During a daylong visit to Baltimore yesterday, Bill Cosby urged fathers to help raise their kids, stressed the importance of education and spoke of the evils of hip-hop.
In vintage Cosby style, the five-time Grammy-winning comedian mixed dashes of humor with his challenge to predominantly black audiences to become involved in their children's lives. The message was directed toward absentee fathers.
"This is a great evening because we're calling on men to come claim their children," Cosby said last night at Heritage United Church of Christ in Northwest Baltimore, the last of his four stops. "And that's part of being a man. You cannot be a man at all if you haven't claimed your child.
"Some of you have three, four, five of them. You have more children than you have jobs."
A standing-room-only audience showered Cosby and a nine-person panel with applause throughout the two-hour event at the church. The event was dubbed "Fatherhood Works" and hosted by Coppin State University.
Cosby spoke for about 20 minutes before joining the panel to take questions from the audience, which included a sizable number of women.
Although Cosby was serious most of the time, he got a big round of laughter after taking a question about the black middle class. Asked whether middle-class blacks do enough to help the poor, he said:
"If a man graduates from college and makes $90,000 and marries a woman that makes $120,000, then why should they have to live in a one bedroom apartment in the projects?"
Cosby shunned the idea that life was better for black people when the races were segregated, applauded Black Muslims for confronting drug dealers on street corner and took shots at rap music in a five-minute rant that ended the evening.
"They put the word 'nigga' in a song, and we get up and dance to it," he said.
Earlier in the day, Cosby spoke at three West Baltimore elementary schools, encouraging pupils to study in each one-hour session.
"I just want you to know that you don't see a person up here that had an advantage over you," said Cosby, who started the morning at Rosemont Elementary dressed in a white Coppin State shirt, white athletic pants and brown sandals.
"Those of you that study, you can recruit. If they can recruit people and get them not to study, you can recruit people to try and study."
Cosby, 69, also challenged parents to play a bigger role in their children's lives, weaving in anecdotes from his experiences growing up with what he called an "irresponsible father." Cosby said his father worked as a welder and was a heavy drinker.
During the first assembly, Cosby brought one third-grader on stage, asked him to raise his right hand and made him promise to do the best he can in school. Cosby also addressed teenage pregnancy.
"If you hear a female say, 'I want to have something that loves me,' stop her," Cosby said. "Stop her quickly. Duct tape her to the closet. This is no time to fool around. You can't dump this [baby] on your mother, you can't dump this on your grandmother."
Donna Lowe-Tolson and her daughter followed Cosby from his second assembly at Robert W. Coleman to Westside Elementary to hear the session again. Cosby received standing ovations after his remarks in each assembly. Many of his statements were followed with "Amen" and other shouts of encouragement from the crowd.
"He didn't come in a three-piece suit flaunting his popularity. He just came as everyday people," said Lowe-Tolson.
Coppin President Stanley F. Battle acted as host for Cosby's visit. Cosby has spoken in Baltimore at least three other times in the past two years.
Battle said Cosby, who was not paid for the speech, wanted to come back to Baltimore after attending a town hall meeting at Morgan State University in February. Cosby, at that time, said he wanted to return to the city at the beginning of the school year to address three elementary schools and host a session on fatherhood. City schools reopen Monday.
Cosby is also planning to attend a fundraiser at Morgan in October, Battle said. Known for his role as Cliff Huxtable on TV's The Cosby Show, Cosby holds a doctorate in education and has written numerous books for children and adults.
"I don't know of any other celebrity that's doing what he's doing," Battle said. "He's reaching back to inspire."
Cosby, though, has been criticized at times.
In May 2004, at a Washington gala, Cosby sparked a dispute by criticizing low-income blacks who give their children expensive sneakers instead of books. "I can't even talk the way these people talk: 'Why you ain't? Where you is?' And I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk. And then I heard the father talk."
A short time later, he took a verbal potshot at the hip-hop generation by saying, "They think they're hip. They can't read; they can't write. They're laughing and giggling, and they're going nowhere."
Critics accused Cosby of insensitivity and elitism. But Cosby did not back down. Instead, he took his message extolling family values and education on the road.
"Sometimes, what he says, it's shock treatment," Battle said. "It hurts because it's true."