The “Black man’s image” is not, never has been, and never will be more important than the safety of Black women.
This essay contains discussion of sexual violence against minors and child pornography
Black men find new ways to tell the world they hate Black women every day. It’s hard to talk about this. Not just because it involves talking about how harmful misogynoir is, but because it’s dangerous for someone like me to tell the truth about this harm and how prevalent it is. It’s dangerous in the same way that it’s dangerous for us to tell the truth about white supremacy in public, because there is always the chance that we will be met with reactionary white violence and attempts to silence us, and because the way Black men treat us often feels so similar to how white people treat us. Sometimes, it feels worse.
A week ago, a private screening for Lifetime‘s “Surviving R. Kelly” docuseries was canceled after the the theater received a gun and bomb threat. The theater was filled with survivors and parents of survivors of R. Kelly’s sexual and misogynistic violences. “Me Too” founder Tarana Burke was in attendance. As was #OscarsSoWhite originator, April Reign. “There is no question in my mind that this was a deliberate attempt to intimidate R. Kelly survivors and their supporters,” Reign stated, and I agree wholeheartedly. In response to the threat and the canceled private screening, Burke said, “[F]rom being a survivor and my work with survivors, I think that it’s really hard to get into a consistent healing process when there is always the threat of being re-traumatized. And so that’s the worry I have is that people who are trying to put it behind them, trying to move ahead get railroaded in ways like this, you know, it’s just detrimental.”
The writing has been on the wall about R. Kelly for a very long time, and it has taken more than two decades for people to finally start listening to the Black women who have been organizing against him and understand how dangerous he is. Even before his high profile relationship with Aaliyah, marrying her when she was only 15 years old and he was 27, he was a known predator in the Chicago area. From there, he went on to violate multiple underage girls and young women, often promising to help with their music career, with at least two videos with evidence of his statutory rape of Black girls surfacing and a large collection of child pornography being found at his home. Somehow, he always managed to escape accountability and prison time for these things, and this has allowed him to now become the leader of a cult where he keeps young women under his complete control, “dictating what they eat, how they dress, when they bathe, when they sleep, and how they engage in sexual encounters that he records.” One former assistant testified that the women around him even have to ask for food and get his permission to go to the bathroom, and if they break his rules, they are punished with physical and verbal assaults.
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These things have been public knowledge about R. Kelly for years, since Chicago Sun Times writer Jim DeRogatis began diligently reporting on R. Kelly’s crimes in 2003 when he anonymously received one of the infamous video tapes. Even still, many continue to support R. Kelly, and sing the same tired song that has also been sung about Bill Cosby, Clarence Thomas, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and any other prominent Black man who has been accused of sexual violence—it’s just the world “trynna bring a Black man down,” they insist. R. Kelly’s support system is fervent, so much so that someone in his circle is willing to carry out threats of terrorist violence in order to silence the Black women he has victimized.
But the devil needs no advocates. We absolutely need to talk about how being hushed over Black men’s sexual predation on young Black girls leads to something like this. Too many people still invite known predators to the cookout, and let them eat, sleep, and live under their roof. It leads to more than 60% of Black women and girls experiencing sexual abuse before the age of 18, much of it from family members. We need to address how Black girls, like the ones who survived R. Kelly, get blamed for their own abuse, made to hug their abusers at all the family functions, forced to keep the abuse quiet because no one wants to send another Black man to prison. Too many people use the looming threat of police brutality, state violence, and the prison industrial complex as shields to protect rapists and predators, and we need to tell the truth about this, hard as it may be to admit. We need to acknowledge how, when growing up in this environment, you become indoctrinated into this line of thinking and the lessons begin even before you are able to form memories.
We need to be brutally honest about how R. Kelly’s violence—his want for complete control over young women’s diet, dress, hygiene, and sexual activities—is nothing more than an efficiently run cult of Black patriarchy. The truth we don’t want to tell is that the misogynoir and paternalism of this cult is exactly what Black patriarchy demands of us daily. Every day, Black men desperately vy for control over Black women’s diet, dress, hygiene, and sexual activities, and become incensed at the sight of any bodily autonomy we express. R. Kelly is only doing what so many others want to do and are already trying to do, and unfortunately many are succeeding on a smaller scale.
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The reality of existing as Black and as a woman, or otherwise not a man, is that we are constantly in danger of being victims of anti-Black state violence at the hands of law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and other agents of the nation-state. We are, at the same time, in the same moments, and in the same spaces, susceptible to becoming victims of misogynoir at the hands of Black men. We are always in danger, and this is why many of us feel the same fear about being alone, near, or around Black men that Black men feel about law enforcement. Every 21 hours, a Black woman is killed by a Black man, and that fact absolutely cannot be ignored. I’m not anti Black men. I’m anti Black patriarchy, anti toxic Black masculinity, and anti misogynoir. It’s difficult for some to distinguish between these positions because so much of Black masculinity and Black patriarchy is wrapped up in the dehumanization and abuse of Black women.
We need to be able to talk about the ways we are harmed by Black patriarchy and Black masculinity without people covering their ears because they don’t want to hear anything bad about Black men, or biting their tongues because they don’t want to say anything bad about Black men, or threatening violence to keep it from being told at all, because we can’t do or say anything to “make Black men look bad in front of white folk”. That’s exactly what they count on, and men like this don’t give a fuck about the rest of us trying to survive white supremacy. They’ve shown us through their ardent support for the likes of R. Kelly and Bill Cosby that what they want is to have the same power and ability to get away with misogynistic violence as white men, so they can reign with their feet planted firmly on our necks.
We should be able to talk about this openly without the threat of violence and abuse, but that is exactly what always happens whenever we tell the truth that Black men and those invested in Black patriarchy either don’t want to hear or don’t want exposed to others. I almost wrote this essay anonymously because I wanted to avoid the responses—the comments, the threats, the misogynoir-laced messages, the accusations of being a “distraction”, being “divisive”, and other horribly disgusting sentiments I won’t repeat. I’ve heard it all. But I decided that I won’t be forced into hiding. If the women who survived R. Kelly can continue to speak out, then so can I, because we need to be able to talk about these things in order to heal from them. I need to be able to say that I don’t care if this makes Black men “look bad in front of white folks”, because that in itself, placing ultimate importance in the white gaze, is a tool of white supremacy. We need to consistently challenge Black patriarchy, its violences against us, and how it allows predators like R. Kelly to exist. The “Black man’s image” is not, never has been, and never will be more important than the safety of Black women.
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