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.
Led by Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson–author of a nonfiction anti-Cosby book, Is Bill Cosby Right: Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?–their vehemence and certainty is impressive: “Cosby says that he does not mean to slander all, or even most blacks, as derelict, laggards and slackers,” wrote Earl Ofari Hutchinson, an author an activist.”Yet that’s precisely the impression he gives and the criticism of him for it is more than justified. Even the book title, Come on People: On the Path from Victims to Victors (a hint they’re all losers) conveys that smear,” Hutchinson said in a piece published days after the authors appeared on Meet the Press.
For Dyson, a speed-talking serial talk-show guest, the book adds a fresh heap of red meat to the anti-Cosby smorgasbord in which he’s gleefully indulged since 2004. On a radio broadcast two days after Cosby and Poussaint appeared on NBC, Dyson seemed to take credit for the authors’ decision to acknowledge the “both, and” aspect of the issue: going forward, increased black personal responsibility is key to improving the lot of millions of African-Americans, but so is increased government commitment to programs, and social and legal justice reforms that also are needed to improve opportunities for blacks.
“Mr. Cosby’s made a significant step away from some of the personal, ad hominem assaults upon black people,” Dyson said in an October 16 interview on NPR. He went on to take issue, however, with the “empirical data” laid out in Come On, People, arguing that “black male homicide rates are actually lower now” than in recent decades. Furthermore, lest any listener mistakenly think that Dyson is prepared to cede completely to Cosby, he took a jab at the entertainer for the amount of media oxygen the 70-year-old can garner: “Bill Cosby is a famous black guy who has a bully pulpit the size of the world. It’s global. He puts his colossal foot on the vulnerable necks of poor people, and as a result of that we don’t have a balanced conversation,” Dyson said. His comments on that broadcast followed an interview between the host and Poussaint that had aired a few moments earlier, an arrangement that may have struck a few listeners as odd.
I happen to know why neither Alvin Poussaint or Bill Cosby will appear on a broadcast with Dyson, and it isn’t because they fear a tongue-lashing from the exasperatingly loquacious academic: Cosby and Poussaint are determined to leverage their combined years of expertise and public goodwill–100 years and counting–in a way that emphasizes the unassailability of their argument. Like a couple of Zeuses from on high, Cosby and Poussaint are shooting bolts across the income and generational spectrums of African-Americans, determined to zap us out of the inertia that inhibits positive advancement for all. They are not interested in wrestling with mortals over the finer points.
Far from a position of “to save the village, we must destroy it,” the two are demanding a Marshall Plan for black America–one that must begin most importantly at the front stoops, back porches and in the living rooms of the villagers. And yes, even those whose villages are the swank suburbs of Atlanta or Montgomery County, Maryland. To the middle-class African Americans who don’t believe Cosby’s and Pousaint’s message is for them is Not so fast: the parts of Come On, People that describe ways of strengthening families, the urgent language about volunteering and all those passages lamenting the damage wrought from running the crazy treadmill of mindless consuming are aimed at you.
That they have declined to directly engage their critics is, obviously, a sign of arrogance, yet not of the kind that the Dysons and Hutchinsons cite. I have never met Bill Cosby, but I have been on the receiving end of one of his sneak-attack phone calls. (Since the flap that erupted after his 2004 speech at Constitution Hall, Cosby has taken to phoning black journalists out of the blue and keeping them on the line for lengthy, off-the-record conversations. When my turn came, best believe I was shocked to hear that famous voice on the line–and even more shocked when he spoke with me in a tone, and about topics, that would have raised a few eyebrows had I chosen to write about it.)
I have no particular allegiance to him as an individual, understanding, in pragmatic terms, that his long list of career achievements and long record of philanthropy is probably made possible by his family’s history in working-class Philadelphia. Likewise, any character flaws and personal-life missteps likely are shaped by his early experiences, too. In other words, I can admire, hate or feel indifferently about Bill Cosby the individual and yet still agree with the wisdom of Come On, People and its message.
I do not buy for a second the argument that Cosby’s vast wealth has removed him from the on-the-ground plight of blacks in poor communities. That critique, on its face, is absurd–akin to arguing that Martin Luther King Jr., who hailed from a middle-class, educated black Southern family, had no business arguing for civil rights for poor, undereducated blacks. And I am wracking my brain to reconcile the Cosby critics who argue that any “skeletons” in the entertainer’s closet should preclude him from urging blacks to show greater self-determination in improving their situations, with their acceptance of some other black leaders’ personal shortcomings: Dyson, in particular, has written eloquently about how King’s personal foibles–King apparently was quite the ladies’ man, in the midst of his long marriage to Coretta Scott–only heightened his awareness of human weakness.
Further, since Come On, People is co-written with Poussaint, I find it especially bizarre and disheartening that black public figures like Dyson seem so determined to undermine the book’s message.
Between 1997–when I first contacted Poussaint with the idea of exploring the tough subject of blacks, depression, self-destructive behaviors and suicide–and 2002, when we finished promoting our book, Lay My Burden Down, I spent uncounted hours in Poussaint’s company. Among the ranks of big-ticket black intellectuals, those who hold jobs at prestigious universities or who command prime media real estate, Poussaint stands alone. I do not have enough space here to go over in detail the many reasons why, but I can safely vouch for the intellectual brilliance and large, generous heart of the good doctor.
His decision to co-write Come On, People represents an honest, carefully considered contribution to his professional canon and an impassioned call for action from blacks of every economic stripe. It is not, I hope, a coda. But if it is, it stems not just from having seen and lived many of the issues under consideration in Come On, People. It was written because Poussaint also knows that his friend Bill Cosby has been catching hell for expressing unpopular truths about the state of blacks in America. For him, standing by while that particular messenger got shot would have been the ultimate act of self-destruction.