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Bill Cosby’s crimes illuminate the fault lines between generations of Black women

Generation X women are tasked with being translators, however imperfectly, between our mothers and our daughters

I am standing in the gap. 

It is a gap between grandmothers and granddaughters. Between whites-only water fountains and Black Lives Matter, between press and curls and Bantu knots, fast-tailed girls and sex-positivity. And most especially, it is a gap between taking your abuse at the hands of Black men to Jesus or the grave (or maybe your cousins) and taking it to the courts, streets and social media.

This is the space women like me, replete with our own grievous shortcomings, have long occupied in the culture — since even before social media allowed us to be more known to each other. And in that time and this moment, nothing articulates the generational divide between Black women as neatly as the matter of Bill Cosby. For years, he has existed along a fault line of arguments about representation and respectability politics. Of lynchings, racist criminal justice and, Lord help us, the word and motives of white women when it comes to rape accusations against Black men.

Phylicia Rashad as Clair Huxtable (left) and Bill Cosby as Dr. Cliff Huxtable (right) on season three of The Cosby Show.

Alan Singer/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

When news broke Wednesday that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had overturned Cosby’s 2018 sexual assault conviction, and the former entertainer and philanthropist had been released from prison, reaction was swift and shocked. 

The ruling, that Cosby, 83, had not received a fair trial, brought a recapitulation of the case, a deconstruction on points of law, and widespread outrage on behalf of his victims. Cosby, who had been accused of drugging and or assaulting nearly 60 women (primarily white, but including numerous women of color), served nearly three years of a 3-to-10-year prison sentence. He’d been the earliest and among the most iconic offenders convicted in the reckoning sparked by the #MeToo movement, which was born from the anti-rape activism of Black women, but gained prominence after being championed by famous white women.

One of the most high-profile reactions this week was a tweet of support from Cosby’s former co-star and television wife Phylicia Rashad, an accomplished stage actor, director and herself a household name during The Cosby Show run in the mid-1980s and early 1990s on NBC. “Finally. A terrible wrong is being righted — a miscarriage of justice is corrected,” the tweet read.

Rashad has long couched her support for Cosby in terms of the importance of his legacy, particularly to Black people. Her defense mirrored the Cosby defense, which touted his legendary status, and cast his prosecution as part of a lurid history of false rape allegations and violence against Black men by white people.  

Rashad was recently named dean of the Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts at Howard University and began her tenure on Thursday. Though her appointment was widely celebrated, the Cosby tweet had some contending she does not believe the sexual assault victims. They called on the university to fire her.

I both strongly disagree with Rashad and I am calling for us as Black women to move beyond Cosby. Because while Cosby represents a criminal betrayal of trust, he is still only a symptom of a divide between the animating considerations of our mothers, and those that roil our daughters.

I am part of a pioneer generation born after the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, heralded the true beginning of multiracial democracy, or so we were taught to believe. Part of the ones who came of age after the cultural and legislative gains of second-wave feminism advantaged those of us best resourced to burst through all those doors, newly ajar.

I am part of a generation of Black women tasked with being translators, however imperfectly, between our mothers and our daughters.

To my daughters, who spit fire, who are tired of the racism, and the patriarchy, and all the accommodations they suspect we have too easily made, I have questions:

So y’all are just braver than all the Black women who came before you, huh? 

In this handout image provided by the Montgomery County Correctional Facility, Bill Cosby poses for a mugshot on Sept. 25, 2018, in Eagleville, Pennsylvania. Cosby was sentenced to a prison term of three to 10 years for sexual assault.

Montgomery County Correctional Facility via Getty Images

So I guess you never could have been enslaved, right? 

I say your ability to speak, even to have a voice, was bought with the world building of your grandmothers, who were silent in the face of abuse as if the race depended on it, because it did. To the most righteous of my daughters, I would say, respectfully, respect is due.

To my mothers, who taught America what it means to make a way out of no way, I would say you stopped your work too soon. You looked away from some of the inequities in your own houses that most needed your eyes. In the work of making your way, you also found too much privilege in your class, education, money and sometimes skin color. In piety and false piety. You loved us, your Generation X daughters, fiercely, but you didn’t always know how to nurture, or see the value of such a thing. And in your pride, you too often resisted asking for or getting help with your struggles.

To our mothers, we say you tolerated too much. To our daughters, we say you have no idea what it is to be so circumscribed in your options that, as Toni Morrison once said, you have to invent yourself.

I am newly considering my place in this family discussion, coming to terms necessitated by a history of racism and state-sponsored violence crashing into our desperate need for accountability and the rights of abuse victims to speak their piece, and be free from violence. It is a delicate balancing act. It comes with a high risk of misstep, and its own generational language and loyalties. (Which, by the way, is why you will often still find us being notably extra on the dance floor — and you know I got soul. You got it. This is where so many Gen X women first sought to dance our way out of our constrictions — to the continuing embarrassment of both our mothers and our daughters.)

And while others are able to tune in (and never wait for an invitation anyway), this framing is most appropriately Black women’s business. Those who lack the experience and shared consequences that come from walking America in Black bodies and caring daily about Black children should also be the quietest.

In thinking beyond Cosby, I am thinking about the ways sisters find ourselves at cross-purposes across generations, or with those of us who stand in the gap. I’m wondering if we can reach collectively for a kind of pragmatic grace.

This is not a grace that seeks to lessen penalty, absolve abusers or stop a righteous self-love, self-preservation and accountability movement, of a type our grandmothers could scarcely fathom, and that must continue. It is rather knowing that our way as a people is only ever forward, together. That we still need each other. That we do not have the resources or the numbers to do anything else, and that relying on white allies to do the right things for the right reasons, is at best, an iffy proposition, and at worst, dangerously naive (and ahistoric). That among the things we, as a people, could always count on, was that our grandmothers’ phone numbers would never change. In every generation, there will be some who walk point and some who bring up the rear, and while we are free to fight fiercely with each other, what we cannot do is leave each other behind. Even when it is appropriate to maintain a minimum safe distance apart, we’ve all got to keep it moving, and talking to one another, because as a people, we are all that we have.

Joan Morgan, author, scholar and the mother of hip-hop feminism articulated our dilemma 20 years ago in her canonical book, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost. White women “don’t call their men ‘brothers’ and that made their struggle enviably simpler than mine,” she wrote. “Racism and the will to survive it creates a sense of intraracial loyalty that makes it impossible for Black women to turn our backs on Black men — even in their ugliest and most sexist of moments. I needed a feminism that would allow us to continue loving ourselves and the brothers who hurt us without letting race loyalty buy us early tombstones.” Morgan, too, stands in the gap, centering Black female agency and voice, pleasure politics, joy as resistance, and for deconstructing all the complex juxtapositions therein.

As a Gen X Black woman, I have come to understand that multiple things can be true at once. Or at the very least, two, like my mothers and my daughters, who contain multitudes. My mothers taught me that the job of each generation is to make a better way for the next. My daughters taught me that the way has to be better for all of us, or none of us are safe. Periodt.

Hours after her tweet supporting Cosby, Rashad followed it with, “I fully support survivors of sexual assault coming forward. My post was in no way intended to be insensitive to their truth. Personally, I know from friends and family that such abuse has lifelong residual effects. My heartfelt wish is for healing.”

A statement from Howard University reiterated its support for sexual abuse survivors, acknowledging Rashad’s clarification and distancing itself from her initial comments, which it said lacked sensitivity toward victims of sexual assault. 

Brittney Cooper, author and associate professor of women’s and gender studies and Africana studies at Rutgers University, summed it up in a tweet. “White supremacy has been brutal and deadly in its sexual demonization of Black men. Bill Cosby, however, is a rapist who spent his career demonizing poor Black folks for acting like racial stereotypes, when he was out here acting like white folks’ worst Black male nightmare.”

It all feels painful, like a chapter we don’t want to relive. Such is the nature of reckonings and change. 

Here, to my Gen X mind, is what feels true. The lesson of this moment is not, most enduringly, a judgment about sexual abuse, race and feminism that centers on Cosby. (Although, by all means, in all good faith, let us have that necessary and painful intraracial dialogue.) Rather, this is a homily about the importance of holding space for the twin virtues of growth and remembrance, the past and the future, what those two things will always mean in Black lives, and the ways they charge all our generations, to keep our covenant with one another.

I invoke them both, standing in the gap. My hope is that they offer a signpost that my mothers still recognize and claim, and a road map for my daughters as they urgently remake the world for the better, and carry the rest of us with them. In the tradition. Just like all the Black mothers and grandmothers before them.

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.