First, let’s get this out of the way: R. Kelly likely needs therapy, and his alleged actions are highly concerning on a variety of levels… I, as do many, await evidence to critique further. But I think we still need context. When addressing those making the likes of Kelly reflective of Black men in general, what percentage of Black men do this to justify such framing? Dr. Tommy J. Curry argues (see below) that this is less than 1%. What other racial demographic is measured by 1% of its group’s behavior? Why are we so quick to point to Black male dysfunction for the acts of a few but not for anyone else? When Weinstein was publicly centered, did anyone frame it as Jewish male toxicity?
What I also notice is that men such as Ike Turner, Richard Pryor, Sugar Ray Leonard, Iceberg Slim, R. Kelly, MC Shan, Chris Brown, Bow Wow, DeRay Davis, Lil Wayne, Tyler Perry, Columbus Short, Charlamagne tha God, Mike Tyson, Antwone Fisher, Kashif, DMX, Lecrae, Denzel Curry, Chris Gardner (the inspiration behind the film The Pursuit of Happyness), Don Lemon, Rahsaan Patterson, Terry Crews, and many more were sexually assaulted/raped by women (and men) at some point, but that is somehow conveniently irrelevant when discussing their issues with women. In fact, many have been vilified and used to paint Black men as a whole as monsters. R. Kelly affirms this when he describes his own experience by saying,
“She wouldn’t stop until she was finished. Afterwards, she said, ‘You better not say shit to no one or else you gonna get a terrible whupping.’
At first, I couldn’t judge it,” he says to me, when I ask him if he realized at the time that a really bad thing was happening. “I remember it feeling weird. I remember feeling ashamed. I remember closing my eyes or keeping my hands over my eyes. I remember those things, but couldn’t judge it one way or the other fully.”
In contrast, when the female sexual abusers I frequently post about on social media are caught, a few things happen: 1) reports often don’t use terms like rape and sexual assault (instead it’s just “sex”), 2) they sometimes frame adolescent boys as aggressors that couldn’t be resisted by grown women—even when those boys are lured into adult situations beyond their capacity to comprehend. And 3) we seek to hyper-empathize with their background and motivations. What caused their behavior? Who hurt them? What did it do to them? Should they be sentenced to the full extent of the law because of their past victimization? (Research suggests that women are sentenced 63% less than men for the same crime). But when Black men do it it’s somehow the worst reflection of both masculinity and humanity. People forget that human beings respond to the socio-economic environment they hail from, even in terms of victimization. At least, that is, when the subject is boys and men.
So my thing is at least threefold: 1) treat Black male aggressors/victims no differently than other offenders/victims—whether that means empathizing with them or punishing them–but be consistent; 2) within the Black intelligentsia, employ the same mechanisms we use to assess Black men as we use for Black women. We tend to either ignore Black women’s discrepancies or seek to humanize them. Why are Black men undeserving of this? And 3) just as with whites and women, we need to stop making individuals a reflection of an entire demographic. Out of 20 million(?) Black men, there are so many unsung examples of Black men who protect, sacrifice, love, and support loved ones but they get traded in for 5 or so celebrities—even when found innocent in a court of law (e.g. Nate Parker)—an institution that has no incentive to support Black men.
But we still need to discuss the influence of money and media on a population with no wealth. As I write, the Lifetime channel is showing the Aaliyah movie alongside replaying Surviving R. Kelly. Interesting how the platform made available to Dream Hampton, the show’s creator, is so widespread. Is that purely on the merit of helping sexual assault/rape victims, you think? Are they paying similar attention to Black sex assault/rape victims of all stripes, or could this just be about ratings and money (and that male victims don’t generate sympathy/empathy)? This series will do much to help Black men meditate on the impact of their actions on Black women and girls, and rightly so. However, without highlighting the frequency of female-initiated abuse in Black families where children are born to single mothers over 70%, this seems somewhat disingenuous and manipulative. It’s sad there’s no international stage for Black males to express a similar experience, giving women and girls the same opportunity to grow (other than social media, a medium that’s becoming highly censored when not in service of feminist interests).
Despite such bifurcated access issues, Hampton does not stop at focusing on Black male aggression via Kelly. She furthers delves into African American history to find a hero (a hetero Black male icon, in fact) to highlight a historically revised view of Malcolm X’s assassination in a recent Tweet. Implicating the Nation of Islam to be an organization that follows a “predator” (Elijah Muhammad) who preyed on “adolescent Black girls,” (I’d only heard them described as young). She garnered the ire of noted rapper and NOI adherent Kam who clarified that none of Muhammad’s wives were adolescent in age–just younger than him. This issue mostly stems from the cherry-picked speech (or at least 1 minute of it) where Malcolm highlighted Black womens’ vulnerability and need for protection. Still, to suggest this was why he was assassinated while ignoring the role of the U.S. government and sidestepping his international breadth, ideological radicalism, grassroots class activism, and willingness to advocate for armed warfare, it’s disingenuous to re-frame his death in such a ham-handed manner. For some reason I doubt Hampton celebrates the same Malcolm who was highly critical of aspects of Black women’s behavior he deemed “tricky” or “deceitful” (he also thought they “talked too much”). Strange how Black feminist-nationalists d/won’t quote him then…but let’s be clear. This is not about adoring Malcolm. It’s about his utility to Black feminist political aspirations.
“This is a sly way of socially constructing select Black male predatory behavior as a norm.”
So here, Black feminist nationalists have access to social media, international news sources, the Lifetime Channel, BET Her, and TV One while Black men have…uuumm… Might this have anything to do with the misandrist conclusions they reached and its political efficacy for feminist agendas of male denigration, such as the linking of Black men to Kelly’s behavior to assert the notion of rape culture as a norm among Black men? Even by the first few minutes of the first episode of Surviving R. Kelly, Nelson George asserts that the R. Kelly album title “Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number” somehow reflects ‘Black-men’ in that he claims he’s heard it in a barbershop. This is not entirely different from the recent Huffington Post article, “Kevin Hart, R. Kelly And The Black Lives That Matter” where the byline reads, “When black people come to the defense of these men, here’s what they are really saying: black lives matter, but only certain ones, only convenient ones.” This is a sly way of socially constructing select Black male predatory behavior as a norm. Yet this belies what Dr. Tommy Curry notes when he stated in a recent Facebook post: “The majority of BM (Black men) & BW (Black women) are not sexual predators or violent. This is less than half of 1% of the black adult population.” (Facebook, January 8, 2019. Also see Tommy J. Curry and Ebony A. Utley’s “She Touched Me: Five Snapshots of Adult Sexual Violations of Black Boys” in Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal (Vol. 28, No. 2, 205–241 © 2018 by Johns Hopkins University Press).
But I think the agenda here is more than to malign Black men. It is also for Black feminists to use R. Kelly’s apparently abhorrent (albeit alleged) behavior to ingratiate themselves into the American imaginary as victims of Black men and thus worthy of an empathy generally reserved for white women. This helps situate them more firmly within white feminist ranks, thus making the grotesque and exploitive experiences some of the women engaged by Kelly fodder for an agenda of social and political acceptance.
Yet we are still not allowed to question and critique Black feminists (or women) without being labeled R. Kelly apologists, rape apologists, or misogynists. Doubt me? Publicly question the mothers (you can critique the fathers all day) of the girls “brought” to Kelly in exchange for resources and opportunity and watch people attack you. Our chivalry makes it that much worse…as we can’t collectively fathom a female complicity (or greed) that may be at fault for how many women sought out Kelly even after his behavior became public knowledge. In another example, as we speak, advertisements are running for the April 2019 debut of Issa Rae and Regina Hall’s film Little (2019). Despite us having a conversation about younger women not being able to consent to sexual relationships with adult men via Surviving R. Kelly, the trailer depicts a recently de-aged adolescent Regina Hall flirting with her adult white male school teacher.
This is somehow acceptable (and let’s also not forget the sexual objectification of Black men in the trailer too…), and yet no one finds this problematic. Such critiques should be brought to bear on Black feminist productions in general. To what extent was Terry McMillan’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back really rooted in a celebration of the hypersexualization of young boys/men by older women? The very scenario of the book/film bring to mind real life scenarios where grunts and under-the-breath comments like, “Giiirrll…he fine”—even though he’s 12-17 years old and they are 25-55 year old women. (This is a situation myself and many friends have discussed experiencing ourselves as adolescents). Below are images from Twitter referring to women’s online discussion of “Diggy,” Reverend Run’s son (Run of RUN DMC), and their request for information about whether or not he’s “legal” yet.
And that’s wholly separate from having one’s penis groped, molested, and raped altogether by female friends of the family, female family members, or female public servants such as teachers, police, probation officers, etc. who knew no one would believe it. The one-sided presentation of these ideas creates an entitled sense that any serious discussion of rape or sex trafficking should only happen for women, and when it does happen to boys and men it must be marginal. In actuality, Curry and Utley’s paper (cited above) practically labels it an epidemic (my word use).
Despite feminist accusations that bringing up male abuse by women is a deflection from female victimhood (or Kelly), its virtual absence becomes glaring to male survivors such as myself when figures such as Kelly are touted as confirmation of a universal male toxicity (a concept that virtually has no female component in mainstream discourse).
As we reflect on Surviving R. Kelly, it is noteworthy that we find out that Harvey Weinstein will not face charges by Ashley Judd, as “a court just dismissed Ashley Judd‘s sexual harassment claims against him.” It seems few white accused sexual aggressors—even post #MeToo—have had to deal with the level of scrutiny Black accused aggressors have. Although dismissed as another deflection by many Black feminists, it is important to note how the 19th century stereotype of Black males as rapists and sexual predators plays out in terms of whom is more easily perceived as such and who can escape accountability, and that includes the scores of female teachers who violate males boys and are virtually unheard of in public discourse. Tell me, how many of the women below can you name? Would you better know them if they sexually violated your baby boy? Does it matter when the child is not yours?
But we live in a culture of believing is seeing, so we generally don’t even look for evidence if we don’t believe something is possible in the first place. Don’t believe me? Tell me, how many nuns have you heard of in the news in the last 50 years who sexually violated boys? (And unlike priests, they can have a raped boy’s baby, only to have it covered up by the Church to no fanfare, leaving said boys traumatized with no awareness of where the children they sired ever went.) How many Black female family members (mothers, aunts, sisters, and even grandmothers have you seen in the news for the incest rape of their Black male youth? Did Kelly’s abuser get named in the series? We even believe it’s not happening because it’s not in the news, despite that the age of sexual debut for Black boys is demonstrably lower than Black girls, suggesting that they’re sexualized more often than Black girls and much earlier (seen below; special thanks to Nasir Jabir Hashem).
The image below of grown women gyrating on Black male infants is briefly acknowledged on social media but not linked to anything more widespread than them as individuals and doesn’t generate empathy for Black males as a group who may have been victimized in such ways. Even the scores of Black rappers and athletes on Vlad TV who’ve come forth as sexual abuse victims in the last couple of years (especially at the hands of women) are treated as individual anomalies and nothing more. And after every lecture, essay, or article I write invoking this, I have Black men from 19 to 70+ years old write me from all over the world confirming similar experiences, yet people still treat it as if it doesn’t exist. And no, it is not because men don’t speak up about it. It’s because we lack any major platform backing (e.g. Lifetime, HBO, BET, etc.) to articulate our experience or the developing research on it!
On another note, people consider many Black men’s hesitation to attack Kelly (and others) as a display of support for them. Most of the time it isn’t. In fact, most Black men will lose little sleep if he’s found guilty and incarcerated for rape, sexual assault, sex trafficking, and/or kidnapping. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I met a man who mentioned even buying an R. Kelly album in the last 25 years. Black men are not even the base audience propping Kelly up. What many Black men take umbrage with, however, is the unqualified association of Kelly with them as a whole. Phrases such as “Black men need to do better,” “Black men are trash,” or “Black male toxic masculinity” is “the source of the Black community’s ills” (a statement made in an FB debate I took part in recently) are made with no citations and taken as true. I’ve labeled this racial transference and teach my students the history of it going back to the very development of the concept of race.
This basically means that not only are inferiority and superiority transferred to whites and Blacks via key historical personalities, it only works one way. For example, Jeffrey Dahmer is never used to categorize white masculinity et al, while W.E.B. DuBois is never used to frame the intellectual capability of Black men as a whole. Meanwhile, William Shakespeare is assumed to be a refection of white genius while even the average Black criminal on the news is a reflection of Black masculinity. Hence, media’s preoccupation with the O.J. Simpson, Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, and many others goes beyond what they as individuals actually did (which, again, I have no problem critiquing), but when it becomes a permanent pair of concrete shoes by which Black masculinity is tortured, I must speak up.
And this is why Black men find these situations difficult. Because although we can support the need for individual men to be held accountable, we know that no other group of men experience such a degree of public malignment as Black men due to the acts of a few. And we know the target is overwhelmingly Black male. Don’t believe me? As we’ve gone from Cosby to R. Kelly, I wonder which sexual assault abuser is next on the public docket? Will it be a white female teacher? Maybe a Black female incest aggressor? Maybe even a Latino police officer? Nope. Michael Jackson.* In the spring of 2019, the two-part, 233-minute new film on Michael Jackson entitled Leaving Neverland hits HBO, and we can expect the same assumptions of Black male demagoguery while most Black males remain cautious. Not necessarily to protect Jackson, but to question the extent to which white society AND a significant part of our own community believe that Black men are the monsters media make us out to be via Jackson, hyperfocusing on select stories of accused Black males over others and punishing them as a proxy for all Black men.
In the meantime, I casually await April to yet again watch people self-righteously dance on the image of Black men due to another fallen celebrity, while I strain to remember the last time I saw this much zeal expelled at the decline of…well…anyone…
*It should be noted that by the time I posted this article, journalist Touré has been accused of sexual harassment. I guess I was wrong, we didn’t need to wait until April after all…