“Surviving R. Kelly” and the Problematic (Mis)Handling of Sexual Abuse in the Black Community
Like many of you, I have spent time over the past few days engrossed in the Lifetime docuseries, Surviving R. Kelly. The six-part anthology covers the R&B star’s life, specifically centered on his long rumored (video-graphically proven, yet legally unconvicted) history of sexual attraction to, and sexual interactions with, underaged girls. I have not been able to catch every episode as it’s aired live, so I have spent the better part of this Saturday evening catching up on episodes 2-5 and am writing this as I wait for 2:00am to arrive so I can finish the conclusion. Like most other viewers, I am overcome by a diverse slew of emotions, ranging from sadness to downright rage. This post serves as my immediate response.
Black people, we have got to stop sympathizing with, apologizing for, and choosing to overlook the sexual abusers who appear in our circles. Every one of us knows someone who has been sexually assaulted or abused, whether we are aware or not. As I’ve watched those professionally and personally close to Robert Kelly speak in the series, the thing that has infuriated me the most is that everybody suspected something, everybody knew something was wrong, and multiple individuals admit either being present to witness inexcusable acts or seeing them on tape, but NO ONE SAID ANYTHING. Not one.
How many of us have heard about the rapes, molestations, and abuses inflicted upon our loved ones in passing, but observed that nobody whispering has done anything to hold the respective abusers accountable?
It is unacceptable, the level at which Black children go unprotected from harm in the spaces that are supposed to be safe for them. It is inexcusable to think of the number of Black children who have been introduced to abusive situations, and people, by the ones who are supposed to love and protect them the most. Even more, it is astonishing to consider how frequently and vehemently Black people have chosen to disassociate the perpetrators from their crimes in the name of pity, pride, embarrassment, admiration for their work, or familial bonds. We cannot, and MUST not, tolerate this cycle any longer.
I will never play another R. Kelly record after seeing this. I already didn’t for the most part, but I will be even more diligent in refusing to play his music in my space.
I will not “Step in the Name of Love” at any other functions, nor will I play it at mine.
No matter how talented he is, how much I may have liked some of his music previously, or how catchy the lyrics or beats may be, I will never support this serial rapist and domestic abuser again. Anyone who does is out of their mind.
Some may think my take is too harsh. Those individuals can have several seats on my block list. As a Black woman, one who has known and loved multiple abuse survivors and one who is statistically more at risk of being abused herself simply because I am a Black woman, how else am I supposed to respond? As I recently explained to a friend with whom I was discussing the Lifetime series, the girls that Robert Kelly has targeted over the years could have just as easily been me had it not been for divine intervention putting me somewhere else. It could still be me one day if, God-forbid, I have the misfortune of crossing paths with the wrong person. That is reality.
R. Kelly is an abuse victim who long-ago became an abuser, and because of his failure to seek help despite all the access his fortune affords him to mental health/trauma assessment and treatment, I cannot excuse any of his behavior. There is no excuse for his behavior. I am disgusted when I think of his most beloved songs and lyrics, now being cognizant of the abuses he afflicted upon young girls in the interactions which likely inspired many of his hits. I pray for every victim he has hurt, those he is still hurting, and I truly worry for their safety.
It is my hope that after this documentary, we will step away from the familiar cycle of becoming enraged about a subject then letting it go after it leaves headlines, to instead actually mobilize and actively seek solutions to help those women still under his grasp to get out, get help, and heal.
Surviving R. Kelly has done more than just disgust me in regard to the sight, sound, and thought of Robert Kelly. As I previously alluded, and as often happens when I contemplate such subjects, it has also ushered in many thoughts regarding how we address sexual abuse in the Black community. That method is overall problematic.
Robert Kelly, like many unprotected Black children, has said that he was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a family member from ages, “seven to about 13 or 14.” His younger brother, Casey, confirmed that he believes this claim because it also happened to him. Casey went on to explain how his decision to tell an adult revolved around the reaction he might receive if he told his brothers first. Ultimately, Casey never told his mother of his abuse because Robert–possibly employing the hypermasculine logic we impress upon boys which tells them that they are less than a man if they have been taken advantage of sexually–definitively told Casey that it never happened. So, Casey continued through life pretending that it hadn’t.
I understand that the Kelly brothers’ responses to their abusive situations were likely products of the culmination of problematic responses we as a community have continued to perpetuate when it comes to sexual abuse. Our historic finger-pointing has created a subculture within ours in which we blame the victims (including children) for the crimes committed against them. Black people, including many of the skeptics watching Surviving R. Kelly, love to tell Black girls that their rapes and molestations were warranted because they were being “fast.” (How can a child be held responsible for the transgressions of adults who know better?)
That combined with our lack of action tells them that we don’t care enough about their physical or emotional security to seek reparations on their behalf.
Additionally, their fear that we will prioritize the preservation of our friendly, romantic, and family relationships over their safety has forced far too many victims, like the Kelly brothers, into silence. This is why we have so many uncomfortable nieces not wanting to say hello to Uncle So-And-So at the cookout. This is why we have so many nephews whose disposition changes as soon as Uncle and/or Auntie So-And-So enters the room. This is why, we as children, see our mothers, aunts, uncles and cousins cringe at the sight of some of their older aunts, uncles, grandparents, and “old family friends.” The haunting, emotional remnants of sexual abuses remain unspoken, but often very palpable in the atmosphere at family events, yet so many continue to say nothing, extend invitations to the harmful, and look the other way.
Then, we also have the problem of trusted adults who are told about children in their midst being sexually abused and choose to dismiss it. All of those people deserve to rot. And I hope that God has mercy on their souls. Period.
Black girls should not be coerced or forced to participate in sexual experiences with older men.
Black boys should not be coerced or forced to participate in sexual experiences with older women.
Black girls should not be coerced or forced to participate in sexual experiences with older women.
Black boys should not be coerced or forced to participate in sexual experiences with older men.
It is not normal for Black boys to lose their virginity to older women. It is not normal for Black girls to be preyed upon by older men.
We, the adults around them, have a responsibility to protect and fight for them at all costs, regardless of what relationships we may lose in the process. The security of our youth should be paramount to our own gratifications. And if you cannot say that statement applies to you, then you have serious issues to address and unpack.
It is our job to unteach the asinine rhetoric that only girls are at risk of being preyed upon by sexual predators. It is our job to unteach and stop subscribing to the characteristics of toxic/hypermasculinity, and to tell Black boys that they are not at fault if a predatory adult abuses them sexually. It is our job to teach our boys and girls the language necessary to articulate anything that may happen to them or their bodies. It is our responsibility to hold predatory men and women accountable without question or hesitation.
Above all else, in situations like those surrounding R. Kelly, Bill Cosby, and other famous stars accused of sexually assaulting others, it is our responsibility as Black people, to stop being loyal to b.s., to stop claiming that we can separate problematic and predatory acts of artists from the products of their artistry, and to stop prioritizing our fandom of people who don’t even know we exist over our humanity and protection of victims.
R. Kelly isn’t grateful for your support, he is grateful for the revenue your support generates. Bill Cosby is not grateful for your support, he is grateful for the financial security your support generated. [Insert predatory celebrity, family member, friend, etc.] is not grateful for your silence, loyalty, or support, they are grateful for everything they gain as a result of it. You look and sound stupid for defending sexual predators simply because you lack the cognitive ability to separate your emotional ties to celebrities to take action in doing what is right. You are a sympathizer cosigning and enabling their inexcusable behavior, and you should be ashamed of yourself.
To my readers who are trauma and abuse survivors, I stand with you. I am sorry that you were hurt, and I cannot stress enough that it was not your fault.
No matter what you were wearing while there was a man in the house.
No matter what you were wearing in public.
No matter how you were dancing with your friends.
No matter how your body is shaped.
No matter what color your hair was.
No matter what your abuser(s) told you to deflect the responsibility off themselves after harming you.
IT WAS NOT YOUR FAULT.
My DMs are always open; I may not always know what to say, but I will do my best to connect you with resources that can help you in the ways that I am unable. You are strong, you are brave, and you are deserving of love.
I’m tired, y’all. I’m so tired of abusers being able to get away with their crimes, especially in my beloved Black community. Drawing inspiration from one of James Baldwin’s most famous quotes, but changing the subject:
I love Black people more than anything in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize us perpetually.
Our silence, inactivity, victim shaming, and complicity with sexual assault is just as, if not even more, harmful as the initial events effecting the abused.
We HAVE to do better.
Stay strong. Stay outspoken against all abuse. Stay Kultured.