Friday, November 23, 2007

Cos Says: Come On People

Come On People: On the Path from Victims to Victors
By Bill Cosby & Alvin F. Poussaint, M.D.
Thomas Nelson

A longtime supporter of jazz, Bill Cosby has been seen at every Great Night in Harlem benefit concert for the Jazz Foundation of America, usually as the host. In I Spy, he was the first African-American actor to co-star on equal footing with a white counterpart. So when he takes it upon himself to speak out on the state of African-American culture and community, it is worth taking notice. Much of what he has said recently has generated controversy. However, it is mostly common sense mixed with a little tough love that Cosby and co-writer Dr. Alvin Poussaint have to offer in their new book Come On People, the title to which comes from their frequently repeated exhortation to their readers.

Their recommendations should not sound outlandish: fathers should not abandon their children, kids should stay in school, and everyone should stay off drugs and eat more nutritious foods. Some of their prescriptions are decidedly liberal, such as expanding government health insurance programs.

However, when decrying the effects of single parent families, Cosby and Poussaint recall Vice Pres. Quayle’s Murphy Brown controversy, aligning themselves with the former VP. They write:

“When people say, ‘I never liked the Huxtables,’ we know why. People who don’t like Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable don’t like—or don’t know—their own fathers.

We can’t speak honestly of black culture in America unless and until we honestly address the issue of the estrangement of fathers and their children.” (p. 16)

While certainly advocating an active role for the government, to their credit, Cosby and Poussaint resist dogmatic ideological approaches. They promote the benefits of entrepreneurship and see a positive role for the church to play in healing rifts both in the family and in society at large. They repeatedly acknowledge the pernicious effects of slavery, but refuse to use it as a scapegoat for all that ails African-American communities. They argue:

“Certain people tell us that we are picking on the poor. Many of those who accuse us are scholars and intellectuals, upset that we are not blaming everything on white people as they do. Well, blaming only the system keeps certain black people in the limelight, but it also keeps the black poor wallowing in victimhood.” (p. 221)

However, People should not be seen as Cosby’s conservative coming out party, despite coming from Christian publisher Thomas Nelson (which also has Current, a largely conservative imprint). He and Poussaint proscribe an expansive economic role for the government and laud the Nation of Islam for being active in their communities.

In fact, they prove to be better cultural critics and healthcare advocates than economists. They sincerely urge young African-Americans accept any honest work available to them, arguing: “You don’t flip burgers for the rest of your life. You flip them to become the manager of the place. You flip burgers to move from manager to owner.” (p. 225) Yet they advocate raising the minimum wage, which always leads to a reduction in entry level jobs.

They have much to say about culture in general, and music in particular, but despite Cosby’s longstanding love for jazz, it figures little in People. (Wynton Marsalis is featured in one of many profiles of accomplishment, and Dizzy Gillespie is quoted at length at one point.) However, hip-hop and gangsta rap are criticized in no uncertain terms. According to Cosby and Poussaint:

“Those who defend gangsta rap claim there is no harm in profanity, no harm in vulgarizing women, no harm dropping out of school, no harm in blaming the system for the disaster they have made of their own lives. They don’t fight the mess they have inherited. They glory in it.” (p. 143)

There is no question People is a well intentioned book that raises some important issues. With frequent sidebars quoting from participants at the town hall style “Call-Outs” and “Life Lesson” success stories, it is a fast read, but it can also be repetitive. Straddling current events and self-help, People should lead to some useful discussions, but it also talks down to its audience at times—if you need Bill Cosby to tell you to floss you are in real trouble.

Readers looking for his “I-brought-you-into-the-world-and-I-can-take-you-out” parenting humor should stick with his backlist, as little of the Cosby comedy is on display in the deadly serious People. However, Cosby has had an undeniably huge impact of American culture, so the cultural criticism he writes here deserves serious consideration.

(Note: The authors will be signing at the Lincoln Triangle B&N on Dec. 19th.)