Healing, History, and “Surviving R. Kelly”

Tarana Burke, founder of what would become the #MeTooMvmt, began her work against gender violence with healing circles for survivors of sexual violence. Those circles created a space for survivors to tell their stories and be heard. By documenting their histories of pain survivors simultaneously used their voices to regain their power. As a critical storyteller, dream hampton’s Surviving R. Kelly docuseries has created another space for healing, vast in its potential. There can be no healing without truth telling and truth telling at its best leads to abusers’ accountability and it spurs communities to change their responses to violence.

The first episode of Surviving R. Kelly featured family members, longtime friends, and those who worked for him giving testimony to the roles they played in either witnessing or creating a culture of access to young girls’ bodies. That network of enablers reveals how Robert Kelly is part of a system of personal, cultural, and structural violence that has historically preyed on Black children, and Black girls in particular. We learned, too, that Kelly himself was abused as a child. While it is certainly the case that abused people too often abuse others as a means of gaining some semblance of power, it is not an excuse; nor does prior abuse absolve adults from accountability for their crimes, particularly the serial harm of children.

The list of known survivors is long and not altogether new given that R. Kelly went on trial in 2008, but the docuseries brought the details of sickening sexual abuse to the heart of the Black community. Because R. Kelly’s songs are played at weddings, family reunions, elementary school recitals, and churches, we can no longer hear his music and pretend it has not been produced off the exploited bodies of young girls. We also can no longer act as if we are unaware that Black girls especially are molested by friends, family, play cousins, and acquaintances at weddings, family reunions, elementary school recitals, and churches. 

Between the ages of 6 and 21, I was attacked to varying degree by five different perpetrators. By the time I was seven years old, I had already been abused and threatened with death if I told. The perpetrators were both white and black men, who committed a range of vicious assaults; some were completed, some I narrowly escaped.

Through Black Studies, Women’s Studies, and Black Women’s Intellectual History, I came to learn my worth as a human and as one in a long legacy of Black women survivors who found ways to became creative healers such as Katherine Dunham (with whom I have always felt a special kinship because we share the same birthday). Dunham, known as a foremother of jazz dance, was abused by her father after her mother died. Jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald was also abused by her step-father after her mother died. 

Numerous researchers have recognized the healing tradition of writing by survivors, including nonfiction and fiction, from Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to Sapphire’s novel Push. A rich tradition of Black Women’s history and writing affords many opportunities for healing, but there are triggers for Black girls everywhere. For example, the story of incest in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, exemplifies the history of what I call “unknowing knowing” that afflicts Black communities.  In the story, the character Jim Trueblood recalls raping his daughter Matty Lou “in his sleep.” The scene includes details of him waking up to her fighting, scratching, and kicking him away. Trueblood recalled thinking that it was not a sin because he was asleep, “although maybe sometimes a man can look at a little ole pigtail gal and see him a whore—you’all know that?” Evidence of sexual violence against Black girls, right there, tucked neatly in our most revered literature. Ellison’s placement of that vignette is as purposeful as everything else in his work but, it is uncomfortable to discuss, so often we don’t. This docuseries shows why we must.

Everyday social media features stories about abused or murdered Black girls. Over 60,000 Black girls are missing in this country, it is a quiet epidemic that remains largely ignored. In the aftermath of the docuseries, we learned of Cyntoia Brown’s clemency in Tennessee. Brown, an African American teen victim of sex-trafficking, killed the man who paid to violate her. Rather than receiving victim services however, Brown was initially sentenced to life in prison. Brown’s case is at once the embodiment of the historical legacy of abuse and neglect of vulnerable Black girls and a reminder of the power of collective activism, lobbying, and resistance on the part of Black women and our allies. In similar fashion, Surviving R. Kelly, though profoundly disturbing, is an opportunity to amplify voices of Black survivors worldwide, and to begin to heal by advocating for social justice for Black girls, and Black boys, not only to heal from sexual violence, but also to prevent it by resisting the acceptance or tolerance of rape culture.

Dr. Stephanie Y. Evans is Professor and Chair of the Department of African American Studies, Africana Women’s Studies, and History at Clark Atlanta University.  She is author of three books: Regeneration:Healing and Self-Care in Black Women’s Centenarian Memoirs (forthcoming), Black Passports: Travel Memoirs as a Tool for Youth Empowerment (2014), and Black Women in the Ivory Tower, 1850-1954: An Intellectual History (2007), and lead co-editor of Black Women and Social Justice Education: Legacies and Lessons(SUNY Press, 2019), Black Women’s Mental Health: Balancing Strength and Vulnerability (SUNY Press, 2017), and African Americans and Community Engagement in Higher Education (2009). Follow her on Twitter @Prof_Evans.

Suggested Readings:

  • Resources for survivors, including links to national networks and a bibliography of reading can be found in Purple Sparks: Poetry by Sexual Assault Survivors (2016) and an open access chapter, “From Worthless to Wellness: Self-Worth, Power, and Creative Survival in Memoirs of Sexual Assault” in the book Black Women’s Mental Health: Balancing Strength and Vulnerability (2018).  
  • “Revictimization in women’s lives: An empirical and theoretical account of the links between childsexualabuse and repeatedsexual violence.” Haskell, Lori. University of Toronto, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1999.
  • “Conflict, Power, and Violence in Families.” Kristin L. Anderson. Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 72, no. 3 (June 2010), pp. 726–742.
  • Kate Harding. 2015. Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture–and What We Can Do about It
  • Nicola Henry and Anastasia Powell. 2014. Preventing Sexual Violence: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Overcoming a Rape Culture.  
  • Miriam Harris. 2000. Rape, Incest, Battery: Women Writing Out the Pain.  

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