Yesterday evening, Lifetime reprised it’s wildly popular and inflammatory series, Surviving R. Kelly, revealing more harrowing details surrounding the decades-long sexual misconduct accusations against the singer. Beginning in January 2019, the network unveiled a litany of claims around Kelly’s sexual behavior with underaged Black girls beginning in the ‘90s. If the series itself was not stomach-churning, the support that poured in for Kelly following the series was (one friend and fan, Valencia Love, went as far as bailing him out when he was detained for unpaid child support in February). The fodder, the fallout, and ultimately, the follow-up accusations prompted Lifetime to film a sequel to its initial documentary, called ‘Surviving R. Kelly – Part II: The Reckoning,’ which aired last night and tonight.
‘The Reckoning’ began by once again jogging our collective memories of when we first became aware of Kelly’s crimes. Giving a painstaking behind-the-scenes look at Kelly’s relationship with the late singer Aaliyah, the series forced us to look again at the deep wounds inflicted upon a woman who was once considered an icon of Black girlhood and young womanhood. And it offered us a stern remind her: we failed her too. Damon Dash, the hip-hop mogul, and Aaliyah’s former boyfriend went as far as to suggest that Aaliyah could have been the “sacrificial lamb” to R. Kelly’s abuse. The documentary aimed to spark a lingering regret: if only we had reacted differently to his egregious marriage to the singer when she was only fifteen, maybe no one else would’ve suffered. It felt like punishment, then, when the documentary went on to offer new revelatory stories of countless Black girls and women from around the country who claimed he also sexually manipulated, assaulted, raped, impregnated, and imprisoned them.
Perhaps most sickeningly though, the documentary demonstrated not only a continued lack of support or protection from Black men but also the vilification of Black women by White women. Kelly’s brother, Carey Kelly, at one point, confessed his conviction that if Kelly’s victims had been white women he would have been caught and prosecuted much sooner. In service to this conviction, the documentary introduces two white female staffers who worked with Kelly during the time in which he committed atrocities against Black girls. As if in an attempt to exonerate themselves, both vehemently denied the girls’ accusations and blamed them for their experiences (one suggested that the alleged 14-year-old girl in the infamous sex tape was having “consensual sex”).
Both the confessions of Kelly’s white female staffers and his brother broke the silence on a much broader and more insidious truth about America’s legacy with Black girls, women, and femmes. We have, since the day we set foot on American soil, been the most oppressively pillaged, violently exposed, and cruelly attacked intersectional group. No one has seemed intent to stop this, and seemingly everyone has taken an interest in upholding it.
Ironically, many American citizens eagerly await Election Day 2020, because it offers them a mustard seed for a brighter future in which they will be seen and heard at least and their humanity will be recognized, at best. It’s lost on many of us how we arrived at those civil liberties. Exactly one hundred years ago, Black women in America recognized that the mustard seed was not exactly something that would be handed to all of us by the White men in power. We knew we’d have to fight for ours. Yet, despite the critical role Black women played in providing strategies and leadership in the suffrage movement of the 19th and 20th centuries, Black men and White women were frantic to ensure they “got theirs” first — before any Black women could begin to dream of her own advancement (her brilliant co-opted ideas, blood, sweat, and tears be damned). Still, Black women worked hard to plant the seeds for fruit that would fill us all: the universal right to vote and essentially advance in this society.
Somehow, a century later, some of the same Americans who hope to be seen and heard in this critical election year, are those who are clambering to tear down and rob Black women and girls of their humanity — perhaps as a more facile means of validating and propelling themselves. This collective attitude towards Black women and girls — and the objectification of them to gain more attention — has been happening in almost every corner of the Internet since the beginning of social media. Case in point: back in October 2014, Josh Ostrovsky (widely known as The Fat Jewish) suggested Blue Ivy Carter resembled a criminal. She was two years old at the time.
There have been countless reports condemning this type of “adultification” of Black girls, as it causes us to collectively discount their innocence and turn a blind eye toward atrocities like the ones Kelly committed. As Jovante Cunningham, Kelly’s backup singer, stated in ‘The Reckoning,’ “We’re grown girls, but we’re still little girls that cry silently.”
For years though, we’ve allowed bad actors ranging from Ostrovsky to Kelly to bloat with fame, wealth, and success at the expense of Black girls. Since his posting, Ostrovsky has developed a social media platform that exceeds 10 million followers and launched his own line of wines, named White Girl Rosé, ostensibly an ode to the women he does deem worthy of celebration. To date, Ostrovsky still has not removed the post.
Attacks on Blue Ivy’s evident African features continue and can be found online as recently as two days ago when two journalists suggested the 7-year-old was an “ugly duckling” in hopes they’d secure a few retweets and laughs.
The Ostrovsky model of attacking Black women for clout has been reapplied more times than the Kardashian/Jenner family’s bronzer (a group almost as infamous as the original KKK, for terrorizing Black women by routinely robbing their physical and intellectual property and evading conviction).
At this point, it has become part of a formulaic approach to amassing a social following. Just last week, singer Ari Lennox filmed a tearful Instagram Live video in response to a Black man’s tweet that suggested she and singer Teyana Taylor resemble dogs. His tweet garnered thousands of responses and think pieces.
Ari Lennox and Teyana Taylor's ability to have dangerously high sex appeal while simultaneously looking like rottweilers will always amaze me
— King Kwasii (@WinEverUwantIT) January 1, 2020
The tweet lands among a mounting pile of evidence that in today’s social media world, society will not allow a Black woman or girl to be successful, talented, wealthy, attractive, an heiress, or anything else that flourishes in peace. She must be spun up into a perverse joke, sexually harassed, or mined for the collective pleasure, advancement, and validation of everyone who will never know what it means to be her.
Still, it is not enough to point fingers at the White men and women (and, oh, don’t forget the Black men) who have long oppressed Black women despite leveraging them for gains. Among them are women like Cyn Santana and other non-white revelers (like the countless non-Black women who commented with glee on Ostrovsky’s post) who sit idly by and enjoy the juice of this sweet fruit produced by Black women (in June of 2019, Santana appeared on a podcast and intimated Black men love Latinas, presumably more than Black women). Women of various ethnic and racial backgrounds have also, for too long, sat in silence or benefitted from this unholy war. But that’s where the buck must stop. If women of other ethnic and racial groups, who have understood the pain associated with being marginalized and persecuted, join in on these attacks, then no one will be safe.
I write this piece specifically for HipLatina, then, as a call to action. It is my hope in this moment in history when there is insurmountable proof that everyone has stood on our backs — and no one has stood at our backs — that those with the privilege to do so will call a ceasefire and say “enough is enough.” We cannot do it on our own; in fact, it is not our war to fight anymore. As the beneficiaries of countless wars fought by Black women for everyone, it is now or never for our collective society to return the favor.