NewsFeb 13, 2019

Black trauma transcends R. Kelly, panelists say

Activists and educators discuss history and present reality of racist, sexist cultural oppression

View from rear of the room of the panelists, audience and powerpoint slide.

A panel of activists and educators spoke Monday afternoon in Washburn Auditorium about sexual abuse and other violence, both within the black community and inflicted by society on the black community. The discussion was a mixture of personal anecdotes and headline-making incidents, including those covered in the widely watched, six-episode “Surviving R. Kelly” television documentary.

And this legacy of oppression has a surfeit of villains, from the slave traders of the 18th and 19th century, to individual perpetrators, to active enablers, to witnesses who remain silent.

Moderated by Bwann Gwann, executive assistant to College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Steven Shapiro, “Surviving Black Trauma: Campus Discussion Regarding the Lifetime Docuseries ‘Surviving R. Kelly,’” featured an unflinching look at oppression related and unrelated to the controversial entertainer. Panelists included Court King of the Providence, Rhode Island-based Youth In Action; Bernadine Desanges, a Boston-based motivational speaker, spoken-word artist and blogger; Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences faculty members Vanessa Prosper and Michelle Vital, and Yvelande Boursiquot, a licensed clinical social worker out of Fuller Hospital in South Attleboro, Massachusetts.

“So many people that were involved in R. Kelly’s life were complicit in harboring this behavior,” Gwann said, after playing for the 40 audience members short clips from the documentary, as well as a related episode of “Red Table Talk,” an online talk show hosted by actress Jada Pinkett Smith, her daughter, Willow, and mother, Adrienne Banfield Norris.

Panelists discussed allegations of Kelly isolating targets of his alleged sexual predation from their families, directing his hirelings to funnel all attempts at communication through him. They also discussed how the singer and producer for years evaded accountability for his actions by virtue of his role as a famous, even beloved, artist. While people on his payroll ran interference for him, others simply refused to believe that one so accomplished and well-known could be guilty of sexual assault.

The same sort of aura of protection surrounded legendary comedian and actor Bill Cosby for years, before he was convicted in April 2018 of three counts of sexual assault, panelists added.

Cosby was accused by dozens of women of drugging and incapacitating them prior to assaulting them. R. Kelly (born Robert Sylvester Kelly in 1967) has been accused of a wide range of sexual misconduct, from being at the center of a sex cult, to raping at least one underage girl and possession of child pornography (charges that were dropped or followed by acquittal, respectively).

“If we are sowing and growing our young boys in soil that is tainted, we will have nothing … but toxic masculinity.”
Court King, Program Director, Youth in Action

Kelly in 1994 married the singer Aaliyah: he was 27, she was 15, though the marriage was annulled a year later by her parents, who never granted permission for the underage marriage. At one point in Monday’s discussion, organizers presented a slide of Aaliyah’s debut album “Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number,” produced by Kelly, that shows her in the foreground and him lurking, watching her, in the distance. The album cover illustrates the sinister hold Kelly had on his young protegees, panelists indicated.

“You can both do great things and be a trash-ass human,” said King, decrying the halo effect of celebrity on high-profile offenders.  

But it isn’t just famous offenders who aren’t kept in check by society. Cultural norms, suspicion and negative experiences regarding the criminal justice system, and an ethos that fosters “toxic masculinity,” contribute to the continued oppression of women, particularly women of color, and most particularly women of color of limited means and education.

“It’s an economic conversation. It’s an education conversation,” said Desanges.

Victims of sexual assault too often find that they aren’t believed and trusted by law enforcement and other authorities. More tragically, victims don’t even find support in their own families or ethnic communities.

Prosper said communities of color are often taught to “put men on a pedestal,” making it difficult to hold them to account. At the same time, black women have been alternately made to feel invisible by society, or have been “eroticized” by it. She and other panelists, including Vital and Boursiquot traced the problem to the Africa slave trade, where black people were treated as commodities or worse.

A system that devalues human beings, separates boys from their families at a young age to labor in the fields on one hand, and sexualizes girls on the other, creates the conditions of perpetual victimization, the panelists intimated. “You don’t see women as having rights over their own bodies,” Vital said.

Over time, protectiveness for one another, but particularly for black men, can turn to enabling, especially among the older generations.

“It’s the older generation that’s supporting (R. Kelly),” Boursiquot said. “Society has been protecting the perpetrators for years.”

Society’s acceptance, even encouragement, of victimization is seen in the lyrics and videos of popular music, where women are portrayed as duplicitous, rapacious Jezebels who need to be set straight and kept down. And these cultural mores don’t just harm women, panelists agreed: boys and men suffer, too.

“This society as a whole is a threat to me,” King said. “If we are sowing and growing our young boys in soil that is tainted, we will have nothing … but toxic masculinity.”