Dee Barnes’ courageous essay in Gawker unearthed her historical connection to the rappers in N.W.A and laid bare the violent betrayal she and other women suffered at the hands of Dr. Dre, a former member of N.W.A and executive producer of the current blockbuster Straight Outta Compton. Said film makes no mention of the events Barnes has brought to light.
While responses to Barnes’ commentary have been largely positive, there remains a significant contingent of folks who regard her statement as an attempt to “tear down the black man,” especially since Dr. Dre expressed regret for attacking her and women such as his former partner and musical collaborator Michel’le.
The notion that black men’s success should take precedence over the lives of black women and girls is unacceptable and dangerous—and unfortunately, it has been used to excuse and shield predators. Bill Cosby is arguably a prime example of this, but rapper Tupac Shakur remains for many a near-sanctified icon of hip-hop despite his arrest and conviction for sexually assaulting a 19-year-old fan in 1995. Although some would suggest that the reason Tupac’s record is rarely mentioned is that he paid his debt, it’s more likely that his legacy has benefited from the same kind of patriarchal revisionist history that Barnes has so powerfully contested.
R. Kelly may well be another example. His alleged abuse of underaged black girls has functioned as a kind of open secret for over a decade, yet folks seem more outraged by Julie Klausner’s disgusting gibe about his alleged crimes than the likelihood that a pedophile is not just free but broadcast daily on radio stations across the country. For folks who missed it, Klausner recently played a character who was in trouble for tweeting that she couldn’t wait for 3-year-old Blue Ivy (Beyoncé and Jay Z’s daughter) to be “old enough for R. Kelly to piss on her.”
What is perhaps most damaging about the effort to safeguard the primacy of black men at all costs is that it not only eclipses black female victimization within the black community but also underscores the erasure of their victimization in ongoing social-justice movements.
Prior to the tragic, senseless death of Sandra Bland, black feminists struggled to get the police killings of unarmed black women and girls like Aiyana Stanley-Jones, 7; Rekia Boyd, 22; Tanisha Anderson, 37; and Mya Hall, 27, recognized in the Black Lives Matter movement. This gave rise to the #SayHerName hashtag and subsequent campaign.
Still, not only has getting black women’s lives to matter remained an uphill battle, but a recent song inspired by the movement now passionately demands that we mostly “say his name” as it lists black victims of police brutality. Among the 14 men named are recent victims such as Eric Garner and Michael Brown, but it also includes Amadou Diallo, an unarmed black man shot 41 times in New York in 1999, and Emmett Till, a 14-year-old brutally murdered by white supremacists in Mississippi in 1955.
Addie Mae Collins, 14; Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14; and Cynthia Wesley, 14, were not among those mentioned on the track, however. These black girls died in a white supremacist church bombing in 1963, their deaths spurring the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The point here is not to unduly criticize black artists or activists but, rather, to resist burying the contributions, sacrifices and suffering of black women. If we want to elevate the entire black community rather than just a select few, continuing to say black women’s names is essential. And so, too, is fighting for justice for black women and girls, whether that means calling out misogynistic violence enacted by black men or holding homicidal, racist police officers accountable.
Editor’s note: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Amy Poehler portrayed the character played by Julie Klausner. Amy Poehler is a producer of the show, Difficult People, starring Klausner.
Kali Nicole Gross, Ph.D., a Public Voices fellow, is an associate professor and associate chair of African and African Diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow her on Twitter.