This is yet another story, the third by the way, that I wrote after my recent encounters with comedy legend Bill Cosby. Here, he tells it like he sees it about the state of education in America. Like many of us he has strong views on the topic and he isn’t afraid he will step on somebody’s toes from the weight of his celebrity when it comes to saying what he believes. Like what he says or not, he has a consistent message on the topic and has the courage of his convictions to keep right on talking even when there’s strong push-back from various quarters to some of what he states about schools, teachers, and parents. Most of the quotes from Cosby came out of phone interviews I did with him. The photos below came from a visit to his dressing room before his May 6 show in Omaha, where some visitors from Boys Town gave him another chance to sound-off on education and for me to record his comments and interaction with his guests. It was a privileged opportunity to glimpse an intimate, off-the-cuff Cosby speaking his heart and his mind on things he cares deeply about.
Bill Cosby Speaks His Mind on Education
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
By now America’s accustomed to King of Comedy Bill Cosby turning serious about topics he usually mines humor from. Expressing his celebrity opinions he sometimes touches a nerve, as when he asserted “parenting is not going on” in poor inner city black homes during a 2004 NAACP speech.
The Reader got three doses of Cosby opining before his May 6 Omaha concert. In each he revealed different facets of himself. In a phone interview he recalled in his avuncular storyteller way his slacker youth in Philadelphia public housing projects and schools. How it took “a rude awakening” for the high school drop-out to become motivated to learn. A “kickoff” moment convinced him “yes, you can do.”
“Had it not been for the positive influence of this professor, without him reading that out loud and my hearing the class laugh, who knows, I may be at this age a retired gym teacher, well loved by some of his students.”
Emboldened, Cosby left school short of graduating to pursue his stand-up career, certain, he says, “I was on track with what I wanted to do.” He famously returned to complete his bachelor’s degree and to earn his master’s and Ed.D in education.
He became “a born again, want-to-be-a-teacher.” No wonder then he’s made education a subject for his advocacy and critique. His strong views don’t make him an expert. He doesn’t claim to be one. And, to be fair, The Reader asked him to weigh-in on the topic for a second phone interview. He gladly did, too, only this time going off on a rail.
Two weeks later in his Orpheum Theater dressing room he addressed child rearing and education with a captive audience of fans, friends and media. When he gets on a roll like this he’s equal parts storyteller and lecturer, blustery one moment, nostalgic the next, probing and cajoling, his mischievous inner-child never far away.
To some, he’s a voice of old school wisdom and tough love. To others, an out-of-touch relic. No matter how you feel about his straight talk, it’s clear he’s concerned about education. His words carry weight because he’s fixed in the collective conscience as America’s father from The Cosby Show (1986-1994) and all the family routines he’s done in concerts, on albums, et cetera.
So when Cosby proclaims, as he did to The Reader, “In education, things are broken,” you listen. He believes the brokenness is systemic. “However,” he adds, “there are paradigms and they are not secrets. Paradigms meaning they work, they are accessible, you can look at them, and they don’t cost super extra money. Because it has been proven that to teach and to make interesting to the students all you need is a good teacher and all that teacher needs is a good principal and all that good principal needs is a good superintendent.”
“And they can work on a dirt floor, given students who every year come in perhaps disliking school, perhaps ill-mannered, and still get students to learn,” he says. “These people who can teach – and I don’t mean the ones who win awards, I mean teachers who can teach, who want to teach – are being held back on purpose by rules in the system. Many of these rules have to do with piling on what’s in the practicum, in the technical aspects of it, not giving the teacher enough time because there are sayings like, ‘If the student fails, then we fail.’
“In my eyes and ears there are too many people who don’t care and they need to go and the people who can work it need to teach…because this United States of America is being talked about in terms of not being what it used to be and that’s an embarrassment.”
Cosby was just getting started.
“Some people can’t teach and don’t know how, they don’t have an inventive bone in their body and they just need to get another job some place, and I won’t embarrass the people by saying what kind of jobs they should have.
“But if you care, if you care about these children and you want to be a teacher and you want to be a principal and you want to be an administrator, a superintendent, then I advise you go to college, get ready to demonstrate, get ready to call out every ill-positioned person…They can’t forever get away with this.
“I am appalled because I feel the grownups who are in charge really don’t understand how they’re ruining our future adults and they at times have not been taught well how to teach.”
Then he got around to youth not being supervised and supported at home. How many teachers are unprepared to deal with the issues kids present. Some of those same kids end up as truants, dropouts, functional illiterates, even criminals.
“Many times the teacher may represent the only reasonable thing in life this child will see or feel. Without an education we send more kids out to the street alone because many of them don’t have proper parenting at home. Education happens to be, along perhaps with the church and some programs, the difference between a kid committing a crime, hurting someone, and getting the idea that I would like to read, I would like to write, I would like to know how to figure things out, I would like to see more than just the neighborhood I live in.”
A failed education, he says, can be measured in lowered earnings, welfare payouts and the costs to incarcerate criminal offenders.
“It would seem to me taxpayers would be in arms to say, ‘We want better education, we demand better education for our children’” to help youth become productive, contributing citizens.
He admits he doesn’t have “remedies.” He does call for “activism” by parents, educators, private enterprise and public policymakers to give schools the resources they need and replicate what works.
Cut to his dressing room, where Boys Town family teachers Tony and Simone Jones brought nine youths in their charge, including their two sons. “You live with them?” asked Cosby. “Why? You were not drafted to look after these boys. OK, then tell me, why are you living there with them?”
“Because we feel it’s our responsibility to take care of the kids, not only our own youth but youth in society,” Simone said.
“But what made that a responsibility for you? They’re not your children,” he pressed.
Tony said, “Mr. Cosby I’ll answer just very simply: My mom passed when I was 12 years old, and I went to Boys Town to live…” Cosby erupted with, “Oh, really! Now you’re starting to tell me stories, you see what I’m talking about (to the boys), you guys understand me? Huh?” Several boys nodded yes. “The story is coming, huh? What did Boys Town do for him?” Cosby asked. One boy said, “Helped him out, gave him a place to stay.” Another said, “Gave him a second chance.”
“Well, more than a second chance,” Cosby replied. “it took care of him,” a boy offered. “And made him take care of himself…and that’s why he’s living with you now – he’s trying to build you.”
Noting “the hard knock life” these kids come from, he said youth today confront different challenges than what he faced as a kid.
“When I was coming up we didn’t have Omaha, Neb. ranked high in teenage boys murdering each other. Am I making sense? We didn’t have the guns being placed in our neighborhoods. We had guys who made guns…but now we have real guns and good ones too. It’s in the home.”
Where there are caring adults and good opportunities kids make good choices.
“The idea is where are these boys coming from and what places they may have to get to. We’ve got to do more with fellows like these for them to do shadowing…in hospitals, in factories, in businesses, so that these young males begin to understand what they can do.”
Cosby told Tony and Simone he can see “the joy of these boys knowing that you guys care.”
“It’s about showing them the possibilities,” Simone told him.
Cosby knows all about the difference a teacher’s encouragement can make.
Before seeing his guests out, Tony and Simone got a private moment with Cosby. She says, “He pulled us aside and told us, ‘You really need to push children hard to get them to do what they should do. You can’t let them slide. Sometimes you have to make a choice for them.’ We appreciated his words of advice and wisdom.”
Meeting the legend, she says, “was a remarkable experience,” adding, “He was really concerned with our kids and what we do. I know every kid that was there took away something that’s magical that they’ll hold with them for the rest of their lives.”
- Bill Cosby, On His Own Terms (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Bill Cosby Coming to Omaha to Perform Comedy Concert May 6 (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Outward Bound Omaha Uses Experiential Education to Challenge and Inspire Youth (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Evangelina “Gigi” Brignoni Immerses Herself in Community Affairs (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum Exhibits on Display for the College World Series; In Bringing the Shows to Omaha the Great Plains Black History Museum Announces it’s Back
Black baseball will get its due this spring in Omaha, the home of the College World Series and the Triple AAA Omaha Storm Chasers, when three exhibitions from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. show here. The presenting organization bringing the exhibits to town is Omaha’s own Great Plains Black History Museum, a long troubled institution that’s made a rebound under its new president and board and that with this coup is announcing that it’s back. If you’re interested in reading more about the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and its late co-founder and goodwill ambassador, Buck O’Neil, you’ll find stories I wrote about each on this blog. You’ll also find stories on the blog about the Great Plains Black History Museum, the College World Series, and the former CWS home venue, Rosenblatt Stadium.
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum Exhibits on Display for the College World Series; In Bringing the Shows to Omaha the Great Plains Black History Museum Announces it’s Back
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Three traveling baseball exhibitions on view in the metro this spring chart a history with local overtones and signals a comeback for a local organization. The exhibits are courtesy of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Omaha’s own Great Plains Black History Museum is presenting the photo shows at family-friendly venues.
The exhibits are happening in the heat of the baseball season, too. The last few weeks of their run coincide with the College World Series.
The history of black baseball is told in Discover Greatness and the life and times of Kansas City Monarchs player-manager Buck O’Neil, who co-founded the Negro Leagues museum and served as its goodwill ambassador, is celebrated in Baseball’s Heart and Soul. Both exhibits show May 20 through June 26 at Conestoga Magnet School, 2115 Burdette Street, in the heart of Omaha’s black community.
Conestoga’s an apt host site as Negro leagues teams barnstormed through North Omaha, sometimes playing exhibitions with the Omaha Rockets, a semi-pro black independent club. The Monarchs and other Negro leagues teams stayed at black boarding and rooming houses in North O, including one operated by Von Trimble’s parents. Trimble says he has fond memories of meeting legends Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, playing catch with them in his yard, riding with them to the ballpark on the team bus, and sometimes sitting in the dugout during games.
Trimble’s expected to share his anecdotes on some future date at Conestoga.
Then, too, the school’s only a few blocks from the black museum’s long closed home, where artifacts from Omaha native and Cooperstown member Bob Gibson, who was offered by the Monarchs, were displayed.
A third exhibit, Times, Teams and Talent, offers an overview of the Negro leagues. It can be seen during eight Omaha Storm Chaser games May 17 through May 24 on the main concourse, behind section 114, at Werner Park, 12356 Ballpark Way in Papillion. That exhibit then moves to The Bullpen at the Omaha Baseball Village, adjacent to TD Ameritrade Park, for the June 15-26 CWS.
“We wanted to give our youth ambassadors some first hand knowledge about the exhibits and the museum,” says Beatty. “We wanted them to understand our level of commitment to them and the fact this is a serious effort They got to tour the museum, to hear directly from its president, Bob Kendrick, and to receive some training from staff there. As an added bonus they got to meet two players from the latter years of the Negro Leagues.”
As an Omaha Public Schools administrator and product himself (1966 Omaha Central graduate), Jerry Bartee is pleased the district is heavily involved in showcasing the exhibits. He says when Beatty asked him to be the organizing committee’s honorary chair he couldn’t resist because of his own deep connections to baseball: he was scouted by none other than Buck O’Neil and went on to a short career in the minors.
“Obviously I love the game of baseball. I appreciate all the pioneers but particularly the African-American players that paved the way for future generations, including my own,” Bartee says. “Negro Leagues baseball was really a rallying point for black America and brought a sense of pride to the black community.
“The historical value of it all is immeasurable. I am so pleased the Omaha Public Schools is a partner in this endeavor. What we hope to accomplish with all this is for parents and grandparents to talk about these times with their children and grandchildren.”
Conestoga long ago expressed interest in supporting the museum, so when Beatty asked the school to be a host site, principal David Milan quickly agreed. Milan says the museum serves an “important” function sharing the history of African-Americans in Omaha and beyond. Besides, he says, “the Negro leagues served a great purpose in history and the story needs to be told.”
The exhibits are in Omaha as the result of collaborations the Great Plains Black museum has undertaken with the Negro Leagues museum, OPS the Mayor’s Office, Douglas County and private enterprise. After a decade of well-publicized struggles the organization has a new board led by Beatty and new life that’s seeing it do programming after years of dormancy.
Beatty and Co. received grant funding and in-kind support from multiple sources to bring the exhibits here, including Werner Enterprises transporting the materials for free. It’s also a case of two black organizations helping each other, as the Kansas City museum endured its own struggles after O’Neil passed in 2006 and it’s only recently rebounded under Kendrick.
Kendrick and Beatty say they’ve struck a long-term agreement to bring Negro Leagues museum exhibits here annually around CWS time.
“This is a multi-year commitment,” Beaty says, adding, “We’re very excited about that.”
“It’s important for us to have these kinds of partnership relations and bridges with other cultural institutions,” says Kendrick. “It’s going to be great for the museum to have that exposure in Omaha. We’re excited about expanding this partnership. This is not a one-and-done thing. We’re looking forward to many years of working side- by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder with this great organization.
“I think one of the most important aspects of this whole collaboration is the intimate involvement of young people, empowering them not only to learn about Negro leagues history but employing them to share this history with the general public.”
“This is a growth opportunity for the kids,” says Beatty.
At a February press conference Beatty stood alongside Kendrick, Bartee, Mayor Jim Suttle, Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray and Douglas County Commissioner Chris Rodgers in a show of solidarity Omaha’s black museum hasn’t enjoyed before.
“The museum is trying to reestablish and reassert itself and we wanted to make a statement to the community that the Great Plains Black History Museum is back and we’re serious about our mission. Being able to pull something like this off and gather the support needed is a clear signal to civic, community and business leaders that the museum board is serious about its role. This project is a significant and great example of the commitment.
“The museum has been a series of false starts and we’re trying to put that in the rear view mirror. There’s been too many words passed by the museum and not effort put forth of a substantial nature. Hopefully this will show the community one more effort we’re doing among others.”
Those efforts include organizing a History Harvest with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and co-sponsoring an April 12 talk by author Isabel Wilkerson. The museum had its collections stored and cataloged by the Nebraska State Historical Society. Consulting historians continue working with the collections. The museum’s commissioned J. Gregg Smith Inc. to do a strategic planning process that Beatty says “will give us the definition we need to go forth from an exhibit, programming and facility standpoint.”
Kendrick’s impressed the Omaha museum is doing programming despite not having a workable site of its own.
“Even though right now they don’t have a functioning building they are demonstrating their viability by creating this meaningful opportunity to expose the citizens of Omaha and visitors to the College World Series to the rich history of Negro leagues ball. I think it speaks volumes to their mindset as an institution, to the direction they want to go, and to the inherent value of what they represent.”
For exhibit days, hours and admission, call 402-572-9292 or visit http://www.gpblackmuseum.org.
- New Negro League Data-Base on Baseball-Reference.com (ondeckcircle.wordpress.com)
- Md.’s Negro Leagues Baseball Museum To Hold Fundraiser (baltimore.cbslocal.com)
- Rawlings to honor Negro Leaguers (mlb.mlb.com)
- Museum trying to keep history alive (thestar.com)
- A Synergy in North Omaha Harkens a New Arts-Culture District for the City (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)