Survivors, activists, organizers, concerned citizens, and more watched over three nights as Lifetime’s Surviving R Kelly cast a bright light on the decades of abuse carried out against Black women and girls by the self-proclaimed Pied Piper of R&B. The three-night docuseries revealed more than we’ve ever known about Kelly’s evil nature. A master manipulator, Kelly strategically lured young Black girls into his world, isolated them from their families, beat them, and coerced them into sex acts.
There are still young Black women under R. Kelly’s control. Right at this very moment.
The docuseries should serve to end any question of whether Kelly “did it.” The fact that he is still able to profit from his music and performances proves that members of the Black community have been more concerned with protecting Kelly’s ability to entertain them than protecting Black women and girls. Unfortunately, some of Kelly’s biggest supporters are Black women — our aunties and mothers who danced to his music and fantasized about him in their heydays. Mentions of Kelly’s history of rape and abuse have long been met with accusations that survivors are weak-willed women at best and promiscuous gold-diggers at worst. This response is not surprising, though. As patriarchy depends on the degradation of Black women and girls, the Black community is programmed to prioritize the lives, feelings, and well-being of Black men — especially powerful Black men — over that of Black women and girls.
Like many Black women, I was very young when I learned this. I was barely old enough to ride a bike without training wheels when I understood that I was to protect the Black men and boys around me at all costs — protect them, as much as it depended on me, from law enforcement, ridicule, and hardship of any kind. With that, there wasn’t much time for silly thoughts like, “Well, who would protect me?”
Surviving R. Kelly has conjured up the beginnings of this lesson for me. For years, Kelly has mentally, emotionally, and physically abused Black women and girls. And activists, organizers, journalists and concerned citizens have worked tirelessly to bring him to justice —to no avail.
Despite all we know about him, Kelly has continued to headline tours and is even featured on a song with gospel singer Marvin Sapp. Kelly’s success highlights an ever-present truth. The men, the supposed “leaders” of our community, are of prime importance, while Black women and girls are and should remain secondary. This spells trouble for Black women and girls in many ways, but especially in matters of physical violence.
“Racial solidarity, it’s race over gender. There’s the traditional, historical conflict that emerges from slavery. The idea emerged that Black women could not be raped,” says Lisalyn R. Jacobs, a consultant with The National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community (also known as Ujima). " So you have a perfect storm wherein Black women literally cannot find purchase on the issue of sexual assault either inside their own community or in the larger community."
Thus, when Black women experience abuse, our pain is usually devalued, ignored and even ridiculed. As Black women face intimate partner violence, the pressure of racial allegiance makes us protectors of Black men, which often leaves us without much safety of our own. We have been conditioned to choose our men over our own safety, well-being and even our happiness. It is our racial duty.
This racial allegiance often leads to silence. Approximately four out of every 10 Black women have experienced rape, physical violence, and /or stalking by an intimate partner, according to Women of Color Network, Inc. (WOCN, Inc.), a national nonprofit working to end violence against all women by centralizing the voices, the wellness and the leadership of women of color.
Forty percent of human trafficking victims are Black and 52 percent of juvenile prostitution arrests are of Black people, according to the Voice of Black Cincinnati. Despite the statistics, Black women and girls are less likely than other races to report abuse to police or seek help services. Among many reasons, this owes to the fact that Black women have been taught to endure violence rather than making a Black man’s crimes known and risk putting him into the nation’s racist criminal justice system.
“We have been nurtured and taught as young girls from the beginning that the young boys in our community are the prized possessions in which we prepare ourselves for, for which we sacrifice ourselves for, for which we protect at all costs because they are the prize possessions. Because in some people’s minds they are the most vulnerable,” Rev. Dr. Aleese Moore-Orbih, of WOCN, Inc. says.
With that, there exists an environment in which Black women are socialized into making light of our own abuse and lack of safety. There is a learned belief that Black men are vessels of potential, and, thus, Black women often serve as stepping stones for their development through instances of violence and harm. I, like many, have long internalized the idea that the support and development of my brothers took precedence over mine.
It must be said that innocent acceptance of and absolution from abuse serves as permission for more Black men to participate in this consequence-less behavior. When Black men celebrities’ violence is rewarded with success, it sends a clear message that abuse in the Black community is acceptable.
The shocking truths revealed in Surviving R. Kelly have served a lot of good (and the docuseries is the result of the efforts of organizers behind the #MuteRKelly movement). Speaking about these injustices and oppression perpetrated by Black men serves as a foundation for change. Organizations like the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR), WOCN, Inc, Ujima, Black Women’s Blueprint and more have been making great strides to create a space in which Black women survivors cannot only thrive, but also work to dismantle the system that disregards victims and praises abusers.
Any beauty in racial allegiance has for far too long excluded Black women. We must build an environment in which Black women are seen in our totality, not simply as secondary beings in a community of Black men. The Black community as a whole, especially Black men, needs to create and nurture a space in which Black women are valued, protected and included.