“We All Have to Survive”

I really wanted to avoid talking about R. Kelly. I had stopped listening to him years ago when the allegations of predatory behavior toward young girls, particularly African American girls first surfaced. The recent docu-series produced by dream hampton placed the artist and his horrific behavior front and center in our consciousness. Social media as well as conventional media (television, radio, newspapers, etc.) have been abuzz with R. Kelly stories. How has he been allowed to get away with this? Would this have persisted this long if his victims were White? Are the girls/women and their families complicit in this horror? His supporters have pointed to other sexual predators and their ability to evade prosecution. Some of his supporters have cried “foul” and insist that the only motive in going after R. Kelly is to “bring down another Black man.” My motive in writing this blog is to make sure we do not lose sight of how vulnerable our children are in a world determined to destroy them.

1. One’s childhood victimization is not a pass to victimize others: Over and over we have heard how R. Kelly was abused as a child. That fact does not mean he is permitted to abuse others. He probably does not understand how to enter into healthy relationships but his childhood abuse doesn’t mean he has a right to visit that same behavior on others. By his own admission, Kelly’s younger brother was also abused but he lacks the fame and fortune that allows him to manipulate others and perpetrate these crimes on others like his brother.

2. Young minds are malleable: Many of us who are not caught up in the web of sex abuse do not understand mind control. We forget that before about 25 or 26 years old, individuals’ brains are not fully developed and the part of the brain that is still developing is the frontal lobe—the place that houses evaluation and judgment. When you’re 40 and someone says they’re going to make you a star but you have to come to their studio late at night you are likely to question that. However, if you are 16 and a big star pays attention to you, you are likely to do whatever he says. After all, he is the star. He knows the industry. If that star tells you that he is the only one who cars about you, you may begin to mistrust family and friends. Your isolation makes you susceptible to all kinds of lies.

3. Predators exist throughout our society: While R. Kelly’s behavior seems particularly egregious it is emblematic of predatory behavior everywhere. The scandals in the Catholic Church, the behavior of the Olympic and Michigan State University doctor, and the Penn State University football assistant coach are all examples of how widespread this behavior is our society. Anyone who has ready access to our children—teachers, Scout leaders, childcare workers, youth leaders, pastors, coaches, parents, grandparents, older siblings, neighbors, and friends—can prey upon them. Our role is to be ever vigilant and make sure we are talking with our children about how adults treat them.

4. Let’s not forget the enablers: While the documentary focused on R. Kelly, there is no way he could have gotten away with all he’s done (and allegedly continues to do) without the help of those around him. People facilitated his access to young victims. They knew/know about what happened in his homes and studio. Some of the enablers cried, “mea culpa” in the documentary, others continue to aid and abet his criminal behavior. The reasons for their complicity are varied. Some are financially dependent on the singer. Others have a misplaced sense of loyalty. Still others suffer from a similar psychological manipulation as the victims. But, they are just as responsible for these crimes. They did not speak up.

5. Nobody Protects Black Girls: Black girls are the forgotten segment of our society. We know of the vulnerability of Black boys and the “Black Lives Matter” movement primarily focused on Black boys and men. We know about the pernicious problems of sexual harassment and assault but despite being founded by a Black woman (Tarana Burke) the “Me Too” movement has been co-opted by wealthy and famous White women. R. Kelly knew that Black girls were considered less valuable, less worthy than other children. I am convinced he could not have gotten away with this behavior for this long had his victims been young White girls. We see far too many images of Black girls being highly sexualized and referred to as “too fast.” No one is willing to open his or her mouth and say, “They are CHILDREN!” In this R. Kelly saga we saw that not even the girls’ parents did enough to protect them.

The R. Kelly story is not merely an occasion for spilling tea and pointing fingers. It is a call to conscience. We have to have honest conversations about sexual abuse, sexual predators, and sexual harassment in our homes, schools, churches, and communities. We have to teach our children (girls and boys) that their bodies are sacred and no one has a right to do things to them they do not want. We have to teach them that they are not to keep adults’ secrets (e.g. “Don’t tell anybody about our special time together) and that their self-worth is not tied to whether or not they do things that please a more powerful person like a teacher, a pastor, or an older relative. We also have to be cognizant of what our children are consuming. Rather than dismiss all of their music as garbage we have to listen carefully to what they are listening to and have frank conversations about the message the music conveys. We have to talk about the movies and videos they watch so that they can understand the difference between Hollywood fantasies and real life. We have to do all of these things because we all have to survive!

Stay Black & Smart!

“Let Me Explain Something to You”

If you follow social media you probably already know about the viral sensation known as Ms. Denita Roseborough. You probably don’t know her by her actual name but you do know her as the Philly KFC sister who checked and re-checked the man who came into the restaurant complaining that one of the younger clerks had written her phone number on his boyfriend’s receipt. I loved this video so much I have watched it at least 10 times. I watched it so many times because Ms. Denita was a wonderful reminder of why I loved being raised by Black women from Philly.

There are a number of things that Ms. Denita did that I wish more Black women would do for each other—especially those of us in the so-called professions (e.g. doctors, lawyers, corporate women, academic women, etc.).

She took charge of the situation: The model of womanhood that is so regularly held up in to us is a submissive, vulnerable, White woman that cries when she feels threatened. That is not the model I was raised with. My mother, my 7 aunts, the church mothers, and my neighborhood mamas were not shrinking violets. They did not suffer fools. And when Denita opened up with “Let me explain something to you,” that is the signal to the man that she is running this show. My own mother’s take-charge catch phrase was, “Are you finished?” When she offered that question it told me that I was about to “get told!”

She rode hard for her sister: So many of us have become timid and afraid to “be our sister’s keeper.” Denita was clear that the man with the complaint was not going to come into the KFC and take advantage of her younger, seemingly bewildered co-worker. Denita let him know that if there were any “checking” to be done in that store on that day, SHE would be the one doing the checking. As a little girl I was known for my big mouth. I was known for “selling wolf tickets” because I had some “big girl” friends who would ride hard for me. I could count on them to do the “checking.” I often look around for those sisters in the academy. There are so few of us that far too many of us think the only way to survive is to keep our heads down and avoid confrontation at all costs. That is a strategy that may save your job, but it won’t save your soul. I wish Black women had ridden harder for Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland, and today Cyntoia Brown!

She kept it real: The thing that endears so many of us to Denitra Roseborough is her verbal virtuosity. The man tries to plead his case or interrupt the verbal beat down by declaring, “Denita, it’s Christmas.” She quickly responds, “Ho, ho, ho!” Next the man tried to argue that he thought he was in suburbs as if that would command a different response. By this time Denita is joined by 2 other Black women, one of whom removes her headset in case the confrontation is about to get physical. Again, this kind of authenticity is missing in professional work places. We walk into our offices, our labs, our classrooms wearing masks. We never let the people we work with see our real selves. We believe being who we really are will scare them… it probably will. But, I believe it will also keep them from taking advantage of us and continuing to disrespect us.

She never forgot who she was: Finally, Denita was clear about who she was. The man declares, “I thought this was the suburbs,” as if that geographic location would change who Denitra and her co-workers were. After declaring they are “da hood” Denita and her girls shout out their neighborhoods…North Philly, South Philly, West Philly, Chester! This declaration tells the man that they “rep their set.” The neighborhoods that formed and shaped them are deep in their being. No amount of fancy neighborhoods, bougie speech, or phony airs changes any of that. How refreshing would it be if as Black people—Black women—we owned who we are no matter where we were. What if we stopped apologizing for having had to come up in “da hood?” What if we valorized Big Mama, ‘nem for teaching us the hard lessons of life? What if we were proud to be Black women?

Of course, we do have examples beyond Denita. When Congresswoman Maxine Waters declared she was “reclaiming my time” she was representing like Denita. When Congresswoman Frederica Wilson called out Donald Trump’s and John Kelly’s lies she was representing like Denita. When Kimberle Crenshaw developed the African American Policy Forum and the “Say Her Name movement she was representing like Denita. When Tarana Burke began the “MeToo movement she was representing like Denita. When Viola Davis ascends the Academy Awards stage with her natural hair she is representing Denita. When Erika Badu, Jill Scott, Beyonce, and many other Black women artists have fought long and hard to represent like Denita and whenever a Black woman begins with “let me explain something to you,” you better be ready to be “checked”, “read,” and “told!”

Stay Black & Smart!

“They Already Got Their Black Girl”

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Many years ago a dear friend of mine was frantically looking for a private school where she could send her adolescent daughter who I will call “Imani” for the purpose of this blog. The schools in her area were under a court ordered desegregation mandate and their track record with Black children was hideous. Almost 7 out of 10 Black children dropped out of those schools. So, she began the quest of looking for a private school alternative. One of the schools she looked at was an exclusive girls’ school with a lovely expansive campus in an upscale community. The custom of the school for prospective students was to have those students come for a “shadow day” where they would be paired with a freshman student and attend classes to get an idea of what life at the school was like. At the end of her shadow day, my friend came by to pick up her daughter. Imani got into the car and slumped down in the passenger seat. “How was it?” my friend asked with enthusiasm. “Do you want to go there?” “No mom,” Imani replied. “They already got their Black girl!”

Imani’s comment that they “already got their Black girl,” referred to the fact that the school had ONE other Black girl and throughout the day, Imani was constantly being measured by the Black girl who was already enrolled in the school. At every turn Imani heard, “Tiffany” doesn’t do that.” “Tiffany doesn’t wear her hair in braids like that.” “Tiffany plays field hockey, do you?” “Tiffany went to such-and-such middle school, did you?” Any deviation from Tiffany’s choices and ways of being were seen as suspect. The point of this illustration is that even as we move into adulthood, Black women who are able to “conquer” White spaces are regularly being measured and the measuring rod is often that of another, “more acceptable” Black woman.

Over the past several years I have written letters and responded to reference calls for highly capable Black women academics. In each case, the subtext of the conversation I had with the search chair or dean was, “We already have our Black girl and how is this one going to fit with the one we have?” It also implies that there can only be ONE Black girl in an organization and more than one means they will regularly be pitted against each other. Heaven forbid they should work in coalition and try to accomplish a common purpose.

The primary perpetrators of this “divide and conquer” strategy are White women. They often determine they will be friends with ONE of the Black women and so they often look for faults in the other. Their description of the “other” Black woman is that she is “difficult,” “not a team player,” “angry.” In other words, she is not like “our Black girl.” I was subject to that behavior in one of my early academic jobs. White women colleagues would come to my office to “tell me something” about the one other Black woman in our department. What they did not did not understand was I owed my job to that other Black woman. She sought me out. She lobbied for me to get the position. We had each other’s back. There was no way I would team with those people against my sister friend.

When my own career began to take off and I got a fair amount of notice in the scholarly community I began to notice that when White people disagreed with me they would reference another up and coming Black woman scholar. Every talk I gave included someone (typically a White woman) during the question and answer period saying, “Well, Dr. ‘So-and-So’ says…” as a way to challenge my legitimacy. Interesting, when my sister scholar was giving lectures she received the same treatment where I was used as the person to challenge her. Of course these challengers did not realize that Dr. ‘So-and-So’ and I were professional and personal friends. We had spent many hours talking over the issues we studied. I can remember my then 3-year-old daughter comfortably perched on her lap during a session at another Sister-Scholar’s home. We had a good laugh over the fact that one of us was regularly thought to be “their Black girl.”

It’s frustrating the way White women attempt to manipulate their Black women colleagues. It is no honor for most of us to be accepted by White people. We rarely sit in complete alignment with White women. Our issues tend to remain closer “to the ground.” We care about child support, being paid the same as our White women colleagues, different standards of beauty, availability of suitable partners, access to affordable housing as well as housing discrimination. We want our ideas acknowledged. We are tired of sitting in meetings, offering ideas, being ignored and having some White person offer the VERY SAME idea and be told that it is brilliant! We live in a Black girl world that can accommodate a Beyonce AND an India Aire; a Viola Davis AND an Angela Bassett; a Maxine Waters AND a Sheila Jackson. Stop looking for the ONE!

We are not here to make you feel like you’re a “good” White person. We are not here so you can identify at least one Black “friend.” We are not here to validate you and acknowledge your white tears. We are not here to be your Black girl!

Stay Black & Smart!