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The Cosby Show

By Kathy Y. Wilson · March 7th, 2002 · Your Negro Tour Guide
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Cosby, Smokey, Prince and Marsalis. It sounds like a low-rent, late-night Channel 64 law firm, but we know them as the growing contingent of black men who've disallowed us the pleasure of their company.

This boycott sucks. But it's grist -- tasty grist.

I'm sitting in strange seats at the boycott. In theory, I'm a supporter, but as a member of the media my job dictates that I infiltrate the camps of famous people for interviews. And the resulting preview stories are supposed to entice readers to attend concerts, etc.

Jazz and Classical trumpeter/arranger Wynton Marsalis was one such subject looming on my professional landscape. But it wasn't to be.

Marsalis is the most recent among black male artists in a thickening list to cancel their Cincinnati engagements, each in a different language but for the same ultimate reason.

First, comedian Bill Cosby, the unlikeliest of politically correct pied pipers, cancelled his March 15 gigs at the Aronoff Center for the Arts. Then Motown legend Smokey Robinson -- who, like Cosby, is represented by the William Morris Agency -- vetoed his Feb. 13 appearance at the Taft Theater.

Next, Rock's morphing glyph Prince, citing 'technical difficulties,' backed out of his March 5 appearance at Music Hall. Most recently, Marsalis said, 'Thanks, but no,' to his upcoming Aronoff gig.

Prince had contacted the National Black Chamber of Commerce -- of which he's a member -- requesting the organization gather facts about Cincinnati. There certainly were going to be 'technical difficulties' if local promoters failed to disclose economic and social truths to the artist who, not long ago, wriggled himself free of a hellish Warner Bros.

contract and appeared in public with 'slave' stenciled on his cheek while the lawyers duked it out.

Since few of us are willing to write 'slave' on our faces, we need to start turning the corner -- whatever that means.

So far, boycott demonizers have underestimated boycott organizers at every turn. And the groups, Coalition for a Just Cincinnati among them, have proven not just their seriousness but their sociopolitical mightiness.

But thus far it's been a forest mighty black.

It's great all these black men are shakin' what their mammas gave them -- that is, power and intellect. And while this blacks-out makes big-name Negroes look and feel all good and righteous, it's letting big-name white performers off the hook.

What about Jimmy Buffett? Please ask him not to come.

In retrospect, until the comfortable are afflicted, the boycott won't amount to anything more than a heaping pile of smoldering black singers, dancers and comedians. And the comfortable in this case, as in most others, are privileged white people.

If boycott organizers hit up someone with (white) name brand recognition, I guarantee legions of put-upon white citizens will be calling for some kind of truce.

It seems that boycott organizers have been going after only the big-fish Negroes when, in fact, everyone should be fair game. This says there are class issues at work. And, ultimately, isn't that what all this is really about?

The Cincinnati Arts Association (CAA) is threatening a lawsuit against boycott organizers, claiming 'tortuous interference.' In short, that means, 'Stop crashing our parties and let us make money.' The CAA is so far seeking $77,000 in lost ticket sales and a promise from boycotters to cease contacting scheduled performers.

I'm wondering aloud now: How does it feel to be in the seat of the reactionary?

If whites -- from venue owners and managers to the mayor himself -- stood from that seat and became more proactive, they'd see this for what it is. They're nervous now because the boycott game has turned into a power play and they feel power slipping. And the rope burns must feel like they do in a losing game of tug-of-war.

But race baiting has made finger pointing too easy. Thinking this is solely an issue of race has laid a slew of misguided battle lines.

Be certain: It is a battle.

But black-identified boycotters have played upon the (black) guilt of black performers when, instead, everyone considering Cincinnati as a tour or convention stop should feel guilty.

They all -- black, white, Asian, comedian, Rhythm & Blues, Jazz and Bluegrass -- should be appalled by our behavior. How we handle ourselves and the lessons we'll take away are morality tales even he Huxtable kids could appreciate.

But that Cosby Show was just television. It wasn't real.

Cosby and his band of sepia no-shows know the difference between fantasy and reality. And they're all somewhere else wondering why we can't figure out the difference for ourselves.



Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.
 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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