As I took part in the viewing of Surviving R. Kelly with the rest of the world, my mind returned to this thought again and again; the horrors of truth are always hidden in plain sight.
The narrative I watched unfold onscreen was one I had seen, heard of and been subject to throughout my upbringing — in the Tyler Perry movie I watched when I was eight years old and in various situations when I was around black men who I wasn’t related to.
Very few times in my life have I ever felt that I was in real danger around the black men in my community. Mostly because of the pitbull of a mother who raised me. Regardless, whether I was walking down the street, at the mall or at large family gatherings, I regularly felt hot gazes pointedly regarding my frame. A statistical report curated by the Maryland Coalition against sexual assault found that by the age of 18, 40 per cent of black women report coercive sexual contact. The gazes were there but they were never spoken about.
In February of 2005, one of the most popular black culture movies of our generation came out. Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion.
I crowded around my family’s small TV in the living room to finally watch the movie we had heard so much about. I enjoyed every bit of the film. As a young girl seeing strong female characters and actors that looked like me was empowering, I had never seen my culture captured so well before.
Until that one scene.
During a family reunion, a group of male characters sexualize and take advantage of one of the young women at the reunion, regardless of her blood connection to them. In the scene, she is asked to bend over into a tall bin to retrieve a beer for one of the old men asking her to reach to the bottom for a ‘cold one’ so they could look at her behind. I couldn’t understand why the scene was necessary or why it was taken with such light humour. I finished the film, but never watched it again.
The scariest part about Surviving R. Kelly is not the man himself. It is the community, my community, that supported him against the allegations of dozens of women. Various forms of black media have contributed to devaluing and subjecting of black women’s bodies, in order to support a cultural climate where assault is acceptable.
During the civil rights movement, former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader Dr. Gwendolyn Simmons was raped as a young activist. However, her allegations were dismissed and her attacker continued to operate in the group with high esteem.
When my mother was young, her walk to school crossed paths with a local pub. Daily as she walked by she expected the same thing. Drunk men hollering at her in her school uniform. When she retold this story to members of the family their answer was simple; it’s your fault for walking that way, to find a different route. But this did not solve the issue, if anything it protected the men involved allowing another young girl to be sexually harassed. As long as we allow attackers to function, black girls everywhere are in danger.
Beliefs surrounding sexual assault and ‘fast women’ have become woven into our pop culture and discourse. The trope of the ‘dirty old man’ is a common place in the black community that discredits the realities of sexual misconduct black women are facing regularly. Pinning women as ‘asking for it’ or ‘being fast’ leaves little to no blame or consequence to the accused. As a result, only one in 15 black women to report their sexual assault, as reported by the Maryland Coalition. Even when they do, black women’s claims are cast aside, just as my mother’s was, as at a higher percentage than their white counterparts. A study conducted across a number of U.S. college campuses found that students perceived a black victim of sexual assault to be less believable and more responsible for her assault than a white victim.
These values did not come from nothing. In many ways, the confused relationship between the black woman and her sexuality began during slavery when our bodies were commoditized and sold, based on shape and level of sexual possibility. This idea grew into common place, manifesting into television shows, music lyrics and videos and other forms of media in which black women were shown and described as jezebel’s. It became a part of culture to speak and regard black women in vulgar hypersexualized terms. This allowed for a social climate where #metoo could say ‘oh, but not for you’. It is the devaluing of black women as human beings that gives right to any man, regardless of race or nationality, to violate the black woman and women of colour at a higher rate.
As a result of trying to protect the community we fought so hard to build up, black elders and leaders — whether in politics, entertainment, the church or the everyday community — hold a godlike status which allows them to be pardoned on almost any offense.
This protective support is what gave R. Kelly the right, in the eyes of many, to continue to receive their unwavering support until conviction.
To a world and a community that already misrepresents, devalues and discredits victims like Anita Hill, R. Kelly was allowed the space to do whatever he wanted because his victims are black girls and because he was a beloved black figure. Somewhere along the way, we swept the allegations under the rug and continued to dance. At weddings, at barbeques, at birthday parties…Everywhere. We kept choosing to ignore every allegation and mistrial against R. Kelly — as well as every pointed gaze we saw and experienced ourselves within our community.
As Dr. Aaronette White says in the documentary ‘No!: Confronting Sexual Assault in our communities,’ “Are we going to let black men rape black women and girls, or are we going to do something in a way that still shows that we believe in a sense of community?”