I spent the last three nights watching Dream Hampton’s incredible Lifetime special documentary series entitled “Surviving R. Kelly,” in which interviewees including his brothers, former employees, and his nonagenarian high school music teacher told stories revealing that Kelly has spent his entire adult life actively pursuing sexual relationships with girls as young as 12. Reponses from Twitter revealed that for some, the allegations against R. Kelly are fresh echoes of black men’s historic vulnerability to outsized scrutiny of, legal retribution for, and extralegal violence justified by their real or fabricated sexual behaviors—this time, at the hands of gold-digging black women and “fast” black girls. Also evident is an outpouring of grief and righteous anger, with many declaring that the bodily integrity and emotional wellbeing of black girls and young black women are infinitely more worthy of protection than the reputation and artistic legacy of an exceptionally talented black man.
While many elements of the predatory behavior revealed in “Surviving R. Kelly” are distinctly contemporary—the centrality of cell phones, for instance, in facilitating Kelly’s luring young girls to his side—the documentary also highlights some continuities rippling through the lives of generations of black girls and women. Studies which place black girls at the center of American history are arguably more important now than ever because they add empirical weight to what many of us know intuitively: that African American girls, instead of reaping the full rewards of social change, have historically experienced more than their fair share of punishment, blame, and vulnerability.
Black girlhood has long been a messy category not straightforwardly determined by chronological age. For multiple and overlapping reasons, black children assigned female at birth have historically existed outside of normative (i.e., white) girlhood—a zone characterized, above all, by protection from adult concerns such as labor and sexuality.
One reason for this exclusion is work. Their forced labors during slavery, and their efforts to supplement meager family incomes following emancipation and into the twentieth century, historically required black girls to be in proximity to adults in settings where physical and sexual abuse (as well as economic violence) could occur. Histories of black girls demonstrate that work—whether in domestic, agricultural, or industrial settings—has frequently been a dangerous situation for black girls, and one from which parents facing economic hardship had difficulty shielding their daughters.
With parents’ efforts to protect their daughters hamstrung by the institution of slavery and circumstances of economic deprivation, the ensuing vulnerability of black girls has historically been compounded by neglect and abuse at the hands of the law. Systems of law enforcement and criminal justice have demonstrated deep indifference at best, hostility at worst, to the safety and wellbeing of black girls—whether through failing to prosecute or even arrest perpetrators of any race who harmed black girls; punishing black girls for acting violently in their own defense; or improperly incarcerating black girls alongside adults well into the twentieth century, when juvenile detention had long been standard for white delinquent girls.
In my own research on criminalized black girls in twentieth century Virginia, I frequently see these two historic sources of black girls’ exclusion from the protections of normative girlhood working together. One such case is that of Virginia Christian, a sixteen-year-old black girl from Hampton, Virginia, who dropped out of school as an adolescent to support her family as a laundress, and who killed her allegedly abusive white female employer in self-defense in 1912. The NAACP, National Association of Colored Women, and many other organizations rallied to her defense, refuting prosecutorial and mass media depictions of Christian as a physically and mentally mature negro woman and arguing that she was in fact a girlwhose gender, young age, and experiences of workplace violence made executing her unconscionable. Christian was ultimately electrocuted just months after her speedy trial, days after reaching the age of majority in the state, 17.
When assessing a black girl’s behavior (her acts of violence or rebellion, survival strategies, ways of pursuing love and fun), should observers’ subjective perceptions of her maturity bear more weight than her chronological age? What about when assessing her claims of abuse and exploitation? Sadly, these questions are as relevant today as they were in 1912. “Surviving R. Kelly” illustrates the tragic results of a society habituated, for generations, to the exclusion of black girls from the protected status of girlhood—an exclusion in which legal systems, white society, and black adults are all complicit. But the exposé also presents an opportunity: to examine the ways in which this exclusion has been constructed over time, and to use that historical knowledge to build substantial protections for future generations of black girls.
Lindsey E. Jones is a postdoctoral research associate at Brown University. Her dissertation, “‘Not a Place of Punishment’: the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls, 1915-1940,” historicizes the education and incarceration of black girls by examining Virginia’s only reformatory for delinquent African American girls. Follow her on Twitter @noumenal_woman.