Penny For Your Thoughts: As A Spelmanite, I Have Mixed Feelings About The Way They Cut Ties With Bill Cosby

July 30, 2015  |  

AP Images: Bill Cosby and Spelman President Beverly Daniel Tatum at Spelman commencement in 2006.

“Spelman thy name we praise” is not only the first line of Spelman’s school hymn, but it’s also a way of life. Rarely, if ever, will you hear alumnae from this historically Black college for women say a negative word about their alma mater. If anything, their feverish praise about having attended the school would likely come across as sounding too freakishly positive and damn near cultish. And, for nearly 20 years, I have been one of those only-has-freakishly-positive-things-to-say-about-her-experience Spelman grads (class of ’99).

Until now. When Spelman ended its Cosby professorship a few days ago (and, reportedly, returned the money associated with it), I wasn’t 100 percent supportive of the decision.

Alas, not being 100 percent supportive doesn’t mean that I’m not supportive. In fact, it’s my frustration about extremist reasoning and “black or white, either or, one way or the other” thinking that probably has me feeling conflicted in the first place. See, I’m privately ambivalent about Spelman College choosing to sever its relationship with the comedian because the decision implied that the school is no longer being publicly ambivalent about all the allegations surrounding Cosby.

By terminating the professorship affiliated with Bill Cosby, the Cosby-Spelman relationship went from being “on a break” to “breaking up.” After my alma mater put the professorship on hold last year, I thought it was a good call. The suspension showed a women’s college acknowledging the role that women’s rights and safety issues were playing in the changing perception of Cosby. It was a sensible and responsible reaction, without being overly reactionary, and it made a clear point by creating necessary distance from the actor and comedian without altogether alienating him. Suspending the relationship didn’t outright convey whether or not the school believed Cosby had committed any or all of the alleged behavior. It wasn’t a complete defense of “We support you–so let’s staunchly keep doing business as usual.” Nor was it an all out recoil of “We don’t support you–so take your money and shove it.” Rather, it said, “We don’t know if we support you or not, so let’s table this relationship for a while as everything is hashed out.” But now that the media reports a “termination” instead of a suspension, I’m still proud of my school, but somewhat disappointed about the decision.

Honestly, I was hoping that Spelman would hold fast with its “We don’t know if we support you or not” position. I interpreted their decision not to sever the Cosby-Spelman relationship as a powerful “We don’t know” stance. A strong show of ambivalence activism. In our opinionated times, where public uncertainty and delaying decisiveness is harshly criticized, I think we need more people on the ambivalence bandwagon.

Watching Bill Cosby’s fame turn into infamy, I certainly understand why people feel the way they do and why Spelman ceased its work with the Cosby endowment. Those New York Times-released deposition transcripts alone would make any woman want to take a few steps back from both the man and his name, if not 10 giant leaps. And whatever your social media stance on the matter (“unfriend me if you ____ Bill Cosby”), you can concede that while convictions from the court of public opinion aren’t the same as those in a real court, their lack of legality says nothing about their veracity or about how much they matter.

I’ll be frank: On the question of veracity, I’m tongue-tied. I avoid conversations about the whole Cosby mess because it has me neck high in uncertainty. I just don’t know. But I also know a few things about not knowing. I know that one shouldn’t need to know for sure that something happened in order to believe that it did; I know that there’s very little that anyone can really know without a shadow of a doubt; and I know that “I don’t know” is one of those phrases beyond which people hide their true beliefs. Still, “I don’t know” is my bottom line right now on the Cosby matter. And I really admired that my alma mater seemed to be saying “I don’t know,” too. 

I don’t care where you stand on the Cosby matter or who you think did or didn’t do what to whom. You can acknowledge that the word imbroglio applies to the whole thing. Like I said before, it’s a mess. If it were a case on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Sgt. Olivia Benson would need a 100-episode story arc over multiple seasons just to declutter all the details. And Det. Elliot Stabler would have to come back to help her.

Now, I love me some Olivia Benson, but I’m a bigger fan of Spelman College than I’ll ever be of SVU. Still, I wish my dear beloved alma mater had held off on the urge to render its own resounding “Dunh! Dunh!” of the Law & Order gavel.

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