Ben’s Chili Bowl’s mural featuring Bill Cosby’s smirk: What is the mural saying?

 

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Profile view of the Lincoln Theatre

A destination for D.C. tourists and locals alike is the famous Ben’s Chili Bowl. Having been around since 1958, Ben’s Chili Bowl has claimed its territory on U Street, right next to the Lincoln Theatre, and proved its loyalty to all of its customers. Even throughout the riots of 1968, Ben’s remained firm and suffered no irreparable damage (“Our Timeline”). Today, there now exist multiple locations, primarily the original on U Street, one on H Street, and one in Arlington, Virginia. Although Ben’s still remains renowned and worshipped for its famous french fries and half-smoke hot dogs, some customers hesitate or refuse to spend their money there because of Bill Cosby’s smirking face on the outside wall (Bella & Laughlin).

In 2012, Aniekan Udofia, a popular D.C. street artist, received a call from Ben’s Chili Bowl with the request that he paint a mural for them. Honored and thrilled at the offer to create art for a restaurant where the Obamas, Bill Cosby, and so many other celebrities frequent, he took charge of the opportunity. By the end of 2012, the mural was open to the public and remains the same today. The wall of Ben’s Chili Bowl bears Chuck Brown, Donnie Simpson, Barack Obama, and–most controversially–Bill Cosby’s faces in Ben Ali Way (Bella & Laughlin). For pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers passing by, Bill Cosby’s face is most noticeable. The other faces require that you walk, bike, or drive down Ben Ali Way in order to see them.

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One half of the mural depicting President Barack Obama (left) and Bill Cosby (right)

About two years after the mural was complete, Bill Cosby was forced to publicly address the rumors and accusations circulating of his alleged rape and sexual assault. The accusations and rumors put an uncomfortable and tense veneer across the Bill Cosby portion of the mural. Udofia, as the crea
tor of the mural, was faced with a lot of complaints and demands to remove Cosby’s face from the mural by the public. Udofia’s response:

I was commissioned to do a mural, and what I do is I do it to the best of my ability. . . So, at this point, it’s not really my responsibility. It’s more of the responsibility of Ben’s Chili Bowl since they commissioned it. I am quite open to any changes, or decisions about changing the mural that might come about, because my aim is to create work that is appealing to the communities that they are in (Bella & Laughlin).

However, in 2016 his face remains, begging people to wonder, “Why is Bill Cosby’s face still there?”

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Interior of Ben’s Chili Bowl; back dining area
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Ben’s Chili Bowl’s french fries

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wes Felton, a local D.C. actor and singer with ties to Ben’s Chili Bowl, believes the Bill Cosby portion of the mural should not be removed. His reasoning is that “if we get used to the habit of being able to strike something down when it offends us, people will abuse that . . . it’s a slippery slope” (Bella & Laughlin). Felton’s opinion is concrete and important to consider. When something offends a large group of people, the automatic response tends to be “get rid of it.” However, if people retract their opinion or idea as soon as it comes into contact with pushback, the power of the right to freedom of speech and expression is minimized, and diverse points of view are then discouraged. A world in which diverse and unique ideas are discouraged is a world in which open-mindedness and individualism are not fostered.

However, many people have opinions that heavily contrast with Wes Felton’s deep loyalty to the first amendment. According to a poll from YouGov.com, 90 percent of Americans viewed Bill Cosby favorably. However, after the allegations and accusations of rape began circulating around the country, the number of Americans who held Cosby in a favorable light shrunk, decreasing the percent of Americans who viewed him favorably to 51 percent. As of the most recent poll results (from October of 2015), 22 percent of Americans view Cosby favorably while 64 percent of Americans view him unfavorably and the rest are unsure. A lot of the people who come across the mural and who also make up part of the estimated 64 percent of Americans who do not favor Bill Cosby are the people who feel that Cosby’s face should be removed.

Some argue that the mural be taken down because it is inconsiderate toward women. It can be argued that the existence of this mural outside Ben’s Chili Bowl is not there to belittle the rights of and haunt women, but some women, like Devin Boyle, are offended by the existence of Cosby’s “smirking face” (Bella & Laughlin). Devin Boyle has been a strong public advocate for the removal of the Cosby portion of the mural, as she finds it inconsiderate toward women and a poor example being set for the public (Bella & Laughlin). Boyle is not alone in her views. Many people, mostly women, feel that the mural is symbolic of the under-represented struggle that rape victims face in America. A large community of people have posted about their views on the mural, most of them arguing that it is despicable that the alleged “serial rapist” Cosby be honored publicly.

Whether it is the intention of the owners of Ben’s Chili Bowl or not, a rhetorical statement being made by the decision to not remove the mural is that the owners of Ben’s are defending the honor of alleged rapist Bill Cosby publicly rather than protecting the feeling of security and respect for women.

In addition, although the owners and managers of Ben’s Chili Bowl may not see it, they are promoting the idea that Bill Cosby, even after the many accusations of alleged sexual assault and rape, remains on the same plane as our two-term president, Barack Obama. Some perceive Cosby’s face on the mural as a statement that he is on a higher plane than Barack, considering that Cosby’s face is the first face to be noticed as people pass by. Bill Cosby, whether or not the accusations and allegations of rape and sexual assault are correct, has become a face connoted with sexual assault. To have this face smiling next to the face of the iconic two-term president, Barack Obama, is bold.

Noteworthy, though, is the fact that at the Arlington, VA Ben’s Chili Bowl location, there were images of Bill Cosby on an interior wall. Following the publicizing of Cosby’s alleged and accused rape, these images of Cosby were removed (Spiegel). What, then, is the difference between the Arlington location and the U Street location that led the owners to remove Bill’s face at one and not at the other? History is the difference.

U Street used to be known as Black Broadway, as it was the entertainment center for black artists and black audiences. (White folks were welcome as well.) The neighborhoods, too, were inhabited by a majority of black families. The Ben’s Chili Bowl located on U Street was founded during the height of the Black Broadway times, when the Lincoln Theatre was still used as a venue for mostly black performers and when the population of the nearby neighborhoods was mostly black. Therefore, the history of the original Ben’s on U Street is tied closely to black history, segregation, and oppression. Bill Cosby frequented Ben’s a lot during those times–before his fame–and still returns regularly for his favorite half smoke meal. After so many visits, the owners of Ben’s came to consider Cosby as “part of [their] family,”  as Virginia Ali, co-founder of Ben’s Chili Bowl, told in a Washington City Paper interview (Bella & Laughlin). To the owners of Ben’s, particularly in regards to the U Street location, Bill Cosby is a historically relevant and important piece to their business.

Wes Felton’s opinion (mentioned earlier) that the mural should not necessarily be taken down holds special relevance to the history of the U Street area. Because of the large black population that occupied U Street and its surrounding areas, segregation, oppression, and racism were issues that inhabitants had to face. The people of the predominantly black areas near U Street had to stand up for what they believed in, and for their family and friends. Washington, D.C. was and still is a place for protest and perseverance. Thus, the persisting existence of Cosby’s face at the U Street location represents the hardships of the history of U Street and emphasizes the importance of being bold and standing up for who you consider to be family.

It could be in the owners’ best interests to remove Cosby’s face from the mural as it is upsetting many customers and deterring them from purchasing anything from Ben’s. However, this is not to say that Bill Cosby’s face must be removed from the mural, but rather that keeping Bill Cosby’s joyous and once well-respected face on the original Ben’s Chili Bowl wall is not a non-statement. However, It is not the absence of taking a stance. It is not the lack of taking action. The store-owners are taking the stance on Cosby’s side, and their course of action is keeping the mural in place as is, and continuing to consider Bill Cosby as a part of their family.


Works Cited

Bella, Timothy, and Ryan Laughlin. “Bill Cosby, Ben’s Chili Bowl and Alleged Rape: Should the Mural Come Down?” Bill Cosby, Ben’s Chili Bowl and Alleged Rape. Ajazeera America, 3 Feb. 2016. Web. 1 Nov. 2016. <http://america.aljazeera.com/watch/shows/america-tonight/articles/2016/2/3/bill-cosby-bens-chili-bowl-rape-mural.html>.

Moore, Peter. “Bill Cosby’s Slide Continues.” YouGov.  20 Oct. 2015. Web. 17 Nov. 2016. <https://today.yougov.com/news/2015/10/20/cosbys-slide-continues/>.

“Our Timeline.” Ben’s Chili Bowl. Web. 01 Nov. 2016. <http://benschilibowl.com/history/>.

Spiegel, Anna. “Bill Cosby Portrait Removed from Ben’s Chili Bowl in Arlington.” Washingtonian. 02 June 2016. Web. 10 Nov. 2016. <https://www.washingtonian.com/2016/06/02/bens-chili-bowl-u-street-removes-cosby-mural-arlington-shop/>.

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