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FIRST-PERSON: Bill Cosby’s harsh but wise words

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (BP)–The world’s most famous father, Bill Cosby, has directed his voice and wisdom toward one of the most troubling aspects of contemporary black life in American society.

According to Cosby, there is a great rift between the advantages available to African Americans through traditional educational paths and the paths that many ultimately choose to take. Cosby notes that many young people are “failing to honor the sacrifices made by those who struggled and died during the civil rights movement.”

With the significance of the civil rights movement being lost on so many young blacks today, their titular leaders have become the few fortunate individuals who choose or are chosen to travel the flashy paths provided by sports –- larger-than-life figures of influence who enjoy the fame and privilege that comes with their profession.

A few more have become titular figures of leadership by their spotlight in the flashy glamour of the entertainment industry.

Young people today seem to be captivated by the lives and accomplishments of sports and entertainment figures who have benefited from the access provided them by the civil rights movement. Yet these same young people generally hold no moral appreciation of the movement.

African American children seem to translate this personality worship into lifestyles barren of focus and positive direction for their own lives and futures.

“They think they’re hip,” Cosby said of African Americans who fail to pursue education and whose lives are dominated by a current popular culture that drains it of real day-to-day truth and substance.

“They can’t read; they can’t write,” Cosby said. “They’re laughing and giggling, and they’re going nowhere.”

Cosby’s comments continue to reverberate since he first voiced them at the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., in May.

There, Cosby held African American parents responsible for the current and impending social endangerment of their children’s lives and education.

Cosby told the crowd that “the lower economic people are not holding up their end of this deal.” He lamented, for example, that “the racial slurs used by those who used to lynch blacks are now a favorite expression of black children.”

Cosby’s strong stand and disapproving tone marshaled criticism from leaders in education and from the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

One such rebuttal accuses Cosby of relying on age-old stereotypes to define the lives of the African Americans he targeted in his reprimands, that his vast wealth has placed him out of touch with the lives of ordinary African American people. Yet one of Cosby’s complaints is that parents who lavish expensive outfits on their children will not invest in educational items for them.

“They are buying things for kids — $500 sneakers — and for what?” Cosby said. “But they won’t spend $200 for Hooked on Phonics.”

The focus and work of the civil rights movement was disciplined — soaked in the blood, determination and tears of many martyrs. People of every color and social status in America demanded and cut a more just and humane existence for all who live in the country out of the cloth of segregation and dehumanization. Perhaps because Cosby knows that the possibilities open to every African American are supported by the sacrifice of at least one civil rights martyr, Cosby’s anger is completely understandable and justifiable.

Cosby’s rallying cry to African Americans is tight, but it is right. Because, unless, when the time comes — and that time comes quickly in every life — young African Americans can talk the talk, $500 sneakers will not help them walk the walk when it is time for them to mainstream and enter the real world of real life.
Terriel R. Byrd, whose column appears monthly in Baptist Press, is associate professor of religion at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Fla.

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  • Terriel Byrd