Book Review: Is Bill Cosby Right?: Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?

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by Michael Eric Dyson

Publication Date:
List Price: $16.99
Format: Paperback, 304 pages
Classification: Nonfiction
ISBN13: 9780465017201
Imprint: Basic Civitas Books
Publisher: Perseus Books
Parent Company: Hachette Livre
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Book Reviewed by Kam Williams

“A book you can't put down, but for all the wrong reasons.”

“On May 17, 2004, Bill Cosby stepped to the podium in Washington, D.C.'s Constitution Hall... to receive an award for his philanthropic endeavors during an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision... When Cosby opened his mouth, instead of lauding the efforts of civil rights pioneers, he bitterly scorned poor blacks for not holding up their end of the deal.'

On and on Cosby went, berating black parents and youth for their numerous faults, his ramblings united by one theme: the miserable condition of the black poor brought on by their own self-destructive behavior. Cosby's remarks are not the isolated ranting of a solo rhetorical gunslinger, but simply the most recent, and the most visible, shot taken at poor blacks in a more than century-old class war in black America.

His views are widely held among the Afristocracy: upper middle class blacks and the black elite who rain down fire and brimstone upon poor blacks for their deviance and pathology. If Cosby's implicit claim is that the black poor have lost their way, then I don't mind suggesting that the black middle class has, in its views of the poor and its support of Cosby's sentiments, lost its mind.”

—Excerpted from the Preface

I wonder whether Bill Cosby has had any regrets over delivering his thought-provoking speech essentially calling upon the black community to reorder its priorities in terms of education, employment and culture. If not, he certainly might after hearing how very intimate aspects of his own personal life have been held up to public scrutiny in Is Bill Cosby Right? (Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?).

The book was written by Michael Eric Dyson, ordained street minister and the prolific author of a plethora of books on African-Americana. And though he earned his doctorate of divinity at Princeton, he currently teaches at another Ivy League institution, namely, the University of Pennsylvania.

Like Harvard's Timothy Leary did with the Sixties' Hippie Generation, Dyson, serves as the self-anointed guru and spokesman for the Hip-Hop Generation, at least in the hallowed halls of academia. This gangsta' rap apologist can always be depended upon to lend his pen and lectern to the spirited defense of the so-called thug life.

As a critic who has reviewed several of his books, I have been so underwhelmed by the earlier work of Dyson that I had, quite frankly, long since dismissed him as an intellectual lightweight more given to a superficial sensationalism than to anything of substance. How else might one respond to his building a biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. around a false FBI allegation that the slain civil rights leader was gay? Or, by contrast, his uncritical veneration of Tupac Shakur despite the late rapper's felonious, misogynistic, profane, violent and self-destructive ways? In fact, I found one opus so awful, that I put in unreturned calls to Dyson's colleagues to ask why they had praised it in blurbs on the back cover, because it was readily apparent that they couldn't possibly have bothered to read it.

It is no surprise, here, to see Dyson cashing-in on the celebrity of another icon, since Cosby's controversial remarks certainly have generated considerable publicity while initiating a healthy debate in African-American circles. After perusing Is Bill Cosby Right? I have both good news and bad news to report.

The good news is that this is the first Michael Eric Dyson book which I have found to be coherent, absorbing and entertaining. The bad news is that its title is misleading, for rather than a debate about any simmering tensions between poverty-stricken blacks and the African-American upper-crust, this tabloid-toned page-turner mostly mounts a no holds barred assault on Cosby's private life.

Imagine The National Enquirer or The Weekly World News packing all of its most salacious stories about a single icon into one gossip-packed text.

Dyson covers everything from Cosby's alleged love child, Autumn Jackson, to his son Ennis' murder to his strained relationship with his legitimate daughter Erinn, who has had her well-publicized battles with both drug addiction and sexual assault at the hands of Mike Tyson.

I was surprised to learn that the Cos had been a high school dropout, that he has used the N-word on stage, and that he cared enough about his Jello, Kodak and Ford endorsements to refuse to take a DNA test, and to have his out-of-wedlock offspring prosecuted and imprisoned for blackmail ostensibly to avoid risking a hit on his image via proof of paternity.

Yes, Dyson does touch on the black class war and generational divide, but he delineates his position on those conflicts, and rather eloquently, right in the book's Introduction. Subsequently, each chapter opens with a quote from Cosby's infamous speech which touched off the maelstrom and is followed by well-researched attempts to prove him a hypocrite in relation to his own words by pointing out his moral failings at various stages of his life.

I have no idea what Dr. Cosby did to tick Dr. Dyson off this badly. And while I may be the first to admit that this sort of invasion of privacy makes for a fascinating read, it by no means settles the debate about any of the social issues it pretends to address. For in a most infuriating fashion it simply scratches the surface again and again, only to uncover more surface in each instance.

A book you can't put down, but for all the wrong reasons.


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