Three nights of television recently rocked the black community—surprising, since they detailed approximately three decades of well-known allegations of predation, exploitation and abuse by R&B artist R. Kelly. But if Lifetime’s record-breaking documentary Surviving R. Kelly finally put a human face onto the collective trauma so many women involved with the entertainer claimed to be carrying even years after the fact, the documentary, unfortunately, didn’t inspire a unilateral recognition of their humanity amongst viewers.
The continued disbelief, derision and dismissal of these women’s testimonials—even by beloved figures, like the once willfully oblivious and purportedly now enlightened Chance the Rapper—has been incredibly telling. It magnifies a deep lack of understanding and empathy in our community and has once again laid bare the profound and persistent streak of misogynoir within our ranks (from both men and women). Most important, it highlighted our desperately overdue need to confront how we protect our children, identify predation and both trust and care for survivors.
As this post goes to press, there are reports that this groundbreaking documentary, directed and executive produced by former music journalist dream hampton, has prompted at least one new criminal investigation into Kelly, with another possibly pending. If so, that is a triumph for filmmakers, activists and survivors alike. One can only hope there may finally be some justice meted out and that, once and for all, we might #MuteRKelly from our collective consciousness. But what does it truly mean for the residual trauma and healing of Kelly’s alleged survivors—or those who have survived similar abuse?
Understandably, many survivors have yet to brave watching the sometimes viscerally painful six-hour reckoning that is Surviving R. Kelly. Others have opted out entirely. With that in mind, along with viewing advice tweeted ahead of the premiere by #MeToo founder Tarana Burke (who appears in the documentary), several organizations rightly turned their attention to protecting survivors and those most vulnerable to sexual abuse.
Specifically, these advocates are seeking to dismantle the system, mentality and behavior that have made it possible to perpetuate the victimization and dismissal of Kelly’s accusers—and so many others—for so long. In addition to creating resource guides for viewers, both the Black Women’s Blueprint and Girls for Gender Equity shared survivor self-care tips and tools that can prove useful far beyond the documentary’s scope, current sensationalism and continued airings.
The Girls for Gender Equity guide (pdf) is especially effective in not only in encouraging self-care but helping to identify one’s feelings and biases in response to hearing victims’ narratives. The organization also gives constructive guidance in developing an action plan to help identify and combat sexual predation and exploitation of the type alleged by Kelly’s accusers.
“Describe the process of how intimate partner violence develops over time,” one section of the guide asks. “Do you think it begins with physical violence? Do you think there are other components involved? If so, what might those be?”
As a companion piece, the Black Women’s Blueprint created Beyond Lights, Camera, Action & Surviving R. Kelly Viewing Parties (pdf), the first of what will be several guides on combating sexual violence in black communities. This guide not only provides a glossary of terms to help survivors and supporters articulate sexual violence but addresses the responsibilities of men in ending sexual violence—as written by a black man from an intra-racial perspective.
Crafting an open letter to Kelly’s survivors, the Black Women’s Blueprint writes, in part:
Dear Sister more than ninety percent of us are raped or sexually abused by those we know. It is those who look like us, those we protect those we love who harm us. We know all too well what it means to be under siege from within. ... There is no pain as virulent as the one that is inflicted from our own.
. . .
Sisters you are not to blame. Sisters you are not alone. What you choose to do for yourself from this moment on should be the focus and priority. ... we applaud your stance, your determination and the bravery in you inherited from generations of brave women ancestors.
But for a comprehensive look at the systemic oppression, abuse and sexualization of black women, civil rights advocacy organization Color of Change, of which Surviving R. Kelly producer dream hampton is a board member, has launched an interactive site in response to the documentary, called Black Women Too.
Created by and for black women and allies, the site explores the myriad ways black women are affected and at risk within various institutions from girlhood on—including our educational and legal systems, media and entertainment industry, healthcare and housing and more. Using statistical, historical and anecdotal information, Black Women Too takes a deep and often intimate dive into intersectionality, offering a better understanding of the unique obstacles and vulnerabilities black women face.
“Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly shows what happens when being Black and a woman and working class render our truths inconsequential,” Color of Change writes of the site, which launched on Jan. 5, in tandem with both the documentary and a petition “imploring supporters to stand behind Black women and girls.”
“It is the obligation of all of us to show up for Black women—and to demand a cost from those who won’t,” the petition states, calling out not only Kelly, but his alleged enablers, including record label RCA, which purportedly allowed his predation to continue, in spite of decades of disturbing reports.
“It is our duty as a community to protect Black girls from sexual violence and exploitation,” it adds.
Of course, as we are frequently and painfully reminded, predatory behavior isn’t the sole domain of Kelly or any of the other alleged predators of his stature and fame. It transcends race, class and location and is a component of a larger, deeply insidious and widely condoned culture in which women are taught that our bodies are not entirely our own, while men are often taught to feel entitled to them.
And though there will always be exceptions to that rule and predators of all sexes, that overriding dynamic is indisputable and must be dismantled, especially within our already threatened and marginalized black community.
Because in a country that has historically found black bodies expendable, how terrifying and devastating it is to know that a population of black men consider our bodies even more so.