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Sunday, May 28, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM


Leonard Pitts Jr. / Syndicated columnist

What Bill Cosby should have told graduating black women

For some of us, it is the easiest thing in the world to idealize black women. To romanticize them, sentimentalize them.

Consider "Legends Ball," a TV special last week produced by that über black woman, Oprah Winfrey. I seldom watch Winfrey's programs, but her salute to trailblazing black women kept me rooted. There was something soul settling in seeing all those sisters, daughters, mothers — Gladys Knight, Maya Angelou, Cicely Tyson, Dorothy Height, Leontyne Price and more — gather in their big hats and finery to celebrate and be celebrated.

Or, consider a chat I had earlier this month with a group of academics and health-care professionals about the fact that black women have among the lowest suicide rates in the country — one-third that of white women, according to a 2003 University of North Carolina study. Asked why, I began to wax rhapsodic about the grounding that spirituality gives, the grace that hardship brings and that serene majesty that often settles in on black women of a certain age.

Point being, black women are the strength and succor of their community. They are the last line of defense.

That's why there's something heartbreaking in what Bill Cosby recently told 500 of them, the graduating class of Spelman College, a historically black women's college in Atlanta. In his commencement address, Cosby advised the young women that they will have to assume sole responsibility for the salvation and uplift of the black community because their men, by and large, have opted out.

As quoted by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he said: "Men as young boys are dropping out of high school, but they can memorize lyrics of very difficult rap songs and know how to braid each other's hair." In The Palm Beach Post: "You young women have to know it is time for you to take charge." As quoted by EURweb, a black Web site, he said, "It is time for you to pick up the pace and lead because the men are not there."

The stark figures on incarceration and education that support Cosby are, of course, so well known as to defy repetition. And a 2003 Newsweek report tells us that increasingly, black women of education and achievement are having a hard time finding similarly situated black men.

Full disclosure: Cosby provided a blurb for the cover of my book, "Becoming Dad." The book makes many of the same points he's been making in recent years, so it should come as no surprise that I agree with him here. But I have a caveat: There is nothing new about women picking up the slack for men. We take it for granted that they will do this, that they will raise the children, tend the house, anchor the community, when the men are jailed or killed or simply disinterested.

So Cosby simply told those women what, surely, they already know. And even though it was truth, it occurs to me that it's truth that might more productively be addressed to black men themselves.

Even iron, my father liked to say, wears out. And if iron can get tired, maybe even idealized, sentimentalized, romanticized black women can. Maybe sisters can get tired of forgiving brothers, daughters tired of making excuses for fathers, mothers tired of burying sons. And maybe, instead of telling them to be ready to shoulder the burden, Cosby should have told them to demand that men share the burden. After all, a man will generally always strive to be what a woman he adores requires him to be.

Maybe, then, black women should begin to require one thing of black men: that they be better. Better than the systemic racism of the criminal injustice system, better than all the internalized lies of inherent inferiority. Better, in the way women have long had to be.

See, my father was right. So it is neither fair nor pragmatic to ask black women to save black America. We all need to save it, or else stand by and watch as that last line is crossed.

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.'s column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is:

2006, The Miami Herald