Poetry News

Morgan Parker Covers the Bill Cosby Trial for Lenny Letter

By Harriet Staff
Morgan Parker

Poet Morgan Parker writes about the Bill Cosby trial, respectability politics, and male entitlement for Lenny Letter. "I'm one of maybe three black women in the overflow courtroom they've designated for the press, which means I'm one of three women wrestling with that familiar triple-consciousness chicken-or-egg. Am I black today, or a woman? Which injustices should I fight first?" More from "Are We Not Entertained?" follows (read it all here):

Before the trial even began, I texted a friend, "Can't we burn the men and keep the culture?"

For some reason, lately, I've been compelled to explore why I think what I think is funny, why I often use humor to talk about my darkest aches and the country's most egregious defects. I've been reading about the history of black comedy, listening to Richard Pryor vinyls, revisiting Dick Gregory's shtick and The Flip Wilson Show. It would be impossible to discuss the rise of black comedy within a newly integrated America without including Bill Cosby's legacy. And it would be impossible to discuss the "color-blind" ideology and respectability politics of the '90s — the kind that raised me to defer to and mimic Amanda in her floral skirt — without invoking The Cosby Show as the vision board for Wholesome Blacks. Forget the Jeffersons' wide-eyed "movin' on up"; these Negroes were up, man. Sky-high and sitting comfortably, almost unrecognizable in their ease and achievement.

For most of us, and certainly for my blue-collar family, the Cosbys weren't representation, they were inspiration. A doctor and a lawyer? Very Special Episodes? It wasn't even subtle. We could be funny without being broke or salacious. We could be a family unit tighter than the Brady Bunch. We could go to college, hang out with Stevie Wonder, learn valuable lessons, be black without being that black. Unabashedly aspirational.

In 1987, my parents sat up in their waterbed watching an episode of The Cosby Show,my dad Afroed and my mom's stomach swelling with would-be me. Morgan was a bit part, some little friend of Rudy's with a precocious attitude. That's where I come from: aspirational, family-values, American Dream Black.

And he was non-threatening. Bill Cosby's classification as a Black Man was incidental. In the white imagination, the must-see-TV landscape, he was I'm not black I'm O.J. assimilated. Funny, but never too political. Well-behaved.

Unlike acerbic black comics like Pryor and Gregory, Cosby's mainstream success wasn't rooted in what he said or did — it was how he said it, what skin he had on while doing it. His radicalism was his wholesomeness. Whereas Gregory marched for civil rights, and Pryor turned the angry, sexualized black man stereotype on its head, Cosby's shock value was in his success: as a father, a career man, a chaser of American morality. Brushed up as it was against the burgeoning consequences of respectability politics within the black community, Cosby's antidote to the absent, neglectful, drug-addled black man was relied upon by the white media. It was important just to see him sitting in that living room, answering the door to that brownstone.

Sometimes I wonder if our persistence, the very audacity of our continuance, is part of the joke.

Originally Published: September 12th, 2017