Kobe, King, Cosby: If You Live Long Enough, You Too Will Have a Complicated Legacy
Kobe Bryant wasn’t perfect, but neither are you.
There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it ill behooves any of us to find fault with the rest of us.
— James Truslow Adams
My mother attended a funeral recently for a long-standing member of the church in which I grew up. I remember the person fondly. He was a faithful deacon — the first to arrive to open the church and the last to close it. He always sat in the back pews ever-ready to help the audio-visual team and the church service run smoothly. He was just always ready to help. We loved him. He was a quiet man, and he and I exchanged few words, but in the rare cases we did, it was a mouthful: “Sister Samuels, I don’t sin,” he told me categorically one evening after a service. I remember staring at him silently in bewilderment. All have sinned and fallen short according to the Bible, so there’s that. But at the moment I really didn’t have much to counteract his declaration. I still don’t.
If it was your expectation that I would, at this point, reveal some kind of earth-shattering bombshell (tales of sex and deceit, theft and salaciousness), I’m sorry to disappoint you. I will say though that something his daughter (I never even knew he had children) supposedly said during the eulogy at his funeral struck me: “My father wasn’t really involved in my life. Hearing you all talk about how faithful he was to the church… it’s almost like we’re talking about two different people.”
The conversations that have ensued after Kobe Bryant’s untimely death also sound like we’re talking about two different people.
I’m not actually into basketball (I’m an unabashed “Toronto-Raptors-win” bandwagonist), so while I had a vague notion of who “Kobe Bryant” was (Ugh. It’s so weird to write about him the past tense), the first thing I did was Google him to see if to see if he was the same guy who allegedly raped a women and bought his wife a big-ole ring afterwards to smooth things over.
While I wasn’t able to click on the Wikipedia article (its details probably being updated in real time), I realized my memory did not fail me. Yup. Same person. Kobe Bryant.
Many have been adamant to not let this part of the story get lost in the widespread eulogy of him. In Jill Substack’s well-written piece, she said that the alleged sexual assault “[…] is all key to Kobe’s story. And also, it is not the whole story. Out of some mislaid definition of “respect,” we are so excellent at sidelining the inconvenient parts, at least when the inconvenient parts are women we’ve made invisible and the one inconvenienced is a man we would prefer to keep admiring, without complication… What we admire is so overwhelmingly male, so much of the time. And as a result, what we are willing to set aside, what we deem inconvenient, the worse-makers of more important male matters, is overwhelmingly female. If we want our heroes to be better men, and if we want more of our heroes to be women, and if perhaps we want a world in which our stories are more honest than the framework of heroes and villains allows, well — we have to start by telling the whole truth.”
I agree, but I want to take the idea even further. Like Substack, I believe in the importance of the whole story, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. While I completely understand that the etymology of the word “eulogy” tells us to speak well of those who have gone before us, I’ve always felt that we should be honest about the life they leave behind.
I’ve always felt it disingenuous to wax poetic with effusive praise about a less than blemish-free life — especially if it’s a public one. To those detractors who dutifully remind us all that we ought not speak ill of the dead, I believe that it’s not so much about speaking ill of the dead but rather speaking truthfully of the dead, and speaking truthfully in a way in which we too would like to be spoken. Because while we may not sexually assault people in our life times, if we live long enough, we too will forge complicated legacies. Live a life or do anything of significance in your time here on earth and you too will leave a complicated legacy.
When my boyfriend and I started dating, we unsurprisingly broached the subject of cheating and our views surrounding it. My boyfriend proudly exclaimed, “I would never cheat on someone.” I wasn’t confident enough to declare the same. My life had taught me that, depending on the circumstances and who I may be (unbeknownst to the current “me”) at any given point in time, almost anything could happen. So I (sagely) replied, “I would never say never.”
Immediately my boyfriend pestered me with questions. “So there’s a possibility that you would cheat?” he asked. It made him feel uncomfortable that I would even entertain the possibility. But he missed the point (in my humble opinion). Of course there is no real possibility that I would cheat on him or anyone. I would do my best and my part in safeguarding our relationship. I happen to think infidelity is abhorrent. Infidelity is also not a “mistake” but is a consummate of deliberate choices made and made again. And (not but, so as to deny the aforementioned) I am always growing and discovering things about myself, including my weaknesses and vices. I am horrible at fortune-telling and I’m wise enough to realize that I may not live up to my best of intentions and my strongest of morals while I am alive.
We are complex people, living complicated lives and leaving complicated legacies.
We all are a jumble of good and bad, goodness and evil.
How we wish people were like pie charts — he was 90% kind but 10% asshole but since he was mostly nice we’ll remember him thus. Not so. We’re more like meatloaf. All mixed up and mashed together. It’s impossible to figure out the exact aggregate proportions of an individual.
Our stories are all painted in fifty shades of grey.
There are those who would (and should), at this moment, point out that alleged sexual assault involving a public figure is not just a mere mistake. And that is true. I, for one, would like to think that I’m above sexual assault (far above). But am I above cheating? Am I above lying? Am I above hurting people I love? And if and when we surprise ourselves by our moral failings, should we be defined by them, even after death? Should one blight (or a few) completely undo our entire legacy?
It’s a rhetorical question; I don’t have an answer.
I think when you mention Bill Cosby and his decades-long contribution to television, comedy and media, you must also mention the multiple women he raped. To do otherwise is to not tell the whole story, and the whole story needs to be told to do justice to the effects and totality of that person’s life.
But likewise, if you are going to mention Kobe’s philandering ways, I think it’s also fair to mention his philanthropy and how he also inspired a generation of young people. If you are going to mention him being a #girldad, I think it's also fair to mention that perhaps there are other daughters whom he neglected to treat with such reverence.
If we mention the King whose eloquence reverberates throughout generations, mention Martin, the man, who had like passions as all of us, and for whom, given the pressure he was under and perhaps a penchant for perfectionism, it is not completely unimaginable or beneath him to plagiarize a thesis or have an extramarital affair (it is said that his friend Rev. Ralph Abernathy included these details in his book “to ‘set the record straight’ and to show that heroes are mortals and that mortals from any station in life can become heroes.”)
Just like we mention our beloved Madiba, the one who sat for decades in a South African jail and who Desmond Tutu called “virtually flawless”, mention Mandela, the one who shared a last name and a life with a wife and woman with whom he ultimately did not get along, to say the least, and who would one day say she “didn’t know him at all.” And we have so many examples closer to home — our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, coworkers.
We're all very complex, and will leave complicated memories behind for others to make sense of.
It is our hope that the good that we imperfectly try to do somewhat atones for our oversights and our unsavory slights. We hope that people see the darkness of our wrongdoing in the light of our attempts at doing right. We hope to be remembered for our triumphs and, if it happens, evolution. And the challenge is to understand that someone who has done so much good can also do so much bad and let that be — to let the juxtaposition exist and not try to reconcile the contradictory pieces. To hold them in abeyance. That one doesn't cancel out the other but that, just like us all, and just like we all try to do, they coexist.
If you made a concerted attempt to live well and right your wrongs and to make amends and do better, I think you should be remembered for at least having tried. The fact of the matter is that’s basically what most of us are doing anyway.
I think it's fair to speak of someone in their totality, complete with contradictions. But I also think that we ought to be fair and generous and contextual with their stories. To recognize that perhaps it's not for us to make sense of or tell their stories. For were our stories examined under a magnifying glass, we'd see that we're not so dissimilar.
I think we should dismiss dichotomies, and not keel into the pressure to make a pronouncement on whether Kobe or anyone else was good or bad, whether we should celebrate him, mourn him or speak of him with opprobrium. It’s neither and it's both and it’s and/or. It's all of these things and none of these things. And at times it matters and at other times it doesn't. The fact of the matter is he is and he was, just as we are and we will be.