TALK/Michael Eric Dyson takes on Bill Cosby's criticism of poor blacks.
Last year, at an NAACP event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, Bill Cosby castigated the black poor for their buying habits, lack of education, style of speech and dress—and even their names. “Lower economic people are not holding up their end in this deal. These people are not parenting,” Cosby said in his now-famous speech. “They are buying things for kids—$500 sneakers for what? And won’t spend $200 for ‘Hooked on Phonics.’”
So, was the multimillionaire comedian and philanthropist right?
In a word—no, says Michael Eric Dyson, who spoke before a Penn Bookstore audience on June 21. The Avalon Professor in the Humanities and social critic was so provoked by Cosby’s remarks that he wrote a book on the subject, “Is Bill Cosby Right?: Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?” In the book he writes, “All the right behavior in the world won’t create better jobs with more pay. … If the rigidly segregated educational system continues to miserably fail poor blacks by failing to prepare their children for the world of work, then admonitions to ‘stay in school’ may ring hollow.”
In his NAACP speech, Cosby was also critical of black women, stating, “Five, six children—same woman—eight, 10 different husbands or whatever.” Dyson condemned the implication of the “hypersexed” young black woman behind Cosby’s statement. “If we don’t even see that [sexism], that’s part of its insidiousness,” he said.
While Dyson praised Cosby for his generous contributions to Temple University and other institutions, he questioned the comedian’s attempt to represent black culture, since he rarely dealt with issues of race in his comedy. And Cosby’s criticism that “They are standing on the corner and they can’t speak English” is hypocritical, he said, since two of the comedian’s successful TV shows—”The Cosby Kids” and “Fat Albert”—were praised for introducing black vernacular speech to a general audience.
The anti-intellectualism Cosby lamented in the poor black community, said Dyson, isn’t unique to that segment of the population at all, but present in the general culture.
Dyson also blasted Cosby’s criticism of blacks for the names they give their children—such as Shaniqua and Taliqua, two of the comedian’s examples. This tradition of coming up with new names for children is likely African in origin, said Dyson, and a way for the black community to create identities outside of white culture.
“Why are you going to tell the parents what to name their kids?”
Originally published on July 7, 2005