Opinionista J Brooks Spector 13 July 2015

Two faces: Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch and Bill Cosby’s fall from grace

The relationship between fame and influence has been highlighted following the unsealing of court documents documenting some deeply unsavoury details about comedian/actor Bill Cosby’s behaviour as well as the coincidence of the revelation that Harper Lee's fictional hero Atticus Finch had become an angry racist.

For decades, the name Bill Cosby stood for many things, but they all, always seemed to be thoroughly honourable ones. He was a stand-up comedian who chronicled the joys, sorrows and eternal truths of a thoroughly urban childhood. Plucked from stand-up comedy, he was the first black American to co-star in a successful television drama series, I Spy in the 1960s, together with actor Robert Culp. Culp and Cosby played spies who toured the world as tennis pro and trainer.

Cosby ventured into audio and video recordings, television specials and an extremely popular animated series based on one of his childhood characters, Fat Albert. Eventually, he became the head of the Huxtable family on the eponymously named and top-rated Cosby Show for eight years – a veritable lifetime in American television. Along the way, ob/gyn Dr Cliff Huxtable and his university English professor spouse, Claire, had a perfectly normal marriage and careers; they raised a house full of children; saw them through the trials and tribulations of childhood, the teenage years and then, finally, ushered all of them successfully on into adulthood.

But of course it was always more than just an entertaining television series with a genuine A-list star at its core, and a very experienced actress in the person of Phylicia Rashad as Cliff Huxtable’s life partner. The show had LESSONS, VALUES and MORALS to impart. These were obviously applicable to everyone who watched – but they were especially directed towards the country’s African American population. Parents had responsibilities towards their offspring that they could not (and should not shirk), just as children had obligations towards parents, grandparents, friends, teachers and other adults – and society writ large. But the beauty of the show was that these teachings weren’t delivered sonorously like religious homilies delivered from a pulpit, but, rather, they evolved organically from the storylines of the individual episodes.

Increasingly, Cosby saw his show as a way of upending the drumbeat of African American pop culture that glorified gangsters, drugs, crime, deadbeat dads, children out of wedlock, crack babies and “ghetto fashion” that were sure-fire dead ends for America’s black youth. Life was tough enough without role models that turned the youth into anti-social, amoral, alienated young people and so The Cosby Show was an effort to provide a very different message for parents and children alike.

Along the way, Harvard psychiatry professor Alvin Toussaint was brought in as a consultant to ensure the content of the show responded to the deeper meanings of these social ills Cosby seemed determined to combat. And the star, himself, earned a PhD in education from Temple University in Philadelphia (and not an honorary degree), in part to ensure that his TV work had a real level of quality built into it.

There were criticisms, of course. Some argued The Cosby Show sugarcoated things when it failed to show the realities of black life in America, as opposed to a well-integrated, financially secure, upper-middle class family. In fierce response to such criticisms, Cosby insisted that, despite the critique, clearly some black people did live the way the Huxtables did and that this show’s purpose was aspirational rather than simply a portrayal of life as it is lived on the mean streets – and to balance out all those other television shows, movies and music videos with their constant repetitive messages of black failure, crime and dysfunction.

Interestingly, back in the 1980s, this writer recalls efforts by the SABC TV managers to enlist US Embassy help in getting the rights to broadcast The Cosby Show and Sesame Street. Both shows were sometimes available to be seen on the old Bop TV channel, but such broadcasts only reached to the edge of the far western suburbs of Johannesburg (including Soweto) from their transmission tower in the so-called Republic of Bophuthatswana, off to the Northwest and television viewers in the rest of the country were desperate to watch too. Not surprisingly, the lords of SABC were just as eager to get access to these two shows, despite the tightening cultural boycott, presumably for their positive lessons and role models and to help in some subtle, ineffable way to turn back the revolutionary tide then sweeping South Africa’s townships.

Along the way, Bill Cosby and his real-life spouse, Camille, became highly important figures in the US entertainment industry, by virtue of their good works and charitable efforts that seemed to be a living exposition of the fictional saga of the Huxtables. They became major purchasers of contemporary art by African Americans and they donated really major sums of money to historically black four-year educational institutions like Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. Bill Cosby became a highly sought-after graduation speaker at American universities and this power couple even hosted a fundraising evening for the world-renowned but cash-strapped Market Theatre in their home in the early 1990s.

But ways similar to the sad sagas of Jimmy Savile and Bob Hewitt, (or perhaps the story of President John Kennedy’s extramarital affairs as well) that Bill Cosby story had another darker side to it that has now permanently put paid to his public image as a man who stood for a sense of dignity, family values, self-worth and societal responsibility in a way that can never be reassembled. And, along the way, the revelations from unsealed court documents, yet other charges and rumours of yet more revelations to come have made it virtually certain that the Cosby legend will have a very sour introductory paragraph when it is finally written in full. And just possibly it has done some tangible damage to the very kinds of ideas and encouragements for African American life that had been woven so deeply into the warp and woof of The Cosby Show.

In a way, too, this very real, and increasingly tragic story of the undoing of the Bill Cosby legend (and the people whose lives he damaged) has an echo in that fictional story of Atticus Finch, the hero of Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, as told through the eyes of Finch’s preternaturally astute young daughter, Scout. In the novel, and the film by the same name in which Gregory Peck unforgettably portrayed the southern lawyer, Finch is a man of upright character who defends Tom Robinson, a young black man accused of raping a white girl. Finch defends him with great ability and moral probity, despite the certainty he will be convicted, regardless of his defence.

In the past year, however, the American publishing and literary worlds have become gripped with the realisation that Lee had a second novel, Go Set a Watchman, connected to the first, still tucked away, written years before; a book that takes the story forward to when Scout, now a successful middle-aged woman who had moved North, returns home to Maycomb, Alabama, to discover to her horror that Atticus Finch has a deep, nasty and unredeemable racist streak to his thinking, language and life.

For many people, however, even though most of them have only heard about this story from newspaper stories, possibly read an advance review, or perhaps have read the one chapter already issued openly on the Internet – the book is only launched officially on Tuesday, 14 July – this plot element has become as agonisingly painful as concentrated lemon juice poured into a deep paper cut on the hand.

To Kill a Mockingbird has been such an important part of school and university literature courses over the years, as well as perennial best-seller since 1960 with over 50 million copies sold, that with Atticus Finch now apparently revealed as an angry, racist old man, people have already been writing on social media or been quoted in the press as having had a visceral reaction to this apparent betrayal by Harper Lee in her “new” novel.

Just as those who imbibed the seeming close congruence between Bill Cosby’s public messages on stage and television with his real life, we often find self-identification and hope in the messages we can draw from inspirational figures in literature. The discordances between Bill Cosby’s fictional persona and his real life hurt many just as much as the discovery that in the hand of his creator, Atticus Finch is a Janus-faced man, who, in his old age might well have been a vociferous supporter of Alabama Governor – “segregation now, segregation forever” – George Wallace in the early 1960s.

Given the tremendous impact of her earlier novel, the revelations in the second one will hurt many admirers and readers very deeply, and it will have a major impact on how the literary world, let alone legions of high school English students from now on, will have to interpret the two novels, joined together as part of a larger literary portrait of Atticus Finch. Perhaps that was the author’s intention – to cast doubt upon a dying tradition of enlightenment in the Deep South, as the 20th century moved forward.

However, the singular difference, of course, when considering Bill Cosby’s actions is that his betrayals also touched real lives – in addition to fatally besmirching his own as well as his fictional character’s public discourse on values and the importance of family and parental responsibility. And for that he will now have much to answer for in the future. DM


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