I have always enjoyed Bill Cosby on television - even the stand-up acts that were recorded before I was born. His ability to tackle complex issues in a humorous way always sparked healthy discussion in our household.
Unfortunately, Cosby’s recent transition to political commentator, exemplified most recently by his book, Come on People, with Alvin Poussaint, is quite demoralizing and degrading at times. If the book was found in the self-help section near Dr. Phil, I might have taken less notice. But the bar code on the back places the book in the “political science” section - dare I say on the right, promptly placing the authors on the wrong side of history.
The book, which is supposed to give us hope, reads as a myriad of confusing contradictions that chastise Black youth with unrealistic fictional dialogues, misleading examples, and an uneasy romanticizing of the Ghost of Black Struggle Past. The authors’ calls for “activism” are coupled with an underlying inference that their generation did so much, and ours is doing so little - negating our current struggles, such as the recent walk-outs led by Black youth in response to the case of the Jena 6.
Page-by-page we are inundated with the authors’ demonizing of young people, essentially telling us to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, that we are the reasons we cannot get ahead; attacking how we dress, talk, and our lack of “entrepreneurial spirit.”
But by telling youth that we are the ones who can solve the problem only feeds into a sense of hopelessness when our current economic system requires that a great many of us, from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, do not succeed in order for it to function. Black youth are not disproportionately incarcerated because we have grown comfortable as victims, but because it is profitable to put us away and convince others that that Black youth are the problem.
Our true hope as young people comes from our ability to identify the real cause of our problems, and thus real solutions.
Uniting students of all races with teachers and parents to fight for quality public schools where everyone can attend for free gives us hope.
Fighting against a war that targets low-income youth, particularly from Black and Latino communities, as first to die gives us hope.
Working within our unions to hold accountable the company bosses that are drunk on profits they earned off our backs gives us hope.
Looking internally for strength is one thing, but we, Black youth, are not the enemy.
The authors do sprinkle brief hints of the need to hold Big Business accountable for discrimination and vaguely mention that the government should be petitioned for “supportive social policies,” never specifying what these policies might be.
For example, staying in school would be more achievable if we worked to push Congress to increase funding for Pell Grants and decrease tax breaks for rich corporations. Telling young women to go to the doctor, as they do in chapter 4, is easier said than done given Bush’s veto of SCHIP - preventing young people across the country access to healthcare. A bold call to fight for universal healthcare would have provided a more realistic solution.
In the authors’ assault on what they see as our victim mentality, Cosby and Poussaint practically create a fantasy world where everything is perfectly equal-having been won in the 1960’s no doubt-as if the battles for civil rights ended after King’s death. Do the authors really think Black youth are turning down a cornucopia of good jobs due to fear, hopelessness, and alienation, as they imply in Chapter 2? Are there really such a plethora of jobs that could support all of even the most loving of families? I challenge the authors’ next book to be full of job listings that pay above the minimum wage, provide healthcare, and allow Black workers to simply have one job so they can spend time with their families-the breakdown of families of course being the authors’ primary cause for our “victimhood.”
In criticizing Come on People, I am not skirting personal responsibility. But the book disproportionately emphasizes personal responsibility over government and corporate accountability. The authors do not focus enough on how to address the external factors that make it difficult for Black people, and many others, to succeed. Rather than fight for justice, the book encourages us to accept current injustices and even embrace them as our own creations.
Instead, we must see the main barriers to our success as much bigger than ourselves. Would the authors criticize Black autoworkers that were recently laid off as lazy? Are Black survivors of Hurricane Katrina who are trying to maintain their homes complacent in their victim-hood?
Like one Latin American leader recently suggested - loosely translated - “you cannot criticize a person’s breathing if your hands are around his/her neck.”
To Cosby and Poussaint’s credit, this book does highlight many valid social problems, such as the misdiagnosis of Black children with mental illnesses and learning disabilities. It is also a good supplementary read to Dr. Spock books on raising a baby.
But ultimately the authors were unable to provide real solutions for the problems they noted and in fact, made it clear that they themselves have given up on our ability to improve external conditions ...that our only option is to rise above this internal enemy, our “victimhood.”
Come on people!
Even the youngest among us knows that there is more to it than that.
Erica Smiley is the national coordinator of the Young Communist League-USA and former co-chair of the Black Radical Congress youth caucus.
Come on People: On the Path from Victims to Victors By Bill Cosby and Alvin F. Poussaint Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2007, 288 pp, $25.99