Here's a scoop for you, America: Bill Cosby has a hard time getting his message out.
"The media love to choose what they want to use," he said. "I can't go door-to-door to tell everyone what I really mean."
But Dr. William H. Cosby Jr., Ph.D. Ed., did manage to get a hold of your humble scribe on my cell phone on a Friday afternoon during my vacation, scoring some rare cool points for me in the process by saying hi to my teenaged son.
Cosby's like my 100-year-old grandmother; you never know what to expect from him. My heart pounded. Was he calling to praise? To complain? To sue?
As it turned out, he was calling to complain, but not about me. He appreciated my recent column about the national debate he ignited with his now-famous speech on the 50th anniversary of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education.
Cosby was calling out of frustration, he said, over the failures of other media to report what he has been trying to say. The Washington Post, which first reported the uproar over his 2004 speech, and other media have focused too much, in his view, on his sarcastic language. Too little attention has been given to the problems about which he was speaking: The crime, violence, school dropouts, out-of-wedlock births and other self-inflicted plagues among black youths left behind by civil rights reforms.
"Our children are trying to tell us something (with their self-destructive behavior) and we're not listening," he said.
I listened. He talked. I took notes. Among those who missed his point, the last straw for Cosby appears to have been an op-ed essay by Michael Eric Dyson, a University of Pennsylvania humanities professor and well-known Cosby critic, in the July 21 Post. Dyson lashed Cosby's "blame-the-poor tour" for ignoring major political and economic forces that continue to reinforce black poverty, like low wages, outsourcing, capital flight, downsizing and substandard schools.
"None of these can be overcome by the good behavior of poor blacks," Dyson declared.
But, of course, that statement is wrong, dangerously wrong in the disrespect it pays to the value of good behavior. As generations of successful black families can attest, good behavior won't solve all of your problems, but it beats drugs, crimes, abuse, child neglect or other self-destructive behavior.
Cosby offered two stellar examples, Jachin Leatherman and Wayne Nesbit, who defied the usual young black male stereotypes by graduating at the top of their class from Ballou High School, which has one of the District of Columbia's worst crime, poverty and dropout rates. Having survived distractions that included the shooting death of one of Nesbit's football teammates, the two athletes are headed for the College of the Holy Cross this fall.
At a July forum in Washington that featured Cosby, Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint and other experts on the state of black men in America, both of these bright young men were asked how they did it. They praised their fathers and their coaches for "staying on top" of them.
(The forum, sponsored by the Post, Harvard University and the Kaiser Family Foundation, can be seen at Kaiser's website: www.KFF.org.).
"There's the answer right there," Cosby said. "Why won't the media cover that?"
Alas, in newsroom terms, the lads are a heartwarming but play-it-inside local human-interest story. As one cynical mentor told me years ago, "News is what happens when things are not going the way they're supposed to." Want more attention for your honor students? Let them hold up a liquor store.
Some people think Cosby, who's given millions to scholarships and black colleges, has come down too harshly on black parents who shun personal responsibility, blame police first for incarcerations and let their children exalt sports and dialect over books and proper English.
I suggested in an earlier column that Cosby might not have been harsh enough. For all of the burdens that we African Americans have to bear from a legacy of historical and institutional racism, we also need to call each other to account from time to time for the damage we do to ourselves.
For starters, we could use a lot more fathers like those of the Ballou scholars. Unfortunately good dads and good moms don't grow on trees, as my own dad used to say about money. If we as a society do not do all that we can to help families in crisis and encourage parental responsibility, we will reap the ugly dividends later in our streets.
That's Cosby's message. At least, he has what some critics call his "bullying pulpit" to help get his message out and he's not afraid to use it.