Howard University Dean Phylicia Rashad found herself embroiled in controversy after celebrating longtime friend and former castmate Bill Cosby’s release from prison. While legacy entertainers also offered support, Howard University students started a petition to have her removed from her newly appointed position and the marquee HBCU eventually released a statement denouncing her actions.
Whether you agreed with any parties involved in what has turned into a very public Black ethical dilemma, what was apparent is how the incident is an obvious example of the changing tide between the new and old Black guard.
Before Rashad solidified her space in television history and Black consciousness as Claire Huxtable, she and her sister Debbie Allen were Howard students. She’s often sung the school’s praises for how it developed her as a young woman and creative professional. In fact, Rashad’s image of a well-to-do sorority girl was exactly who and what one would expect a young Claire Huxtable to be.
So, it was a full-circle moment earlier in the year when it was announced that Rashad was appointed as Dean of Howard University’s College of Fine Arts. The student body and Black Twittersphere rejoiced because who wouldn’t want a legend and occasional Drake collaborator as a teacher? But the excitement was short-lived.
In June, to the dismay of many, accused serial predator and “America’s Dad” was suddenly released from prison by Pennsylvania’s State Supreme Court, citing a violation of Cosby’s rights. Rashad immediately offered support to the freed “Pudding Pop” spokesman.
“FINALLY!!!! A terrible wrong is being righted- a miscarriage of justice is corrected!” the since-deleted tweet read.
Though Rashad tried to circumvent the backlash by turning off replies, the backlash was no less swift. A hashtag of #ByePhylicia spread across the cybersphere, prompting the historic HBCU to denounce Rashad’s comments as insensitive, as Blavity previously reported. But anyone who was really paying attention shouldn’t have been surprised. Rashad had been publicly caping and professing her Cosby allyship since 2015.
The disgraced actor’s epic downfall at the height of the “Me, Too” movement was a divisive topic in the community to begin with. Barbershop talk recycled the long-held conspiracy theory that Cosby was being racially targeted because he was a Black man on the cusps of buying NBC. Damon Wayans called the claims of the 60 accusers a “money hustle,” while aunties bemoaned the dangers of loose and greedy women, an ever present boogie-woman of morally outstanding men everywhere if you let them tell it.
The entire Cosby debacle has become a very clear line in the sand between the new and old ideas within the Black community.
Quiet as it’s kept, Black people have always been incredibly socially conservative, thanks in large part to the historic influence of the Black church. In 2008, Black voters overwhelmingly supported the ban on gay marriage according to a Yale study. Black Democrats are less likely to refer to themselves as liberal. And patriarchal views around sexuality are progressing at a slow creep.
For instance, young girls being “fast” was such an early indoctrination of slut shaming that many of us didn’t even realize everyone around us was participating in it. In 2013, the hashtag #FastTailedGirls laid bare several personal stories of countless Black women who were chastised because of the unwanted advances of men. That same year, R. Kelly showed up to perform on two nationally televised broadcasts despite the many allegations waged against him. To date, there is still public discourse on whether the “Pied Piper” and his music are actually in need of cancellation.
But younger generations seem to be less enamored with respectability politics and extremely vocal in letting it be known. Rashad’s contribution to the culture as a whip-smart Black lawyer and mom on The Cosby Show holds less weight for people born after the show’s peak and in the face of “cancelable offenses” like supporting men accused of sexual impropriety. Cosby Show spinoff, A Different World, which is sometimes credited for inspiring Black students to attend HBCUs, ended in 1993.
A full decade before a would-be HBCU college freshmen would be a twinkle in their parents’ eyes. In fact, the younger generation seems to be less enamored with politics in general. Black voters under 30 are believed to regard the Democratic Party with an unprecedented level of skepticism..
And it’s not just enough to be loud about it, this new generation seems hell-bent on holding figureheads accountable no matter who it may be.
Mo’Nique, for instance, quickly gained support and sparked conversations about Black women’s skewed earning potential and maltreatment in the industry, but then fell out of good graces when she weaponized her platform to repeatedly drag Black women into an arbitrary one-sided beef centering the wearing of bonnets and respectability politics.
The culture’s favorite bohemian sister-Aunt Erykah Badu even found herself on the other side of cancel culture in 2016 for admonishing young girls for wearing skirts that may entice their adult male teachers. To the recent case of multimedia mogul Diddy (or Brother Love depending on the day), being lambasted for his treatment of business associates when he criticized the exploitation of Black artists. No one is immune to the new generation’s penchant for demanding accountability.
Howard has long been considered a hotbed for the upper echelons of the Black elite. And that structure has been called into question recently. In 2017, six women filed suit against Howard claiming a mishandling of their sexual assault complaints that allowed a male assailant to terrorize the campus. Howard may have had to denounce Rashad’s commentary to save face, but they stopped short of criticizing the major donor and beloved alumni.
Meanwhile, Legendary “Home” singer Stephanie Mills jumped into the melee when she tweeted support for Rashad and criticism for the university.
I love you @phyliciarashad ❤️❤️❤️. If it’s true that Howard University wants to terminate her Position because they feel her comments about Mr. Cosby were insensitive, then they should give back the millions of dollars that he donated to the university. pic.twitter.com/AibSXRuD2R
— Stephanie Mills (@PrettyMill1) July 3, 2021
Seeing Black icons expose themselves as common thinkers is painful but necessary in order to push forward. With accountability being a driving force in Gen Z culture, time will tell who in the old guard will be able to keep their legacies intact and which antiquated ideals the younger generation will force to become a thing of the past.