R. Kelly and the Silencing of Black Women in History

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tags: African American history, Race, popular culture, womens history

Tikia K. Hamilton currently teaches history at the Latin School of Chicago. She holds a PhD in History from Princeton, where she also taught. Dr. Hamilton is working on her forthcoming book, Making a Model System: The Battle for Educational Equality in the Nation’s Capital Before Brown. Born and raised in Chicago, Hamilton attended Kenwood Academy from 1990-1994.


Earlier this month, the Lifetime network aired Surviving R. Kelly, a 6-part docuseries produced by dream hampton. The series chronicles the harrowing experiences of more than a dozen women who allege that best-selling music artist Robert Kelly (better known as R. Kelly) raped and/or physically assaulted them over the course of a career that spans more than three decades. Despite ongoing investigations into charges of pedophilia, R. Kelly, who is now 52, continues to deny any of these illegalities.


Many of the women appearing in the documentary were just teenagers when they first encountered the Chicago-bred music mogul. According to several Surviving R. Kelly witnesses, the self-proclaimed “Pied Piper of R & B” specifically targeted young girls during his frequent visits to high school campuses during the 1990s. These schools included Kenwood Academy, which R. Kelly attended in the early 1980s, and which I also attended a decade later. In fact, I recall Kelly’s visits to Kenwood. I also recall conversations my friends and I had with one of his known victims regarding her relationship with a man twice her age. As teenagers, we didn’t think much about it. Grown men pursued us all of the time.  In retrospect, the predatory behavior of these men is quite disturbing. Security guards and even some teachers allowed R. Kelly unrestricted access to our campus, as the documentary also reveals. 


Meanwhile, many have reacted to Surviving R. Kelly as if this were the very first time the well-known entertainer’s exploits were made known to the public. Yet, R. Kelly has long managed to grab the national spotlight for more than just his often sexually explicit music. His brief marriage to Aaliyah Haughton attracted a considerable degree of scrutiny in the 1990s, especially after it became clear that the “Pied Piper’s” decision to produce her aptly-titled album Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number spoke in not so subtle ways to the fact that Aaliyah was 15 and Kelly was 27 at the time they married. In 2002, he was indicted for 21 counts of child pornography after videos surfaced of the singer engaging in sex with underage girls, including a 14-year old.  Just two years later, police discovered additional evidence in Kelly’s home. This time, R. Kelly did stand trial—but it was four years after the alleged crime. This delay potentially influenced the “not guilty” verdict since the jury may have perceived these once underage girls as now fully consenting adults. Since 2008, a number of new allegations have emerged, including claims that R. Kelly currently maintains a “sex cult” by holding young girls against their will. 


Despite a mountain of evidence pointing towards Kelly’s predilection for minors, R. Kelly remains a free man, his celebrity having drowned out public condemnation. His continued freedom leaves us to question the extent to which legal authorities and the wider public takes abuses against black women and girls seriously.


“It is hard to accept that so many people excuse R. Kelly's behavior,” observes LaKisha Michelle Simmons, “but historically, black girls and women are not seen as victims.” Simmons is an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan and author of Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Girls in Segregated New Orleans. Her book is one of several important works emerging out of a new scholarly focus on black girlhood. “In the rare times when black girls are deemed victims, they have to prove their purity, virginity and worthiness. This means that when black girls are victimized, people within the black community and people within the justice system often look the other way.” 


History bears out Simmons’s analysis, and some of the foremost examples can be found in America’s tortured past. The concept of “abuse” appeared almost non-existent for those who willingly disregarded the unique plight of black women.  Sally Hemmings, a slave working in the employ of Thomas Jefferson, represents one prominent example.  Much like the young girl featured in R. Kelly’s home recording, Sally Hemmings was just 14 years old when the author of the “Declaration of Independence” began seeking her out for sex through an arrangement that would qualify as statutory rape in modern times. The fact that many historians refuse to regard Jefferson’s and Hemmings’s interactions in this light speaks volumes to the double jeopardy black women face as both objects of desire and subjects of history.  Black women’s experiences seem to count for little in mainstream histories and for even less in mainstream society.


Across the centuries that followed, white men continued with near impunity to instrumentalize rape as a source of power against the black women they still regarded as property. Simultaneously, whites frequently accused black men of raping white women and inaccurately claimed black men committed sexual assault at disproportionately higher rates. In her work as an anti-lynching activist, Ida B. Wells-Barnett discovered that the opposite was the case. “The Negro has suffered far more from the commission of [rape] against the women of his race by white men than the white race has ever suffered,” observed Wells-Barnett, writing in 1900.  However, as she also pointed out, “What becomes a crime deserving capital punishment when the tables are turned is a matter of small moment when the negro woman is the accusing party.” 


The abduction and rape of Recy Taylor in Abbeville, Alabama in 1944 by a half dozen white men stands as another example. Born and raised during Jim Crow’s nadir, Taylor, who recently died, refused to cower under the threat of racist retaliation for reporting the crime. “I can’t help but tell the truth of what they done to me,” Taylor conveyed in an interviewSent by the NAACP to investigate the crime, Rosa Parks’s career as a civil rights activist was heavily influenced by this case, as historian Danielle McGuire details in her award-winning book The Dark End of the StreetBlack Women, Rape, and Resistance--A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. Although an all-white grand jury chose not to indict the men—even after several confessed—unlike Jefferson’s apologists, Alabama state officials recently offered apologies for their predecessors’ malfeasance. 


Yet, as LaKisha Simmons observes, the devaluing of black women’s and girls’ experiences with abuse is not peculiar to mainstream white America. As evidenced by a very noticeable backlash to the Surviving R. Kelly documentary, the cries of black women and girls who report abuse often have met with a similar type of condemnation among African Americans. As evidenced by the ongoing and reignited #MuteRKelly protests, a large percentage of black women and men stand allied alongside the survivors. Surprisingly, though, a visible level of outrage exists among African Americans who insist that—much like Bill Cosby—R. Kelly is being framed or worse, that the young women (and their parents) bear a great deal of responsibility for actions that found them in the clutches of a known pedophile. 


 “It is incredibly courageous for the survivors to come forward, given the gross misogyny and disregard for black women and girls in the country and worldwide,” insists Bianca J. Baldridge, an Assistant Professor in Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of the forthcoming book entitled Reclaiming Community: Race and the Uncertain Future of Youth Work. “I’m often floored by the number of people (especially women) who disbelieve women who share their stories of abuse. It’s very revealing and shows just how deep anti-Blackness and misogynoir is and how it can also be upheld by Black women,” Baldridge observes.  The degree to which some black women, many of whom are survivors of sexual abuse and other forms of predatory behavior, champion R. Kelly’s celebrity and innocence reveals quite disturbingly how those representing marginalized communities often internalize the low regard with which mainstream society holds them.


What’s more, the divided reactions among African Americans over R. Kelly’s innocence versus the survivors’ guilt are rooted in a history of intraracial conflict that all too often has demanded silence from women who would otherwise risk bringing shame to their families and their communities. As historian Cheryl D. Hicks reveals in her seminal work on black working-class women and girls in New York City in the early 20thCentury, black communities often attempted to police young women’s activities and relationships. Regardless of if young women had willingly consented to sex or not, many feared that their potentially “morally depraved” behavior posed a direct threat to black efforts towards racial uplift.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons Aaliyah’s mother, Diane Haughton, insists that her daughter never engaged in pre-marital sex with R. Kelly, as one of the Surviving R. Kelly witnesses claims. 


Within a social and political milieu where black men suffer alongside black women from an “unequal protection of the laws,” many black women are unwilling to risk further criminalizing black men the way whites do when they call the police on black people for no good reason. This is not because black women are not victims of sexual violence within their communities. As Ida B. Wells-Barnett observed, African American men are no less capable of sexual assault than white men. “The negro has been too long associated with the white man not to have copied his vices as well as his virtues,” she wrote, although the so-called “virtues” to which she referred were never specified. But, lest they be cast like sheep to a criminal justice system that continues to pathologize black men, many black women would rather suffer in silence than involve the police and legal authorities. 


The effect of all of this is that, in many instances, black girls and women have engaged in what Darlene Clark Hine and other historians have called a “culture of dissemblance.” This enforces silence even in the face of unspeakable acts including sexual harassment (as in the case of Anita Hill), intimate partner abuse, and even homicide. Still, as much of the recent scholarship on intersectionality and toxic masculinity reveals, similar calls for “dissemblance” impact black boys and men, too. It is worth noting, for example, that R. Kelly also alleges that his own sister raped and molested him when he was a child. In Surviving R. Kelly, he seems to insinuate that his experience with abuse might have caused his subsequent predatory behavior.


For these reasons, the willingness of so many women to come forward and expose R. Kelly for what he is—a pedophile and a rapist—is worth noting.  Suffer as they might the condemnation and willful ignorance of those who refuse to see them for what they are—courageous survivors—they are helping to turn the pages of history into a new era where black women and girls are determined to make the rest of us believe them. Activists in the #MeToo movement—which was founded by Tarana Burke over a decade ago as a way of helping black girls survive and combat abuse—engage in similar courageous efforts. So, too, are those involved in the #SayHerName campaign against police brutality. If recent weeks offer any indication, it will no longer suffice for anyone, neither legal officials, teachers, family members, or even other mainstream celebrities, to turn a blind eye to the unique injustices black girls and women face. 

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