Sunday, August 19, 2007
From The Chicago Tribune…
EXPANDING DEFINITION OF BLACK UNITY
Pressure builds to end abuse of black women
Abusive men must be held accountable for their actions
By Lori Robinson
I never thought I would see the day R. Kelly would stand trial.
After all, it has been five years since the now 40-year-old R&B superstar was charged with several counts of child pornography. With jury selection slated to finally start next month, the infamous videotape of Kelly allegedly having sex with an underage girl has become a distant memory.
The good news is that momentum is mounting against the use of words and images that denigrate African-American women and girls in so much popular music. But will the black community hold individual African-Americans accountable for actions that harm women?
If the Kelly case is any indication, the answer is no.
Once again, his music is near the top of the charts. Since his 2002 indictment, he has been busy selling millions of CDs, playing national tours and collecting awards.
Positive steps have been made challenging the music industry since the Kelly tape came to light. Essence magazine initiated the Take Back the Music campaign in 2005 to increase public debate about black women’s portrayals in music.
“Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes,” a documentary film about misogyny in the genre, won national acclaim last year. And in April, Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network launched the Decency Initiative, a strategy to pressure record companies into preventing artists from using specific words considered offensive toward black women.
Earlier this month, Sharpton spoke in Detroit in front of a humble white house with blue trim known as Hitsville U.S.A., the home of Motown. Out of the 20 cities where national Day of Outrage protests were held simultaneously, Sharpton chose to appear in Detroit because of Motown’s legacy as a wildly successful entertainment company whose artists didn't debase women in songs.
When asked what message he would like to send to artists who physically abuse black women, Detroit protest organizer Rev. Horace Sheffield said, “The tide is turning. There is going to be a terrible toll exacted upon those who not only demean them with words, but also caricature and conduct.”
I hope he’s right. It’s long overdue.
When the Kelly controversy was at its peak in 2003, I mentioned him in a speech about sexual violence I gave in Harlem. A teenage African-American girl asked what was wrong with supporting him. I responded by asking whether she would still want to support the work of a grown man if he had sex with her little sister. She simply stated that because the victim wasn’t her sister, she saw no problem with buying his music.
Considering the example adults set, it’s no wonder she didn’t care about the abuse of another black girl. Teens aren’t the only consumers purchasing Kelly’s CDs and downloads, and they do not run the record companies and radio stations that enable him to continue amassing a fortune.
Some would argue that boycotting Kelly would be unfair. It’s true that he is legally innocent until proven guilty. At the same time, by supporting Kelly’s work these last five years, the public has discouraged him and other men who may be abusive from understanding that such behavior is criminal and unacceptable.
Maybe that teenager in Harlem, and the millions of others who patronize Kelly, just don’t understand sexual violence. According to a study led by University of Southern California researcher John Briere, an estimated 1 out of 3 girls and 1 out of 7 boys will be sexually violated by age 18. Such abuse results in myriad problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and eating disorders. Girls who experienced childhood sexual abuse are three times more likely than other girls to abuse alcohol or drugs or experience psychiatric disorders in their adult years.
Abuse should not be tolerated or excused, no matter what positive qualities the abusers offer. We should be teaching young people to never overlook sexual victimization.
Instead, the message we’ve been sending is that we value moments of musical pleasure more than the lives of black girls, that it doesn’t matter if Kelly is guilty as long as we can get our groove on.
When Kelly came to the stage to collect his Best Male R&B Artist award during BET’s annual awards show in 2003, he said African-Americans’ support of him was a great example of black unity.
We cannot afford to fall for this diversion. Holding black offenders of black women and children accountable is not tantamount to dismissing the inequities of today’s prison-industrial complex or the racism that has brutalized black men for hundreds of years. Nor does it equate to personal antipathy. To the contrary, I want Kelly to get help and be healed.
Demanding accountability is not anti-black men, but pro-black people. It means keeping everyone in our community safe, healthy and whole.
Holding those who commit sexual offenses accountable for their crimes -- now that would be black unity worth singing about.
[Lori S. Robinson, a freelance writer based in Detroit, is the author of “I Will Survive: The African-American Guide to Healing from Sexual Assault and Abuse.”]