Thirty-eight years ago, sometime around my eleventh birthday, I came home to a scene that has remained indelible in my memory. My mother sat at our dining-room table, speaking in tones of seriousness with a friend, whom I’ll call Dianne, and a woman I didn’t recognize. I’d known Dianne as a gregarious presence in our household, whose laughter matched the impressive decibel level of my mother’s, but that day her demeanor was almost grave. My mother waved me upstairs, but not before Dianne turned in my direction. Her left eye was a piercing shade of purple, and swollen shut. She had been crying, and my mother and the other woman were ministering to her wounds, physical and emotional. I eavesdropped long enough to learn that Dianne’s husband had struck her, and not for the first time, and so I understood in some crude way that the scene around the table had not been improvised, that such incidents were common enough in the lives of women to warrant their own protocols.
A few days later, my mother told me more about what had happened, how badly Dianne had been hurt, and about her concerns that one day Dianne might die as a result of her husband’s abuse. My mother’s motive for this disclosure had less to do with satisfying my preadolescent nosiness than with offering me a lesson in the consequences of male brutality. It was an implicit instruction in how I was not to behave as a man. The effect of that scene and the subsequent discussion of it was such that, four decades later, I can still recall with clarity both Dianne and the image of her distorted eye, but I remember nothing at all of her husband, not even his name, although he had visited us many times. The nameless, faceless assailant in Dianne’s home benefitted from the rules that I absorbed from the people who raised me, all of them black, all of them migrants from the South, and most of them resolute in their belief that police were to be summoned only as a last resort and, even then, were not to be trusted. A legacy of arbitrary violence at the hands of the police and a distrust of the system that allowed them to dispense it meant that Dianne found herself in a moral dilemma. She may have shared my mother’s fear that her husband might kill her, but, if so, she may have weighed that fear against another: that her husband would not be protected from the men charged with protecting her. The violence in her household was a private matter; invoking the police was, in this perspective, seen to be siding with an element considered inimical to her community. The void between fear and distrust turns routine calculations into complex equations. It also rebounds solely to the benefit of abusers.
Those complexities came back to mind last weekend, when Lifetime aired the documentary series “Surviving R. Kelly.” Consisting of six episodes broadcast over three evenings, the program examines the layers of complicity, manipulation, deceit, and cowardice that surround Kelly and the twenty-year trail of sexual-misconduct accusations against him. Former associates detail his alleged obsessive, controlling habits; his marriage to the late R. & B. singer Aaliyah, when she was fifteen and he was twenty-seven; and a cult-like situation in Atlanta, involving women whose families say they have been unable to contact them, in some cases for years. (Kelly has settled several sexual-misconduct lawsuits and has consistently denied all accusations of wrongdoing.) The series, which was produced by the filmmaker and journalist dream hampton, might be called an exposé, but that term doesn’t accurately convey what “Surviving R. Kelly” is. Much of the subject matter covered has been reported elsewhere, beginning with a Chicago Sun-Times story, from December, 2000, in which Jim DeRogatis and Abdon Pallasch wrote about allegations of Kelly’s sexual misconduct with underage girls. The next year, DeRogatis received a copy of a tape purportedly showing the singer having sex with and urinating on an adolescent girl, which the Sun-Times sent to the Chicago police. We need a term for a film that relays information that is widely known but scarcely acknowledged. An exposé typically indicts the character of its subject; “Surviving R. Kelly” indicts a public that knew of his character and did nothing about it, a public that constructed an elaborate architecture of denial and has chosen to live in it. The silence around him has been remarkable, but its consequences are as visible as an eye swollen and bruised purple.
I’m a witness to this phenomenon. As a result of the tapes, a Chicago grand jury indicted Kelly on twenty-one counts of child pornography, to which he pleaded not guilty; the trial finally began in 2008. I was then teaching at Spelman College, in Atlanta, where I helped organize a campaign with what seemed a modest goal: a blackout of Kelly’s music for the duration of the court proceedings. The near-ubiquity of his music on black radio seemed to undercut the seriousness of the charges he faced. Yet the trial inspired the opposite of a backlash: fans lined up outside the courthouse to show their support. (A woman who appears in the documentary and discusses Kelly’s abusive behavior first met him there. She was fifteen at the time.) Copies of the video were sold on street corners around the country. The public, or at least that portion of it whose dollars subsidized Kelly’s stratospheric career, categorized it not as potential evidence of a depraved violation of a minor but as just another celebrity sex tape. I saw it in an Atlanta record store, alongside that week’s new music releases. Our campaign not only failed, it generated a cascade of ridicule from both men and women who invoked all the usual clichés of rationalization: the girl in the video was “fast,” or the incident was really the fault of her parents. “You could tell that wasn’t her first time,” a man in a barbershop said to me. “So what you’re saying is that she’d been molested before,” I shot back at him. The trial lasted a month, and Kelly was acquitted on all charges.
The reverberations of #MeToo have exposed a fundamental confusion about the difference between victims and victimizers. Almost as soon as abuses become known, a parallel conversation begins about the best way to rehabilitate and restore the abusers. Kelly existed in a strange, liminal space—there was no dialogue about his rehabilitation because he had yet to face any serious consequences for his alleged actions. This has everything to do with the ways that race refracts reality in this country.
The sheer number of charges of misogyny and abuse have tended to merge into a single blur of predation. But there are important distinctions that have dictated how the abuses were perceived, the contexts in which they occurred, and, crucially, how they were processed by the public once they became known. There’s a gulf between the accusations directed at Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, and Les Moonves—wealthy white men whose alleged excesses were understood as a perquisite of their status—and those directed at Bill Cosby and R. Kelly, black men for whom success represented some broader communal hope that long odds in life could be surmounted. Cosby and Kelly know this, which is part of the reason that they were so effective at manipulating public sentiment around their various accusations. From the initial reports of sexual assault levelled against Cosby, in 2005, through to his conviction and incarceration last year, a not-insignificant number of black voices on social media and elsewhere attributed his troubles to a conspiracy to bring down a wealthy black man. It’s no coincidence that representatives for both Cosby and Kelly—as well as Clarence Thomas, during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings—referred to lynchings in denying allegations of sexual misconduct. It is a deflection that is as brilliant as it is craven. Lynchings were so commonly accompanied by specious charges of sexual assault that the journalist Ida B. Wells took pains to dispel such claims in her writing. What many understand as a historical atrocity Kelly seems to have understood as the most efficient route to reasonable doubt.
In 2017, Jim DeRogatis reported on the cult-like allegations against Kelly, for BuzzFeed. (Kelly has said that the women are there of their own free will.) An Atlanta-based arts administrator named Oronike Odeleye and the social-justice activist Kenyette Barnes then began a campaign called #MuteRKelly, which coördinated protests at Kelly’s concerts and succeeded in having his music removed from Spotify’s curated playlists. Last year, at the Grammys, when Janelle Monáe gave a speech about the Time’s Up initiative, Kelly’s name was an unspoken one in many people’s minds. A generation of black feminists who came to prominence in the nineteen-seventies and eighties—Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, and Michelle Wallace among them—devoted their work to disentangling the complex of victims who nonetheless victimize, a riddle that remains prevalent enough to complicate things that should be starkly simple. #MeToo has helped to change the public perspective on these matters. But the success of “Surviving R. Kelly” to provoke a reëvaluation of the artist relies in large part on the fact that it was produced by a black female filmmaker who has also had a career as a feminist music journalist. The forces arrayed against Kelly are not institutions whose hands are tainted by history but people who are as familiar with that history as he is, and are unimpressed by his efforts to fashion it into an alibi. The conversation now is akin to the one my mother had with me nearly four decades ago: this is what the aftermath of brutality looks like. Be a witness to it.
Since the airing of the series, the Fulton County District Attorney is reportedly launching an investigation in Georgia and, in Chicago, the Cook County state’s attorney, Kim Foxx, has called on any women who may have been victimized by Kelly to come forward. There is likely to be some broader reckoning in the future. Last year, less than a week before Kelly’s team declared him the subject of a lynching crusade, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Alabama. It is a monument to the thousands of black lives lost as a consequence of recreational murder in the United States. Its central feature is a series of markers bearing the names of every identifiable victim of lynching. The name Robert Sylvester Kelly appears nowhere among them.
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