Bill Cosby is a successful comedian, product representative, television producer, story teller, author, and actor.
Bill Cosby is also a village prognosticator, village priest, cultural commentator, and griot.
The village prognosticator has an opinion about everything and likes inflaming folks with his opinions.
Cosby has certainly accomplished his goal. He’s got everyone up in flames talking about his new book, Come On People. His new book, like his old book, takes on everything he feels is wrong in the black community. Cosby’s book and his appearances this week on Meet the Press, Oprah, and Larry King Live are the talk of blogosphere, listservs, and everywhere else black people gather to “chew the fat” (as they say where I come from).
As a comedian, Cosby is supposed to make us laugh. But it’s pretty obvious from his latest books and speeches that Bill Cosby has lost his appetite for comedy. For the past few years he’s been content to make black people mad. He’s got his own opinions about what’s going on the black community, where we went wrong, and how things oughta be fixed, and he’s cashing in on his cultural icon status and taking his message to the streets. I don’t agree with everything Cosby says, although I agree with lots of it. But I recognize what he’s doing.
Listening to Bill Cosby I am reminded of my father, another village prognosticator. Before he died a few years back I could always count on my father’s weekly phone calls, whether I wanted to hear from him or not. My father never bothered to start the conversation with “Are you busy?” It didn’t matter whether I was busy. It was time for his commentary. Off he’d go, bringing his “school-house-educated” daughter up to speed on the week’s news stories, sprinkled with his own brand of working-class, self-taught, black man analysis. My father would keep me on the phone for an hour offering his commentary on everything wrong with America, the president, black people, black youth, the black church. You get the point. “I know you got that Ph.D., Daughter” my father who didn’t finish the 10th grade would say to me. “But there’s some things only life can teach you. Now take that O.J. Simpson fella. Let me tell you where he went wrong…”
You know the village prognosticator. You don’t? Perhaps that’s because we’re not accustomed to being around older black men. Perhaps that’s because there aren’t many older black men around. Perhaps we’ve decided that the ones who are still here have lost their right to offer their opinion without permission.
I don’t go to beauty shops because I wear my hair natural. But I’ve been to my share of barbershops, and Bill Cosby reminds me of certain men I meet in negro barbershops. You know them. They get the conversation started. They get it heated. They get everyone arguing with each other. They are the men who sit around pretending they’re waiting for a haircut. But what they are really there for is to get a good conversation going. They got an opinion about everything. Everything. They are the old men in Ernest Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men. They are the barber Eddie in “Barbershop”, played by Cedric the Entertainer, who goes to the barbershop, but talk all day instead of cutting any hair.
I miss listening in on the conversations of opinionated old black men like my father and his friends. Even though I didn’t always agree with the things they said. Even though I was often embarrassed by the things that came out of their mouths. Even though their logic rarely made sense to anyone other than themselves. Working-class, old men in barbershops who’d outlived their sins and outsmarted death another day, and thus had earned the right to have their say.
Bush: “Mind what I tell you, the man’s a crook…”
The price of gas: “You know Bush and Cheney ‘em got that oil stockpiled out in Arizona somewhere…”
Osama Bin Laden: “He ain’t real. He someone Bush made up so he could…”
Castro: “That Fi-del is a smart man. He been dead. Bush just don’t know it.”
Michael Vick: “You know the white man got it out for the black man when a n_ can go to jail for killing his own dog..”
Juanita Bynum: “In the first place, she had no business…”
Prince: “I wish someone like him would show up at my front stoop talking about he come to pick up my daughter for a date…”
We’re supposed to be offended. We’re supposed to get mad. Perhaps we’re listening. Perhaps we’ll get mad enough to stomp out the barbership and prove the old man in the barbershop chair wrong.