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Camille Cosby’s words show she’s trapped in an outdated space

Black women no longer have to be silent about abusive men

I was taught to respect my elders, and I abide by that teaching. I was an erstwhile Cosby kid, and I saw myself in A Different World. I respect the legacy of Camille Cosby, who carved herself out of whole cloth as a philanthropist, a curator, a convener of black spaces and a representation of black womanhood. For all that she has done and all that she’s been through — she’s lost two of her five children: a son to gun violence in 1997 and a daughter to renal failure in February — she’s worthy of the respect we have afforded her.

That said, she has opened up another space around her, and around her predatory husband, which now requires a different conversation. One steeped in pain.

Thursday, a week after Bill Cosby was convicted of three counts of felony sexual assault, Camille Cosby took to social media to defend her husband, decry the verdict and declaim the racist history and “lynch mobs” she holds responsible for the undoing of this man and all they stood for.

“Are the media now the people’s judges and juries?” she wrote on Facebook. “Since when are all accusers truthful? History disproves that … for example, Emmett Till’s accuser immediately comes to mind. … This is mob justice, not real justice. This tragedy must be undone not just for Bill Cosby, but for the country.”

My Lord, where to begin? Maybe we should see past Camille Cosby’s words and look to her frame. For much of American history, the stakes for black people have been life and death and the battle lines were clear: It was us, black people, trying to survive, grow, ascend, have dignity, citizenship and rights, versus them, the white people who were trying to deny us all of that. It was a time that required loyalty, that demanded silence by black women in the face of abuse by black men as if the race depended on it because it did. And the silence of these black women helped buy future generations the ability, the purchase and platform, to speak.

My Lord, where to begin? Maybe we should see past Camille Cosby’s words and look to her frame.

It was a coping mechanism for its time, but that time, and some of that pull-you-out-of-bed-and-hang-you-from-a-tree peril, has passed. Not totally, and not for everyone, but significantly enough for Camille Cosby’s invocation of Emmett Till to be a blasphemy. To be a sin and a foolishness. To contribute to the real and perhaps permanent undoing of Camille Cosby herself.

I mourned Bill Cosby as he fell. I came to terms with his con, felt acutely by those of us who remember what the cultural landscape was like before the Cosbys. But we needed to evolve past him and his hectoring, rapey ways.

When I brought Camille Cosby up in an interview about the generational divide in the #MeToo movement earlier this year, before the second Cosby trial, Tricia Rose, author and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University, told me, “I want to respect Camille Cosby but I also want to challenge her. She had some other options at some point.”

Perhaps she saw her options as either to defend her husband or leave the perch they had staked their lives on. She’d said little as the sexual abuse allegations unfolded and was not at her husband’s side during the second trial. Perhaps she could have made a solo life for herself, or simply continued going out without him, supporting her own causes. Surely she could have defended her husband without invoking Emmett Till.

Brittney Cooper, a professor of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University and author of Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, said a generational shift is underway with regard to black women and abuse. In a general, unrelated conversation that also predated the second trial, she pointed out a larger dynamic. “Very often, what we do is indict folks that came before us for their silence, not understanding what the costs of speaking were, and not understanding that what they are doing in that silence is building the infrastructure, the visibility, the universal representation that makes it possible for a new generation to speak.”

Those new voices have now rushed in with calls for greater accountability, more truth-telling, better support for victims of assault, and all of that is as it should be. At 74, Camille Cosby has been called to a reckoning, a greater complexity with regard to race, abuse and justice, as are we all. Her answer is wrong, an outgrowth of a different time, and indefensible in this moment.

She blames everyone else for her husband’s criminal conviction and ended her Facebook statement with this: “Someday the truth will prevail, it always does.”

But here’s the truth that needs to be said: It is not white people who most feel Bill Cosby’s betrayal, who believe he betrayed you, who understand he must, finally, be held accountable. It’s me. It’s us. It’s victims too long silenced. It’s black women.

Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at Andscape. She’s an author, a former columnist, has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.