.D. Jakes have been sounding the same bell for the past 300 years.
Yet in the weeks since October 14, when Cosby and Poussaint spent a full hour on NBC’s venerable Sunday morning talk show Meet the Press laying out their argument, a sectarian rift has opened in black America–at least the part with access to the Internet and the wherewithal to write op-eds and put up blogs. While Come On, People acknowledges the thick complexity of issues that lay beneath the long list of unhappy statistics affecting some blacks–high rates of homicides, homelessness, single-parent households–Cosby and Poussaint say they want black Americans to take ownership of devising solutions.
I take their argument at face value, and I appreciate the goal of encouraging self-determination. (I also have a connection to Poussaint that gives me insight to his thinking: in 2001, he and I wrote a book together about African-Americans and mental health.) Unlike the overwhelmingly favorable response to broadcaster Tavis Smiley’s bestselling book The Covenant With Black America, reaction from African-Americans to Come On, People has been heated and decidedly mixed.
Much of the animus has to do with Cosby’s enormous wealth and recent accusations from women who claim they had sexual liaisons with the entertainer. And more to the point, Cosby’s notorious talk at a 2004 Brown v. Board of Education fiftieth anniversary event in Washington, DC–in which he railed in harsh language against the destructive behavior of “low-income” blacks–has led some African-Americans to doubt the sincerity of the performer.
Since Cosby and Poussaint’s appearance on Meet the Press, a wave of commentary has washed up in the mainstream press and in the blogosphere. And while Bob Herbert wrote favorably in the New York Times about the book’s message, and right-of-center pundit John McWhorter gave it a similar notice in the Philadelphia Inquirer, other black pundits and bloggers have not been so kind.