Last weekend, Lifetime aired the “Surviving R. Kelly” docuseries. In it, writer and documentarian dream hampton (an executive producer) interviewed several survivors who have accused him of sexual assault of minors, physical and psychological abuse, along with friends, families, and people who worked with him who corroborated the allegations. It was a hard six hours to watch, and though there will undoubtedly be those who will still defend him, it confirmed why many have excommunicated R. Kelly from their musical lives.
One current in the episodes was the lingering question of “why did people around R. Kelly let this happen for so long?” Often, the answers that arose to explain his decades-long uninhibited torrent of alleged abuse were in large part his money and his fame. But perhaps the biggest reason is that the victims of his abuse were young Black girls.
Though the sexualization of young girls is seen in many cultures across the globe, the hyper-sexualization of the Black body in America is rooted in slavery. While Black men were primarily used as labor objects, Black women had the added burdens of being used as child-rearers and sexual objects. White male slave-owners used to take Black girls as sexual property, a famous example being one of our Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson. Abolitionist and escaped slave Frederick Douglass wrote about how Black women were “at the mercy of the fathers, sons or brothers of her master.”
The period of American slavery birthed many of the underlying perceptions, including a racialized version of “boys will be boys” and the “jezebel” stereotype. Seminal scholar Patricia Hill-Collins wrote that the function of the jezebel stereotype was to “relegate all Black women to the category of sexually aggressive,” an idea that provides rationale for their sexual assault (i.e. “they wanted it”). These attitudes have persisted, allowing the abuse of Black girls to stay unaddressed, even when it is happening in plain sight. But even as society has progressed past that dark period, their modern iteration is found in the myth of the early maturity of Black girls. We see Black girls as women before they have even become them.
“Girls mature faster” is a phrase most of us have heard, and while it may seem to be be a harmless observation, it’s an idea that can be toxic. Black girls are ascribed a level of maturity they haven’t reached due to perceptions of their bodies, not their young minds. In her book “Pushout: the Criminalization of Black Girls In Schools,” Dr. Monique W. Morris talks about how Black girls are “likened more to adults than to children and are treated as if they are willfully engaging in behaviors typically expected of Black women.”
In 2017, Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality did a study titled “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood.” The researchers surveyed 325 adults from different racial, ethnic, and educational backgrounds across the United States. The report found that compared to white girls of the same age, survey participants perceive that Black girls (particularly in the age range of five to 14) “need less nurturing, less protection, need to be supported less, comforted less, are more independent, know more about adult topics, know more about sex.”
None of this is the reality of Black girls, but rather is a projection onto their skin and bodies. It shows that part of the reason we overlook, underestimate or rationalize the signs of abuse is because we too often see Black girls as rational actors even at young ages and see their abuse as “choice.” Society sexualizes Black girls, then uses that sexualization to justify the pillaging of their innocence. It’s a racialized version of “what was she wearing?” — but instead of clothes, the social marker is the very skin and body they inhabit.
Back when Kelly tried to marry a 15-year-old Aaliyah, many fans, media figures and other artists and celebs overlooked it, not just because he was a star, but because they viewed her as older (a misconception augmented by her fame). Several people interviewed in the docuseries talked about how R. Kelly would hang around Chicago’s Kenwood High School to pick up young girls. Behind the culture of “high school girls just like older guys” is a whole community staying silent about at least shady, suspicious behavior, at most outright sexual, physical and mental abuse. Defenders of R. Kelly who say these girls “chose this” are using some of the same logic as white slave-owners, and furthering an idea that puts vulnerable youth at risk.
Surviving R. Kelly showed the confluence of factors that leads to and enables abuse: toxic masculinity, victims becoming victimizers, “girls mature faster” myths, ideas about black girls being “fast” (promiscuous), psychological manipulation, enablers, bystander effect, cycles of abuse, how silence leads to violence and so much more. After watching the series, it is clear that the saying “it takes a village” can be a harsh critique towards a community, not just a call for responsibility. “Surviving R. Kelly” was a reminder that the #MeToo movement needs to be equally responsive to the sexual violence committed against Black women and girls as it is to other groups.
We need to interrogate how the “girls mature faster” myth facilitates, enables, and provides cover for the sexual and mental abuse of all girls, but especially Black ones. Many celebrities have spoken out against him, but a greater number remain silent.
Truth is the prerequisite for justice and reconciliation, and this process will require the difficult work of self-reflection, transparency and accountability.
But one thing should be clear after watching this series: there is no song in the world worth more than even one Black woman or girl.
— — —
(Additional edits made by William E. Ketchum III and Stacy-Ann Ellis of VIBE.com)