My sister looked at me with shock and disappointment and then asked “How are you watching that? We just spoke about Bill Cosby and the horrendous rape incidents yesterday?”.
Yes, it is true. The day before my sister and I had discussed the fact that dozens of women had come out to say that Bill Cosby had drugged them and sexually assaulted them. Moreover, in a sworn deposition, Bill Cosby admitted to obtaining Quaaludes for the purpose of giving them to women with whom he wanted to have sex. My sister and I both expressed our horror and disappointment. As an attorney and educator who provides training sessions on Title IX and Eliminating Rape Culture, I was especially sickened by the manner in which Bill Cosby was able to use his money, fame, position, and network of Hollywood friends to suppress sexual assault allegations for decades.
But despite the fact that I was sickened, I was still watching an animated series called “Little Bill” with my two sons. The animated series is based on a book series of the same name by Bill Cosby. When my sister confronted me, I replied, “I can’t give this up. This is all that I have.”
“Little Bill”, “Bino and Fino”, and “Tell Me Who I Am”, are among the very few animations with a central black character who represents a positive and unapologetic black image. A recent Indiana University Study revealed that increased television exposure is correlated with decreased self-esteem in African American boys and girls. The researchers believe that this is the case because of the lack of empowered African-American lead characters in children’s television.
“Little Bill” represents an empowered African-American lead character, and the show is exactly what I want my children to see. Little Bill is a kind and adorable African-American main character. Little Bill’s black father adores and supports his beautiful dark-skinned and kinky haired wife who is also Little Bill’s mother. The family often patronizes Uncle Al’s store. Little Bill has diverse friends and associates which include the wheel-chair bound Monty and a little deaf girl. Moreover, unlike Doc McStuffins who often stares admiringly at her white baby doll, all of the kids in Little Bill love a black superhero named Captain Brainstorm.
I feel like I can’t give up “Little Bill”. Many women’s activists would tell me not to separate the art from the artists and not to support men who victimize women by supporting their art. This argument is made to inspire boycotts against Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and others. But as a Black woman, I sometimes feel as if I do not have that luxury because empowering images are so few and far between. As a children’s author, I have plenty of African-American picture-books – but there is something very powerful about the moving image and I need all of the multi-media empowering content that I can get.
Even as I watched “Little Bill” with my children, I could not avoid a troubling Allstate advertisement in which dark-skinned actress Leslie Jones plays the character of an unattractive, scary, and love-starved driver who is unable to receive positive male attention. Meanwhile, the other ad in my youtube feed was a Head and Shoulders commercial featuring the light-skinned Sofia Vergara. Sofia Vergara is portrayed as the epitome of female beauty and the possessor of “gorgeous hair”. My 3-year-old asked me if I too wanted gorgeous hair and I felt saddened knowing that he has never seen a commercial in which my cropped afro is described as gorgeous hair.
Now, just a year later, I am struggling with another bout of “triple consciousness”, as I try to reconcile my identities as American, African-American, and Woman. “Birth of a Nation” is a film that so many African-Americans have been waiting to see. The film-maker spent nearly a decade creating it and sacrificed a great deal of his own money in the process. The film is not another tale of African-American oppression, subjugation, and unrelenting anguish, it is rather a tale of resistance. In my professional development classes for educators on culturally responsive pedagogy, I often discuss the need to incorporate stories of Native American and African American resistance. Now, we have such a film! But, the filmmaker, Nate Parker, has also experienced a rape allegation.
Both Nate Parker and his former Penn-State roommate and co-writer for Birth of a Nation, Jean Celestin, were accused of consecutively raping an 18-year-old woman at Penn State in 1999. Both Nate Parker and Jean Celestin have maintained their innocence. Nate Parker faced trial and was acquitted of all charges involved in the incident, but Jean Celestin was convicted of sexual assault. Jean Celestin later had his charge overturned when a Superior Court judge ruled that his attorney was ineffective in defending him.
From Nate Parker’s vantage point, he is innocent, he had a consensual threesome with the accuser, the charges and trial were racially charged, the entire situation was devastating for him, and it is time for people to focus on the movie, not his past. Nate Parker has many supporters who agree with his vantage point and they have spoken out publicly to support him and his work.
But from the standpoint of women’s activists, the accuser drank a lot of alcohol and could not give consent. Second, what Parker now describes as a threesome sounds awfully similar to a “train”. A “train” is slang for when multiple men wait to have sex with the same woman. In Nathan McCall’s memoir “Makes Me Wanna Holler”, he describes the fact that girls and women are often set up for trains, with other men appearing from nowhere and shocking and intimidating the girls and women into submission. One former Penn State student, Rugigana Kavamahanga, testified that Nate Parker told him that he had Jean had “run a train” on the accuser. Third, activists would say that we can’t separate the art from the artist.
My question for you is this. What do we need to hear from Bill Cosby or Nate Parker in order to be able to fully enjoy the benefits of their creative work? They can’t go back in time to change their actions. Is there anything that they can say or do to redeem themselves so that the transformative power of their creative genius is not lost? Is there any room for redemption?
Personally, I am interested in hearing Bill Cosby apologize genuinely and remorsefully about securing drugs for the purpose of drugging women to have sex with them. I would love to hear Nate Parker discuss how his current faith and understanding of sexuality informs his understanding of the 1999 incident. I’m curious to hear his deeper perspective on what we should be teaching young men about sexuality in order to produce better outcomes. Moreover, because I too am concerned about how our patronage of the art enriches the artists, it would be great to see both Cosby and Parker contribute large sums to organizations that deal with preventing sexual violence. I’m thinking aloud. Please write your thoughts in the comments.