Inspirational Woman Of The Day: Camille Cosby

Camille Cosby

Full name, Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby; born in 1945, in Washington, DC; daughter of Guy and Catherine Hanks; married Bill Cosby (an entertainment personality), January 25, 1964; children: Ericka, Erinn, Ennis (deceased, 1997), Evin, and Ensa.
EducationUniversity of Massachusetts, M.Ed., 1980, Ph.D., 1992.
Memberships: Board member, National Council of Negro Women, National Rainbow Coalition; honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta.

Career

Business manager for her husband, comedian, author, and television actor Bill Cosby; oversees all financial, philanthropic and staffing matters. Also president of COC Productions, a film production company, and C&J Productions, a stage production company. Board member, Essence Communications.

Life’s Work

Camille Cosby is married to one of the most recognized faces in the entertainment industry, yet has been a surreptitious public presence throughout much of husband Bill Cosby‘s career. Instead, she prefers to work behind the scenes–she has raised five children while returning to school to finish her own education. She also plays an active role in the management of her husband’s career and estimated $300 million fortune. A large portion of that fortune has been given away to historic African American colleges and universities in an ongoing, one-family philanthropic mission. In recent years Camille Cosby has undertaken some significant projects of her own, including a stage play based on a best-selling book and a film documentary about a mentoring program. Tragically, the publicity-shy Cosby family’s private life was shattered in early 1997 with the murder of their third child and only son, Ennis.

Camille Olivia Hanks was born in Washington, DC, in 1944, the eldest of Guy and Catherine Hanks’s four children. After attending Catholic schools, she enrolled in the University of Maryland as a psychology major. During her sophomore year friends convinced her to go on a blind date. Her escort to the movies was a 26-year-old comedian named Bill Cosby. She eventually dropped out of school and married the rising star in 1964. Camille began traveling with Bill every few weeks as he performed throughout the country. Less than a year after their marriage, Bill Cosby’s appearance on the Tonight Show landed him a role on the prime-time television show, I Spy. As Alexander Scott, Bill Cosby became the first African American to star in a leading dramatic role on a television series.

The Cosbys soon began a family that would number five in all– Ericka, Erinn, Ennis, Evin, and Ensa. Yet fame also came with a price tag. “We moved to California, and all of a sudden we were successful people,” Camille Cosby recalled in an interview with Stephanie Stokes Oliver of Essence. “All of a sudden we had money coming in, and it changed our lives…. Bill is seven years older than I am, but neither of us had the experience of managing money, of dealing with beggars, and of saying no a lot.” Following the dismissal of a dishonest financial manager, Cosby realized that she was perhaps the best person to manage her husband’s money. “When Bill released his manager, I realized that I had to become a participant,” Cosby recalled in an interview with American Visions’s Sharon Fitzgerald. “In this kind of business, you have to protect each other. I think it is difficult for a performer to totally immerse himself or herself in creativity and watch everything else, too.”

In the 1970s, the Cosbys moved to Amherst, Massachusetts, and once several of her children were in school Camille decided to return as well. By 1980, she had earned a master’s degree in education from the University of Massachusetts. “Education empowers you,” Cosby told Fitzgerald. “It places you in a position to verbally challenge people who are giving you a whole lot of nonsense.” Her dissertation focused on historically black educational institutions, such as Washington, D.C.’s Howard University, which her mother had attended, and Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, from which her father had earned his master’s degree.

Over the years, Cosby has played an integral role in working with her husband on the details of his various projects. These projects have included comedy recordings and videos, stand-up engagements across the country, Bill’s role as a spokesperson for Jell-O products, and the phenomenally successful NBC-TV sitcom The Cosby Show and its spin-off, A Different World. The role of Claire Huxtable on The Cosby Show was based, in part, on Camille Cosby. The mother of the fictional Huxtable family was cast as an attorney, opposite her obstetrician husband, and the show made important leaps in showing a side of African American life not often seen on television. The Huxtables were a financially successful, educated African American family that was as proud of their heritage as any other American family. The show stressed several important ideals: respect your elders, take pride in your race, and have a serious attitude toward your education. The set of the Huxtable home was also adorned with the works of African American artists. The Cosby vision behind the show was a carefully presented one, “There are zillions of wonderful stories to tell, but they–meaning television’s controlling, hegemonic strata–won’t deal with those stories,” Camille Cosby told American Visions. “They only want to perpetuate what they have always perpetuated: that we are buffoons and mammies and lazy.”

While at work on her master’s degree, Cosby visited eight historically black colleges and universities. In the course of her research, she found that many of these venerable institutions were suffering from dwindling enrollment and severe financial difficulties. A majority of alumni were uninterested in making financial contributions or sending their own children to African American institutions. Civil rights gains had made it easier for African Americans to attend traditionally white colleges and universities. The Cosbys began working to remedy this situation by promoting historically black colleges and universities on The Cosby Show. Their support was first evidenced in the college and university sweatshirts that Dr. Huxtable wore on episodes of the program. Eventually, the eldest Huxtable daughter enrolled in an African American college, resulting in the campus-based spin-off A Different World.

In addition to championing African American colleges and universities on television, Camille and Bill Cosby began making large financial contributions to individual African American colleges and universities. “We were forgetting about the history of black institutions and the fact that they had educated so many of our prominent leaders,” Camille Cosby explained to Fitzgerald in American Visions. “So my husband and I were inspired to contribute and to make those contributions public so that the importance of the schools would be known.” They began making large bequests in 1986, including a $20 million gift to Atlanta’s Spelman College, which one of their daughters had attended. In total, their contributions were estimated to have reached over $70 million by 1994. In return, Spelman designated a “Camille Cosby Day” in 1989 and invited her to give the commencement address. A large part of the donation was used to construct the Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby Academic Center on campus. The Cosbys also sponsor scholarships and pay tuition costs for over two dozen individual students.

The concept of mentoring is an important one to Camille Cosby. When she hired an Atlanta couple for a catering job, she learned that they were using their business to mentor several at-risk male teens. The story of Wesley and Thelma Williams became the 1994 documentary No Dreams Deferred, produced by Camille Cosby’s production company. Camille took a hands-on role in the project aside from simply financing it. “I wanted to put something on film that would project positive imageries of young African-American males,” she told Fitzgerald in American Visions. “The idea was also to show what one can do in an environment that is affirming, an environment that has discipline with love.”

Over the next several years, Camille Cosby pursued a Ph.D. By this time, some of her own offspring were college-age. “The children have been very supportive,” Cosby told Jet’s Robert E. Johnson, “And I suspect, as a matter of fact, I think that because I was in school hitting those books diligently that it made my children more diligent students.” She has publicly spoken about dyslexia, a reading disability which affected three of her five children, and the need to recognize differing developmental processes. As she told Johnson, “I think that the educational system as a whole has not been established to educate all children. That’s one of the problems and that is why they will not acknowledge people with different learning styles.”

In 1992, Cosby completed her Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts. Her dissertation was published in 1994 in book form, Television’s Imageable Influences: The Self-Perceptions of Young African-Americans. It is a topic that is one of Camille’s most passionate pursuits. Her book examines the influence the media has over young African Americans aged 18 to 25. Cosby asserts that the American entertainment industry, especially television, has not ventured very far from the stereotypical, racist minstrel images of the early twentieth century. “If you project blacks as human beings, then it makes it difficult to come up with a reason why they should be oppressed,” Cosby told New York Times reporter Lena Williams.

Camille Cosby has worked diligently to alter perceptions about African Americans and their culture. The 1992 biography of two North Carolina centenarians inspired her to acquire the stage rights. Cosby’s production company, C&J Productions–a venture between her and friend Judith Rutherford James–brought the Delany sisters’ rich story, Having Our Say, to Broadway in 1995. Other plans include a film biography of South African political figure Winnie Mandela. “I want to do my part in helping people to change their negative attitudes about us as a people,” she asserted in the American Visions interview. “And hopefully, if we have any negative attitudes about ourselves, I want to help change those too.”

Sadly, Camille Cosby’s efforts to identify and address the wrongs in American society may be put on hold following the murder of her 27-year-old son, Ennis, in January 1997. Although diagnosed with dyslexia in college, Ennis was working toward a Ph.D. in special education at Columbia University and hoped to open a school for children with learning disabilities. To the disadvantaged children he tutored, Ennis served as a mentor and role model. Immediately following the murder of their son, the Cosby family released a statement to the media that again demonstrated the selflessness which Camille and Bill Cosby try to instill in their children: “Our hearts go out to each and every family that such an incident occurs to. This is a life experience that is truly difficult to share.”

Awards

Honorary doctorate, Spelman College, 1989.

Works

Writings

  • Television’s Imageable Influences: The Self-Perceptions of Young African-Americans, University Press of America, 1994.

Further Reading

Books

  • Notable Black American Women, Book 1, Gale Research Inc, pp. 228-230, 1992.

Periodicals

  • American Visions, December 1994, pp. 20-25.
  • Essence, December 1989, pp. 62-64, 114, 118.
  • Jet, June 15, 1992, pp. 12-17; May 1, 1995.
  • New York Times, December 15, 1994, p. C1.
  • Time, January 27, 1997, pp. 22-27.

— Carol Brennan

Comments

  1. Bill Cosby has always been one of the people I admire. They say behind every good man there is a great woman. Thank you for letting us get to know Camille.

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