Like most black people in the U.S. with a love of soul music, nostalgia, Erykah Badu and us, I watched the 2015 Soul Train Awards Sunday night.
There was Babyface, the career-maker, along with Tevin Campbell, Cameo (Cameo!), Boys II Men, Jill Scott and just so much legendary black star power, it felt like a good old black family reunion.
The only thing missing was Patti Pie.
What should have been missing was R. Kelly.
I’m not going to rehash the decadeslong accusations against him, reported tenaciously and courageously by Jim DeRogatis. In large part because, despite a video surfacing of Kelly urinating on and having nonconsensual sex with a 14-year-old girl (because children cannot consent, ever), he was aquitted on child-pornography charges and has never been tried for rape or statutory rape. (For legal reasons, I must report this, even if we, as lovers of black girls, women and justice, should be able to call a thing a thing.)
Further, his marriage to a 15-year-old Aaliyah, along with the testimonies of countless girls whom he reportedly violated and Chicagoans who became accustomed to seeing him lurk around local high schools, hasn’t been enough to stop die-hard fans from “stepping in the name of love,” so more than likely, nothing I say here will.
But I will say this: Those of us who claim to care about the rape and silencing of black women and girls cannot speak out against former Oklahoma City Police Officer Daniel Holtzclaw, then flip the “Ignition” when R. Kelly comes on. We don’t get to do that—and we shouldn’t want to, either.
For over a year, those of us who claim to love black women and girls have blasted the media for their marginal, at best, coverage of the Holtzclaw case. We have talked about the women (and one girl) he methodically chose because of their vulnerability and the likelihood that no one would believe them.
We have gone over how he reportedly scoured low-income neighborhoods looking for black women who knew that they were no match against an officer of the law. At the root of that knowledge is not just his authority but the idea that in the eyes of society, these black women (and one underage girl) just do not matter.
That is the case with R. Kelly.
There was a statement made at the Soul Train Awards last night, a statement that would be bold if it weren’t so commonplace. BET let us know that R. Kelly’s time of crooning on the margins is over. It told us that whatever he did was long ago and we’d better damn well get over it. It told us that this was his redemption song, his triumphant return, his very own backyard party.
And, along with Ms. Badu, who called the Pied Piper of Pedophilia her “brother,” BET told us that black girls don’t matter—at least not as much as R. Kelly.
We should look around and take note of how quickly some of us are able to cast black girls aside and justify or dismiss the actions of predators that we prefer. We should look around and remember how purposefully BET let its allegiance be known. Without one word of apology or acknowledgment of any wrongdoing, it gave R. Kelly back his crown as he stood onstage like the Cheshire Cat with his “sister” and their red plastic cups.
Beyond those lights, though, beyond those lights are little black girls who are being told what boundaries are and what they are not. There are little black girls being given a perverse and dangerous lesson in forgiveness.
Beyond those lights, there were little black girls being molested by their uncle or cousin or pastor or father or coach, and they learned that even if they screamed, they’d be heard only for a moment, if at all, before they were silenced by the loudness of accolades and adoration thrown at their assailants.
So on Monday, as the Holtzclaw trial resumes, we should remember this moment. I want us to remember that #SayHerName doesn’t just apply to police brutality. I want us to remember that a network that claims to represent black people basically said, “Oh, black girls? They’ll be all right.” I want us to remember how systemic the devaluation of black girls is, how far-reaching and entrenched and vile.
And just how complicit in it some of us are.