Cosby: His Life and Times, by Mark Whitaker *****

In the lateCosby twentieth century, Americans trusted “God, Walter Cronkite, and Bill Cosby”. Cosby is an icon, and Mark Whitaker is his biographer, author of the first comprehensive biography of the great comedian, actor, author and humanist. I have admired Bill Cosby my entire life, and it was an honor to be able to advance-read this well written, thoroughly documented biography. Kudos to Whitaker for a job well done, and thank you to Net Galley and Simon & Schuster.
Cosby grew up really poor, the child of a man his friends later described as a “wino” and a hard-working, ambitious mother who valued education. His teachers could tell he was very bright, but he had no interest in school work during his formative years, enjoying sports, friends, and jazz music more than academia. He would later change his mind. His college degree and graduate work were done legitimately; he respected education too much to ever accept an honorary degree anywhere. He was ready to show up to class after having become famous, but he was swarmed when he turned up on campus, and so an alternate method was devised. A string of children’s television shows shown on Public Broadcasting including Sesame Street and The Electric Company were created as a part of his doctoral program, and his studies determined that they made a difference in the educational success of the children for whom they were created.
Race is in the news more than ever as I write this; earlier this week Times Square was filled with people demanding an end to police violence as yet another unarmed African-American man was gunned down by police. It is a telling indictment of the US government and its police—and this is my own take, not Cosby’s—that Camille Cosby told their son Ennis not to drive her green Mercedes when he was visiting Los Angeles partly because she feared police would see a Black man driving an expensive vehicle and pull him over on account of it. From the day he was killed till this moment, nothing has changed. I’m telling you, it needs to stop.
But back to Bill Cosby. For those who don’t know, Cosby started out trying to break into the music business, but he was very funny, and made extra money here and there by sitting on a bar stool and making people laugh for a few minutes. Of course it grew. His early inspirations were the stories his mother read to him by Mark Twain; comedians Dick Gregory and Jonathan Winters; and his grandfather, who read to him from the Bible, creating the voices of Noah, God, and various others.
Ultimately, it was a combination of comedic talent, a sterling work ethic, and unusually strong social skills that created a successful career. Cosby made a point, once he was in a position to do so, of hiring as many talented African-American professionals as he was able. His generosity in the form of scholarships, endowments to his alma maters and well as the nation’s historic Black universities is legendary. Less well known is the world-class art collection he and his wife have collected. They have quietly accumulated art work by the finest Black artists, sending other representatives to bid for them at Sotheby’s and other auctions where items of interest were available.
Bill Cosby is known for shining his light upon the common humanity between races, enabling Caucasians who had been afraid of Black folks to understand that every one of us is a person. His goal, though, in creating the Cosby family on television in the late 1980’s (which was so closely modeled after his own that he occasionally stumbled during script discussions, referring to “Cliff Huxtable” as “Bill”) was to show African-Americans a positive example of their own culture. It is telling that while white journalists constantly asked whether the Huxtable family, which featured a doctor and a lawyer as parents, was ‘realistic’, African-Americans surveyed found it entirely believable. Cosby’s wife, Camille, deserves credit for encouraging him to avoid the stereotype of the Black working man, and Cosby created a whole new art form in creating a sitcom based around family stories, rather than one-line jokes and put-down humor.
Long a champion of the solid Black family, Cosby wants young men of color to help raise their children. His remarks at the ceremony where he received the National Medal of Freedom were taken out of context and upset some folks who thought he was making fun of Black youth. He says this wasn’t his intention, and I believe it. The book that followed, Come On, People, addresses the issue. I have a copy on my shelves; it’s a wonderful book. I got it partially because of its author and partially because my family is racially blended and it is relevant to me; consider acquiring it after you get Cosby’s biography, which will be released mid-September.
I have seen enough tragedy that I no longer tear up easily, but reading of the loss of Ennis, something I already had known about but which Whitaker made whole and present to me, made my eyes well up. The horror of losing a child is not something anyone gets over readily, and the casual way the robber disposed of “a n*****r” was appalling. When Cosby performs stand up now, he always has a sweatshirt that says, “Hello, friend!” because that was Ennis’s greeting, for which he was known in his New England community. After the loss of their son, the Cosbys found refuge in South Africa with Nelson Mandela, who gave them some time and private space in which to recover. This, too, was moving.
Perhaps you believe this review was so long that you no longer need the book. Trust me; I have barely scratched the surface. I made 157 notations in my e-reader, edited it down to 125, and still, this is a mere outline. This book is destined to become a classic, a story of success gained against the odds, success gained with talent, a work ethic that still hasn’t stopped, and a tremendous amount of heart.
Sometimes I tell readers that a book is worth reading if they can get it at the library or get it cheaply; not so for this one. If you can’t afford it, request it as a Christmas or birthday gift. You won’t be sorry. It’s one in a million!

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