The Pound Cake speech was given by Bill Cosby in May 2004 during an NAACP awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of EducationSupreme Court decision. In the speech, which was subsequently widely disseminated and analysed, Cosby was highly critical of the black community in the United States. He criticized the use of African American Vernacular English, the prevalence of single-parent families, perceived emphasis on frivolous and conspicuous consumption at the expense of necessities, lack of responsibility, and other behaviors.
The speech is often referred to as the "Pound Cake" speech because of the following lines, referencing a particular dessert, pound cake, for comedic effect, while contrasting common criminals with political activists who risked incarceration during the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s:
But these people, the ones up here in the balcony fought so hard. Looking at the incarcerated, these are not political criminals. These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! And then we all run out and are outraged, 'The cops shouldn't have shot him.' What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand? I wanted a piece of pound cake just as bad as anybody else, and I looked at it and I had no money. And something called parenting said, 'If you get caught with it you’re going to embarrass your mother.' Not 'You're going to get your butt kicked.' No. 'You're going to embarrass your family.'
Bill Cosby also covers the issues of drop-out rates and young people going to jail. He blames lack of parenting for these issues within these communities:
In the neighborhood that most of us grew up in, parenting is not going on. In the old days, you couldn't hooky school because every drawn shade was an eye. And before your mother got off the bus and to the house, she knew exactly where you had gone, who had gone into the house, and where you got on whatever you had on and where you got it from. Parents don't know that today.
In the speech, Cosby says that African Americans should no longer blame discrimination, segregation, governmental institutions, or others for higher unemployment rates among blacks or the racial achievement gap; rather, they have their own culture of poverty to blame.
In the same speech, he had praise for the efforts of the Nation of Islam in dealing with crime in the cities, saying:
When you want to clear your neighborhood out, first thing you do is go get the Black Muslims, bean pies and all. And your neighborhood is then clear.
After that statement, he pointed out the police's inability to resolve the crime problem:
The police can't do it.
He then had critical remarks for Black Christians' seeming inability to create positive social change for the urban population to which he was referring:
I'm telling you Christians, what's wrong with you? Why can't you hit the streets? Why can't you clean it out yourselves?
Cosby also attacked black naming conventions, saying:
We are not Africans. Those people are not Africans; they don’t know a damned thing about Africa. With names like Shaniqua, Shaligua, Mohammed and all that crap and all of them are in jail.
The Christian Broadcasting Network said that the speech applies not only to African Americans but also to all Americans and their children. CBN also covered the end of Cosby's speech where he encourages listeners to go to their families and improve their parents so, in turn, the black community can improve:
Well, I've got something to tell you about Jesus. When you go to the church, look at the stained glass things of Jesus. Look at them. Is Jesus smiling? Not in one picture. So, tell your friends. Let's try to do something. Let's try to make Jesus smile. Let's start parenting. Thank you, thank you.
In her book responding to the speech entitled Bill Cosby is Right, What Should the Church Be Doing About It?, Merisa Parson Davis discusses the role of strong families in the community and the church. She also points out statistics that have not changed since the speech was given. These statistics include the fact that homicide is still the leading cause of death for black boys ages 12 to 19; that one out of three black men ages 20–29 are under some form of criminal justice supervision; and the fact that only 28 percent of black children are growing up with a mother and father in the home.
Sociologist Michael Eric Dyson criticized Cosby in his book Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind? (2005). Dyson stated that Cosby built up years of mainstream credibility by ignoring race in his comedy routines and in his television programs, but then chose, with the Pound Cake speech, to address the issues of race by chastising poor blacks rather than by defending them. Dyson says that, in blaming low-income blacks for not taking personal responsibility, Cosby is ignoring "white society's responsibility in creating the problems he wants the poor to fix on their own".
In 2015, eleven years later, in circumstances described as "ironic", the speech was cited by JudgeEduardo C. Robreno as an example of Cosby's role as "public moralist", when he unsealed court records to reveal Cosby's admissions of infidelity and his giving of drugs (Quaaludes) to women prior to having sexual intercourse with them. Robreno referenced this Wikipedia page in his decision and wrote that, by volunteering to the public "his views on, among other things, childrearing, family life, education, and crime", Cosby had "narrowed the zone of privacy that he is entitled to claim". The motion was brought by the Associated Press and the admissions gave rise to further allegations that Cosby had committed numerous sexual assaults.
- Alonso, Gaston; Anderson, Noel; Su, Celina (2009). Our schools suck: students talk back to a segregated nation on the failures of urban education. NYU Press. p. 33. ISBN 0-8147-8308-2.
- Dyson, Michael Eric (2005). Is Cosby Right?. New York: Basic Civitas Books. ISBN 0-465-01719-3.
- Early, Gerald (2009). Randall Kennedy, ed. Best African American Essays. Random House. p. 161. ISBN 0-553-80692-0.
- Joseph, Peniel E. (2010). Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. Basic Civitas Books. p. 197. ISBN 0-465-01366-X.
- Kasich, John (2006). Stand for Something: The Battle for America's Soul. Hachette Digital. pp. 126–127. ISBN 0-446-57841-X.
- Leonardo, Zeus (2009). Race, whiteness, and education. Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group. pp. 160–161. ISBN 0-415-99316-4.
- Mohamed, Theresa A., editor (2006). Essays in response to Bill Cosby's comments about African American failure. ISBN 0-7734-5770-4.
- Monroe, Sylvester (November 2008). "The truth behind Cosby's Crusade". Ebony. Johnson Publishing. 64 (1): 147–152. ISSN 0012-9011.
- Price, Melanye T. (2009). Dreaming blackness: black nationalism and African American public opinion. NYU Press. p. 201. ISBN 0-8147-6745-1.
- Williams, Juan (2007). Enough: the phony leaders, dead-end movements, and culture of failure that are undermining Black America—and what we can do about it. Random House. ISBN 0-307-33824-X.
- Memorandum by Judge Eduardo C. Robreno – Constand v. Cosby (E.D. Pa. 6 July 2015). Text
- ^Coates, Ta-Nehisi (May 2008). "'This Is How We Lost to the White Man': The audacity of Bill Cosby's black conservatism". The Atlantic Monthly. Retrieved 2011-02-24.
- ^Cosby, Bill. "Dr. Bill Cosby Speaks". Eight Cities Media & Publications.
- ^Alonso, Gaston; Anderson, Noel; Su, Celina (2009). Our schools suck: students talk back to a segregated nation on the failures of urban education. NYU Press. p. 33. ISBN 0-8147-8308-2.
- ^ abGraham, Efrem (February 20, 2011). "'Pound Cake' Speech Today: Was Bill Cosby Right?".
- ^B.P. (Summer 2006). "Book Review: Is Bill Cosby Right?". Harvard Educational Review.
- ^ abcJones, Layla A. (7 July 2015). "Judge used Cosby's 'Pound Cake' speech to justify unsealing court documents". Philly.com. Retrieved 2015-08-04.
- ^ abcdMoyer, Justin Wm. (7 July 2015). "How Bill Cosby's 2004 'Pound Cake' speech exploded into his latest legal disaster". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-08-04.
- ^ abWinter, Tom (7 July 2015). "Bill Cosby Said He Gave Quaaludes to Woman Before Sex: Court Documents". NBC News. Retrieved 20 July 2015.
- ^Times, Los Angeles (8 July 2015). "How Bill Cosby's 'Pound Cake' speech backfired on the comedian". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2015-08-04.
Though long a symbol of responsible parenthood — model TV dad, doctor of education, proud supporter of Temple University — Bill Cosby etched his legacy in stone with a speech in 2004 that took black parents to task. It became famous as the “Pound Cake” speech for this passage:
“Looking at the incarcerated, these are not political criminals,” Cosby said. “These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! Then we all run out and are outraged: ‘The cops shouldn’t have shot him.’ What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?”
While many lauded Cosby for tackling a delicate subject so directly, it wasn’t long before the trouble began. Before the allegations of sexual assault surfaced, critics lambasted his conservative prescriptions for black America. After the accusations mounted over the past year, the Pound Cake speech was seized upon as an example of gross hypocrisy.
Now, the Pound Cake speech has resurfaced in yet another incarnation that no one could have predicted. It was cited by a U.S. district judge as a legal justification for unsealing a deposition that was deeply damaging to Cosby, the same document made public yesterday by the Associated Press that showed that Cosby acknowledged in 2005 that he intended to give Quaaludes to young women with whom he wanted to have sex, as The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi reported.
[Bill Cosby statue comes down at Disney park after drug revelations]
In his memorandum, Judge Eduardo C. Robreno said the speech, and Cosby’s general posture as a “public moralist,” made the deposition a legitimate subject of public interest sufficient to override Cosby’s objections to its disclosure. “The stark contrast between Bill Cosby, the public moralist and Bill Cosby, the subject of serious allegations concerning improper (and perhaps criminal) conduct, is a matter as to which the AP — and by extension the public — has a significant interest,” the judge wrote.
[Read the court documents]
The deposition was made public largely because Cosby crowned himself a moral crusader.
It was a stunning — and deeply ironic — chapter in the story of one of the more enduring and controversial utterances in the past 15 years by an African American about African Americans. And its reappearance in a legal matter so potentially detrimental to Cosby, who has decried the allegations against him as baseless, may also go down in history as a case study in the costs of hypocrisy.
The occasion for Cosby’s talk about black parents’ failures was an NAACP awards ceremony in Washington on May 17, 2004 — no less an occasion than the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision ruling school segregation illegal that paved the way for the civil rights victories of the 1960s.
“In the neighborhood that most of us grew up in, parenting is not going on,” Cosby said. “In the old days, you couldn’t hooky school because every drawn shade was an eye. And before your mother got off the bus and to the house, she knew exactly where you had gone, who had gone into the house, and where you got on whatever you had one and where you got it from. Parents don’t know that today.”
He asked hard questions.
“I’m talking about these people who cry when their son is standing there in an orange suit,” he said. “Where were you when he was 2? Where were you when he was 12? Where were you when he was 18, and how come you don’t know he had a pistol? And where is his father, and why don’t you know where he is? And why doesn’t the father show up to talk to this boy?”
Then came the confection that gave Cosby’s most famous address its unusual name, which presaged the debate over Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, Mo., 10 years later.
“I wanted a piece of pound cake just as bad as anybody else,” Cosby went on. “And I looked at it and I had no money. And something called parenting said, ‘If you get caught with it you’re going to embarrass your mother.’ Not: ‘You’re going to get your butt kicked.’ No. ‘You’re going to embarrass your mother. You’re going to embarrass your family.'”
Self-abnegation despite the prospect of free pound cake in Mom’s name. It was a nice bit of rhetoric — one that earned Cosby praise in some quarters and criticism in others. The Pound Cake speech left no small mark. Books were written about it; it was discussed in the pages of the Harvard Educational Review.
“If Cosby’s call-outs simply ended at that — a personal and communal creed — there’d be little to oppose,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in the Atlantic in 2008. “But Cosby often pits the rhetoric of personal responsibility against the legitimate claims of American citizens for their rights. He chides activists for pushing to reform the criminal-justice system, despite solid evidence that the criminal-justice system needs reform. His historical amnesia — his assertion that many of the problems that pervade black America are of a recent vintage — is simply wrong, as is his contention that today’s young African Americans are somehow weaker, that they’ve dropped the ball.”
“A man who was running around the country yelling at women for how they were conducting their sex lives, a man who held his own marriage up as a model of functional commitment, had in fact been repeatedly unfaithful,” Rebecca Traister wrote in the New Republic last year. “To have gone further — to have really dealt with the possibility that this extremely rich man lambasting poor people for everything from stealing pound cake to wearing low-slung pants to how they named their children — might have drugged and raped more than a dozen women would have made our heads pop off.”
[Bill Cosby’s legacy, recast: Accusers speak in detail about sexual-assault allegations]
Eleven years after that speech, Robreno of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania had to decide whether Cosby could block the release of a deposition related to the comedian’s alleged molestation of a Temple University employee in 2005. (The civil claim was settled; Cosby denied wrongdoing and has not been charged with a crime.) The AP intervened last year to request that the record be made available to the public “after more recent allegations of similar misconduct by [Cosby] gained public attention,” as Robreno put it.
One the major issues: Cosby’s right to privacy — what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called “the right to be let alone.” Cosby, after all, is not a public figure in the sense that President Obama is; the comedian “does not surrender his privacy rights at the doorstep of the courthouse,” as Robreno wrote. The judge added: “Were this so, well-known nongovernmental public figures, visible in the public eye but pursuing strictly private activities, would be subject to spurious litigation brought perchance to gain access to the intimate details of their personal lives.”
So: Would Robreno give Cosby a pass and leave the documents sealed because he is not a legislator, but a funnyman?
“This case, however, is not about Defendant’s status as a public person by virtue of the exercise of his trade as a televised or comedic personality,” the judge wrote. “Rather, the defendant has donned the mantle of public moralist and mounted the proverbial electronic or print soap box to volunteer his views on, among other things, childrearing, family life, education, and crime.”
At this point, Robreno, in a footnote, pointed to a number of Cosby’s public statements. Item No. 1: “See, e.g., Pound Cake Speech.” The address the comedian used to shame others was now being used to shame him.
Robreno continued: “To the extent that Defendant has freely entered the public square and ‘thrust himself into the vortex of [these public issues],’ he has voluntarily narrowed the zone of privacy that he is entitled to claim.”
In conclusion, Robreno said the AP wanted the documents not for “commercial gain or prurient interest.” Instead, the news organization sought the dirty details in service of the greater good.
May 17, 2004: The day ‘pound cake’ was baked. From left to right: Jack Kemp, former congressman; Cosby; Grace Savage; and her father, Howard University Board of Trustees Chairman Frank Savage. (Dudley M. Brooks/The Washington Post)
Without the speech, Cosby would still stand accused of drugging and raping women, and his decades-old legacy would be endangered if not in tatters.
But without Pound Cake, it is unlikely that the public would know that, when Cosby was asked “When you got the Quaaludes, was it in your mind that you were going to use these Quaaludes for young women that you wanted to have sex with?” in 2005, he said, “Yes.”