By the time I was born, my great-grandparents had been married for 50 years. Their stoic, straight-backed photographs hung on the walls of the home where they raised ten children. I remember their daily bickering, how our family played it for laughs, and how many of my cousins aspired to long and devoted—if ornery—marriages because of our elders' example. The longevity alone was what appealed to them, but I've often wondered how many of those years were happy. Was happiness even a goal? They wed in 1920s Mississippi, when legal marriage for black Americans was less than a century old. Just one generation removed from slavery, when black families were forcibly separated, they believed that marriage was a radical means for reclaiming agency. Staying wed was a principle of justice as much as it was a declaration of love or a claim to financial security.
On occasion, my great-grandparents’ terseness with one another belied a private tenderness; but in retrospect, I wonder if it may have also signaled any regret. How stark and secret were the compromises they required of one another to preserve their marriage, which we all held in such high esteem?
Lately, I’ve been asking the same questions of another elderly black couple who have been together for more than fifty years: Bill and Camille Cosby. These days, I am thinking especially of Camille, who has doggedly persisted in defending her husband, even as the number of women accusing him of rape has risen to nearly as high as the number of years they’ve been married.
There’s little wonder anymore about the compromises Camille has made to stay Bill Cosby’s wife. By her own account late last year, she has convinced herself that her husband is "the man you all knew through his work." Her written statement released in December calls him kind, generous, and "a wonderful husband, father, and friend," before reiterating for the public—and perhaps for herself—that "He is the man you thought you knew."
Camille’s statement is striking for its stubborn commitment to myth. She and her husband were long considered one of Black Hollywood’s most enduring power couples: He was a comedian, and she was his business manager. Together, they were philanthropic heavy-hitters, donating millions to black institutions, including the National Council of Negro Women, Fisk University, and Spelman College. When Camille begins her defense by returning to 1964, the year she married Bill, she’s banking on the strength of those years, hoping they mean something—especially to black readers, for whom the Cosbys’ marriage might still be the embodiment of black love.
As a concept, “black love” will always have rhetorical resonance for some. It signifies something distinct and political, an act of labor that goes beyond the caprice of romantic or filial attraction and has its sights set firmly on racial uplift. Every lasting black marriage seems to lend that idea further credence; it provides anecdotal evidence not only of that couple’s love, but also of the couple’s love for their people. It’s part of what kept my great-grandparents together, though they were just as bound by economic and social dependence as they were by black love’s moral imperatives.
The Cosbys were counting on this kind of evocation to matter to any supporters they had left last winter, in the early months of the sexual assault scandal’s resurgence. It’s what they’ve always counted on—Bill in his stand-up routines about marriage and family, and Camille in the very few interviews she’s granted over the years. Most notably, in a 2000 magazine story, she spoke about the necessity of marital commitment with Oprah Winfrey:
You go through a transition, if you are committed to each other. You cleanse yourself of all of that baggage, and you look at each other and determine whether the relationship is worth salvaging, whether you really love each other and want to be together. [...] When we knew that we really wanted to be with each other, that we didn't want to live without each other. That probably happened ten years after we were married, when we really spent time talking about what marriage means.
In the same interview she acknowledged Bill’s infidelity and her need for intense privacy in dealing with it. Of the 1997 Autumn Jackson extortion case—in which Jackson alleged that Bill could be her father, given his years-long affair with her mother—Camille told Winfrey: “It was embarrassing in terms of it being an invasion of our private lives. That was something very personal, between the two of us.”
Those sentiments were recently echoed in a New York Post story that claimed Camille believed Bill’s victims consented to drug use and sexual contact. Whether or not the quotes in that story are true, they cemented Camille Cosby in the public view as complicit in her husband’s behavior, more concerned for salvaging her marriage and Bill’s career (which she manages) than with seeking justice for the many women he may have irreparably harmed.
In 2015, marital longevity for its own sake is a much harder sell than it used to be. A 2010 Pew study notes a marked decline in marriage rates since the 1960s, with about half of American adults being married in 2008 compared to 72 percent in the ’60s. The study also reports that, despite the decrease and the many valid reasons for it (including shifting cultural attitudes about marriage’s purpose), the majority of Americans remain optimistic about the institution’s future—provided that society continues to examine marriage’s changing economic and social roles.
Ironically, marriages like the Cosbys'—enduring, though disturbing for their sturdiness in the face of all that’s transpired—do more to damage the idea of “growing old with someone” than a divorce under these same circumstances would. Bill Cosby’s alleged crimes are so heinous that there’s no circumstance Camille can still be viewed favorably for standing by him. For most younger people watching their story unfold, it’s difficult to imagine remaining with a spouse who’d been as unfaithful and callous as Bill Cosby.
Today’s black celebrity couples seem less tolerant and, it should be noted, less committed to black marriage as a political and moral obligation. Nas and Kelis, Shaquille and Shaunie O’Neal, and Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon all split amid reports of infidelity. And even in cases where couples are able to work through cheating, as in the cases of Gabrielle Union and Dwyane Wade or Snoop Dogg and Shante Broadus, the unfaithful partner isn’t being accused of decades of serial rape. The closest contemporary example we have of a couple sticking it out through sexual assault allegations is Kobe Bryant and wife Vanessa, but even then, it was a single accusation for which he was never prosecuted.
If there is any good in the resurfacing of these allegations—aside from amplifying the victims’ voices and stories—it’s that we’re also being forced to contend with antiquated ideas about the meaning of a long marriage. Lasting unions will always have their merits. Ideally, those include increased financial security, companionship during one’s twilight years, and a greater potential for adequate end-of-life care. But we shouldn’t have to resign ourselves to lifelong unhappiness to experience those benefits. We shouldn’t feel so invested in marriage as a means for racial uplift or moral superiority that we hitch our wagons to chronically unfaithful or even criminal partners. Our optimism about the institution depends on realistic expectations for relationships, and our willingness to walk away from situations that are damaging to ourselves and to others. Camille Cosby may be unable to do that. But it isn’t too late for the rest of us.