Oh, Yeah, And Listening to the Voices of Victims is Never a Distraction
The first weekend of 2019 was intense for me.
The U.S. government is still under a partial shutdown.
Houston police arrested Jazmine Barnes’ alleged killers and it wasn’t a white man in a red truck, but rather two young Black men who allegedly mistook Jazmine’s family for a group they had gotten into a melee with at a club several hours earlier.
Oh, and Lifetime aired its six-part, three-day documentary titled “Surviving R. Kelly”, featuring women who claim to have been domestic violence and sexual assault/abuse victims of the R&B singer when they were teens and young women, including the singer’s ex-wife. The Internet was on fire with folk on various sides of the issues.
And somehow all these things converged for me on the first weekend of the New Year.
I, for one, did not watch the documentary. I also did my very best to avoid social media discussions on the topic because I despise stupidity . . . and apathy . . . and did I mention stupidity. Mostly I passed on watching the docuseries because I just didn’t need to. I had muted R. Kelly more than two decades earlier . . . way before the sex tape scandal. I muted that fool when he released “You Remind Me of My Jeep” back in 1995. To be honest, I was no fan of 1993’s “Bump and Grind.”
Really, I recall having these conversations with my best friend in the mid-1990s about R. Kelly’s music being garbage. I considered those lyrics the pinnacle of the objectification of woman. I mean I wish a Kneegrow (Yes, I spellchecked. This is my preferred though admittedly unorthodox manner of spelling the word) would run up on me talking about I reminded him of a car of any make and model—but a damn jeep. Like, dude wasn’t even talking about a luxury vehicle. Kneegrow please! So way back then I decided R. Kelly was overrated and not worth my time or money. Even when he came out with something uplifting like “I Believe I Can Fly” or some seemingly fun dance hit like “Step in the Name of Love”, I just reminded myself that this was the same crass, no-class dude that compared a woman to a jeep. And I kept it moving. I muted the dude because his music was trash to me. The revelation of an alleged sex tape filmed in 2000 with Kelly doing unspeakable things to a 14-year-old girl, the ongoing allegations about an illicit relationship and illegal marriage with the late singer Aaliyah while she was still a minor—they were just evidence that I had made the right decision. But make no mistake, those transgressions are far greater than my disdain for his music.
Of course, I don’t live in hole in the ground somewhere. I heard his music. But I was never enamored by it. And I was quite frankly perturbed by those who were. I didn’t go to his concerts or buy or stream his music.
Still, for my own sanity, I passed on the documentary as I decided it would neither expose anything I didn’t already believe to be true or reveal anything I would doubt. I still have not seen it. I also did my best to avoid social media and real-life conversations about the docuseries, R. Kelly or the allegations against him because I didn’t want to get angry with people—including some friends—for daring to question these women and their motives.
I wanted to avoid it because I knew people would say dumb stuff. Unfortunately, in this digital age, avoiding the foolery is like trying to miss a pothole on a neglected neighborhood street in New Orleans—real damn hard to do. So, yes, I saw the people suggesting that this docuseries was somehow irrelevant NOW because people, including those close to him and folk in the music industry, have long known the truth about Kelly and nothing has happened.
It is true, in fact, that even after being brought to trial in 2008 an entire juror of people, who I assumed have eyes and actually watched the video filmed in 2000, declared Kelly not guilty. But because I understand that “not guilty” is not the same thing as “innocent”, I was just left to wonder why and how this guy has continued to make music and go unscathed for so long. If one has to be pondered, that is the question I prefer to pose as opposed to why these women would participate in this documentary now.
The fact is that these women’s stories have not “just” surfaced. This might be the first time they have been told in the same space at the same time in such a manner. But this is not a “WHY NOW” scenario?
Still, I am all up for playing devil’s advocate. So, let’s pretend all of this was news…that it did just surface…that up until January 4, 2019, you somehow thought ARE-ra Kelly was a saint.
Hell, slavery went on for more than 400 years before the Emancipation Proclamation.
Jim Crow ruled the south for nearly a century before the federal government began to establish new policies and simply enforce old laws that mandated equal access to public accommodations, public education, voting rights, fair housing and so. And to be honest, we still have much work to do in these areas before we truly overcome.
If we were to subscribe to the “WHY NOW?” way of thinking, I’d be sitting on the back of a bus. No, I’d probably be picking cotton or tobacco or planting rice or chopping sugar cane on a big old farm somewhere in the Deep South without compensation instead of writing this column. So please, don’t “WHY NOW” me.
My response will be clear and emphatic “BECAUSE IT’S ABOUT DAMN TIME!” And it is never too late to do the right thing. It’s certainly never too late to tell the truth, especially if that truth is hurting you. Still, I just didn’t want to have those conversations with people. I didn’t even plan on writing this column, until I was drawn into one post that suggested that the documentary on Kelly was a ruse designed to distract folk, mainly Black folk, from more serious hidden agendas that were far more detrimental to our community. In other words, the argument is that while everyone was all engrossed in the R. Kelly saga, some other more clandestine stuff is happening. While we are sitting around talking about R. Kelly, pedophilia, molestation and the sexualization of young girls, specifically in the Black community, wait for it . . . Donald Trump is ruining the country.
Huh? Wait a minute, so now folk want to use Donald Trump as a reason to diminish and discount these women and their experiences. Yeah, I’m going to have to call BS on that. Seriously, I am side-eye glancing so hard my eyeballs hurt. Y’all have officially gone too far, especially since nothing Donald Trump is doing can be described as hidden. I’m saying, if a docuseries—any docuseries—can make you forget we have the worse president our nation has ever seen, then I can only assume you’re walking around like Sandra Bullock in The Bird Box.
But more than that, I am offended by the notion that we can’t focus on more than one salient issue at a time. So what you’re saying is we can’t recognize and be concerned about the direction our nation is headed under Trump’s lack of leadership and be disgusted by and moved to action against pedophiles in our communities in the same week? Like, you really believe it is a matter of either-or.
Well, I may not have mastered much; but I know I can chew gum and walk at the same time. How about you?
As a matter of fact, we have so many issues that demand our attention we better start multi-tasking. Plus, there are over 40 million Black folk! Hell, let’s just delegate. Wait. We do that already. See, there are hundreds of movements and organizations that focus on a specific issue or two so that they can better direct limited resources and efforts to bring about change in their area of concern.
So, what we actually need, then, is understanding, it seems. Okay, so let’s understand that I can push an agenda and champion change in one area without negating, minimalizing or trivializing what’s important to someone else working and pushing for change in another area.
Like, I can take note of so-called Black-on-Black crime without discounting #Blacklivesmatters, which continues to bring attention to the institutional racism that fosters the lack of justice and disrespect for Black and Brown bodies when their lives are taken by White people or at the hands of law enforcement. I say “so-called” because I personally consider the concept contrived to perpetuate stereotypes about our community. Most crime is intra-racial, yet no one says “White-on-White.” That’s not even a thing. Nonetheless, I swear if hear one more Black person suggest that the Black Lives Matter agenda is irrelevant because it supposedly “ignores” Black-on-Black crime, I am going to be guilty of it.
Anyway, back to my point. I can demand criminal justice reform while pushing my local sheriff’s office to make my community safer. I can deliberately spend my money with Black folk and encourage other Black consumers to spend more money with Black-owned businesses as the best way to ensure that our communities grow stronger and have the resources they need to be more self-sufficient, while demanding and expecting that any majority-owned business I choose to patronize treats me respect, sells me a quality product or service at a fair price and values my presence. I can even come to terms with the fact that it was two young Black men that fired the shots that killed little Jazmine Barnes and not a White man in a red pick-up as previously reported and still demand justice for the wanton taking of her young, precious and innocent life with the same vehemence.
The bottom line is that “Surviving R. Kelly” is not a distraction. Instead, it is a story that highlights an issue that the Black community needs to stop pretending doesn’t exist. It is a story that needed to be told that centers on issues we need to discuss in our homes, families, churches, and communities.
Anyway, all of this brings me to the best part of first weekend in January—the end of it. By mid-morning Monday, I learned that the governor of Tennessee granted Cyntoia Brown full clemency. I was at immediately uplifted—downright gleeful. I am so excited for Cyntoia, like all kinds of pure joy swelling up in my bosom.
But as I said all of these issues converged at once for me like that bunch of wires that gets tangled behind the entertainment center. You can’t tell which one is leading from the TV or going to the cable box…or hooked up to the DVD player, or attached to the…well you know what I mean.
So my mind flips from Cyntoia and I get to thinking about R. Kelly and his victims again and the folk that are questioning why this documentary happened when it did despite people knowing whatever they knew for however long they knew it.
I start thinking about how many people had to have known that Cyntoia was in trouble. How many people knew she had fallen to a predator, that she was being trafficked for sex; yet, they did nothing? How many people saw this 16-year-old girl long before that night she killed Johnny Allen, the man who bought her for sex. And why do media outlets continue to identify him as a 43-year-old real estate agent instead of a 43-year-old pedophile? Anyway, how many people saw her, knew that a lowlife known on the street as “Kutt-Throat” was pimping this child and did nothing to help her because somehow, in their narrow minds, she was just a runaway who had brought her plight on herself? Maybe they thought it had been going on so long that obviously someone else knew. Maybe they looked at her and said she was just some fast tail girl. How many times had she been forced to have sex with men—men who shouldn’t have been walking the streets anyway, but who are allowed to do so because the streets are always so damn quiet? And how many other young girls are suffering that same fate right now for the same lousy reasons.
I am certain that an entire community of people and multiple systems and institutions failed Ms. Brown long before the criminal justice system locked her for life.
I am thankful to God and Gov. Bill Haslam for her second chance.
And then it hit me, if we really needed one, she is the answer to the “WHY NOW” question. Cyntoia Brown and others like her are why we cannot afford to turn a blind eye to what’s in front of us. She is why we should never suppress a voice or look the other way. She is why it’s never too late to tell your truth and to be heard.
For every predator, there is a victim…not a distraction.