Are We Not Entertained?

On the Bill Cosby trial, respectability politics, and male entitlement.

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My cabdriver to the courthouse on this June morning, Roy, asks if I can give him "a little shine" by mentioning him here. Roy is a big fan of Bill Cosby.

"Do you think he did it?" Roy asks, and I say I don't know. We're late, I'm tired, I don't feel like having the same conversation over and over.

The night before, heading back from the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pennsylvania, to my hotel one town over, my cabdriver announced, "The only thing is, why did they wait until now?" I was too tired to answer then, but at this point, with Roy, we're yoked. I'm invested. We're in this thing — the fifteen-minute drive — together. Roy has the same suspicions as last night's driver, and most radio commentators, too.

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"Man, they wait until Bill gets all old and then start saying all this shit about him. My thing is, why did they wait so long? Why is it coming out now?"

"Because."

"Because the powers that be didn't want it to come out."

"Who would believe those women? We barely believe them now, right, so who would believe them then?"

"All these women talking about he gave them a pill … Bill, man, it's too many people saying you did it."

"That's what I'm saying."

"I should say he gave me a pill, get some of that money. 'Well, he put a pill in my Jell-O pudding, and next thing I know I was fast asleep.'"

It takes me a minute to realize Roy is trying to make me laugh. Roy laughs.

"I don't think it's that simple. It seems pretty tough to make a case, actually."

***

In the case of Commonwealth v. William Henry Cosby, Jr., concerning the sexual assault of Andrea Constand, the defense has motioned that Ms. Constand and any other complainants not be referred to as "victims." Before I even get to the trial, I am feeling horrible about being a woman, as usual. How I must see myself through the eyes of men, anxious about the preferred way to look and be. I always see myself in contrast with white women, a holdover instinct from my suburban upbringing. Emily and Amanda and Rachel are preferred, their mild opinions and floral skirts, their lilting giggles, the way they tuck oak-brown hair behind their ears.

I am not preferred. I will do in a pinch. Good Enough.

A trio of white women reporters seated near me (seersucker, wedding rings, ballet flats) are making small talk, reminiscing about covering the Dylann Roof trial. So horrible, in contrast with how truly good the victims were. So forgiving, exceptional people. They weren't asking for it.

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When it comes to violence, it doesn't matter whose hair is thin. 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?

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.

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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.

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

***

The prosecution has rested, and the defense calls one witness (it isn't Cosby, it's the arresting officer, who's already provided a statement on behalf of the prosecution) for a six-minute testimony before delivering a closing statement by way of a middle-age folksy-type white man with a slight New Jersey accent and a screeching fervency. Before this morning's proceedings, I'd watched him hyperactively rock back and forth in his chair, flit around the courtroom chatting and laughing with the other attorneys, drum casually on the table. This man would come to be My Enemy, and I shall refer to him, henceforth, as such.

It's noticeable in this world who takes up space and who is comfortable.

Absent any threat, any Scary Black Man associations, Cosby heralded a particular type of post-revolution Respectable Black that illustrated the '90s obsession with upward mobility. On the carpet of the family room in our small house in Southern California, my early TV memories are correlated with my nascent understanding of morality and decorum. How to be Good. Regularly scheduled episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air were interrupted by coverage of the O.J. Simpson chase. Regularly scheduled episodes of The Cosby Show were preceded by news segments about Rodney King. On the playground of my white private school, I worked hard to prove myself an exception, a pleasant surprise to the usual narrative. With a little help from the Huxtables, I learned how to be Respectable in spite of my skin. You're not black, you're just Morgan.

Now, as the trial judge asks Cosby a series of questions to confirm that he has not been persuaded or coerced by his counsel or anyone else, the Comedian is performing. He is reminding everyone in the room who he is, that he's been in their homes, made them laugh, always made them feel safe. The Great Assimilator, the Great Unifier, the Jell-O guy. It's familiar behavior: deception, charm.

My Enemy is an actor, too. He embarks on a monologue about a recent visit to Shake Shack wherein he is struck with nostalgia upon the sight of a father and daughter. It has nothing to do with anything — it's a spell, the way his voice rises and falls, the way he uses his hands in descriptions, peppers the speech with self-deprecating jokes. He gazes over the jury, and it is a plea. Be on my side, he's purring, it's the only logical side. He talks about how the father spoon-fed a Shake Shack milkshake to his three-year-old daughter. "After each spoonful," he recalls, "he would give her a kiss. I miss those days! She looked at him like she was looking at God!"

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That's when I put my hand over my mouth and guffaw, rolling my eyes. The other reporters in our overflow room turn and frown at me sternly. But come on! I can't believe the theater. My Enemy talks about how when children grow up, they see that their parents are imperfect, that "the only angels are in heaven." "Mr. Cosby taught us how to smile," he says. "He taught us how to love each other, no matter what we look like, no matter how different we are."

Bingo. Charm, shameless sweet-talking, manipulation. That's what the justice system is: a talent show. He's good. For good measure, before diving into the facts of the case, My Enemy gives the jury a quick-and-dirty definition of words like burden and reasonable doubt. He reminds them that the United States has the highest burden of proof of anywhere in the world. He says, "We defend innocence at all costs."

***

"This is the same court I was in," Roy tells me. "For custody of my son. If I never spend another minute inside a courtroom, I will be a happy man. Spent so many hours in there arguing with that woman. But I won, I'm happy, my son's happy. She's not happy, though. But what are you gonna do?"

"Oh. Yeah, I don't know."

***

In the courtroom, Cosby's original testimony to the police is read aloud, line by line. I am gobsmacked by the way intimacy is described and defined. How romance is defined, how touch is regarded as conversation.

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I'm rubbing the middle, which is the skin, just about the trousers … I'm giving Andrea time to say yes or no about an area that is right there in the question zone.

I'm not asking verbally. The action is in my hand on her midriff, which is skin. I don't hear her say anything.

Somewhere between permission and rejection. I am not stopped.

Words and actions can be misinterpreted, and unless you are a supreme being, you cannot know how someone else will interpret it.

I tell her to go to sleep … I make tea for her. Red Zinger. She said she's had it before … I wanted her to relax and go to sleep after we had our necking session.

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The jury asks for a definition of "without her permission."

Taking seriously his job to "defend innocence at all costs," My Enemy proceeds to engage in a thought exercise interrogating the victim's behavior and its rationality. Its truth.

"You'd never forget to tell the police that you went to dinner if you were sexually assaulted. You'd never forget the details of that night."

I am raging with jealousy at his privilege to be able to freely make such broad claims and assumptions. He continues to use the word romantic. He continues to revise the story Andrea reported.

"If my wife and I were sitting by a fire drinking brandy, she would call it romantic. So why would Andrea say that Mr. Cosby wasn't being affectionate? Why?! I don't understand it!"

He's raising his voice, passionately frustrated, and I perceive a kind of hatred, a disgust. He resents when women disturb, when they don't do what they're supposed to.

My Enemy has never been a woman.

My Enemy, perhaps, has never even listened to a woman's account of living in the world. It's worse that the male reporters in our room are chuckling at the callous way he makes fun of the victim, and worse still that the women are. The worst part is the way he's shouting, spewing acidity, speaking on behalf of what all Reasonable People must think about women — why would you find yourself in a room again with a man who assaulted you? Why would you contact him, if it made you so uncomfortable? Why would you talk on the phone to a girlfriend for 45 minutes after seeing Mr. Cosby if you aren't gossiping about your relationship? ("If I stayed on the phone for 45 minutes — with my wife, she'd think I was having an affair," is the more Reasonable Logic My Enemy offers in contrast.) Why not call it a relationship?

All I can think, all I can mutter under my breath, feeling my forehead and cheeks get hot, is Because. Because, dude. Because because because of this. Because of everything.

"When you left Pittsburgh," My Enemy says to the members of the jury, who have been imported to avoid a tainted jury pool of publicity-swayed locals, "you didn't leave your common sense. Stop This!!!"

The drama, the accent, the shouting, the attempt to charm, to buddy up, to appeal to a particularly privileged logic. I don't need to hear much more. Or: I've already heard it, learned it. The words press on me, I feel them wriggling around in my brain, trying to change my mind. My conclusion, slipping out of the courtroom, shaking my head and sucking my teeth before My Enemy's monologue reaches its big finish: Men know everything. They know what they would do, which is what anyone, any logical, respectable person would do. They know what women are thinking, what women say to one another, how women will react before they do. They know how narrative works. They know how to perform. Are we not entertained?

One thing I love about comedy is the permission to act up, to step out of the Respectable and Well-Behaved skin without consequence. Comedy is perpetual forgiveness.

That was inappropriate, but it was funny, so I forgive you. I know you were just joking. You didn't mean it like that. You got carried away. You didn't hear me say no. You forgot to ask for my consent. You're right — I'm overreacting. You're right — maybe it didn't happen the way I remember. I forgive you. I'm sorry. Will you forgive me?

***

Roy knows someone is pulling the strings, controlling the narrative, and he's halfway right.

"I believe in all that stuff, you know, conspiracies, Illuminati. It's out there. They made Michael Jordan go play baseball because his image was tarnished by gambling with gangsters. It was the powers that be that made him. I feel a little sorry for Bill."

"I feel sorry for the women," I mumble, craning my head from the backseat to make sure he hasn't taken another wrong turn.

"I just don't understand. You got all that money. You got women who want to sleep with you! Why do you resort to that?"

"I don't think it's really about that." I tuck away his use of the word resort to contend with at a much later date. There are too many levels of complexity to process at once.

"You think it's like … a sickness?"

"Power."

"Right. That's a sickness. Is Bill pulling up right now? You think I can get a picture?"

The June 2017 sexual-assault trial against Bill Cosby ended in a mistrial, after the jury was "hopelessly deadlocked." Cosby's retrial is currently slated for November 6.

Morgan Parker is the author of There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé and Other People's Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night; the recipient of a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship; and co-founder of The Other Black Girl Collective.

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