Twenty-five years ago this summer, black America had to deal with a very serious allegation: that boxing powerhouse Mike Tyson, in Indianapolis to lend public support to the Miss Black America pageant, raped one of the contestants, Desiree Washington.
A late-night encounter between the two in Tyson’s hotel room clearly went the wrong way, and Washington pressed charges. Tyson was tried and convicted in 1992. He was released in 1995, his six-year sentence cut in half because of good behavior.
To this day, Tyson continues to say that he was innocent of the crime. Here’s what Washington said after Tyson’s conviction:
Among Tyson’s supporters was his billionaire friend Donald Trump, who actually attempted a scheme that would have prevented Tyson from going to prison after his conviction. At the time, Trump said he thought that Washington wanted Tyson’s sexual attention and that Tyson was the actual victim.
After Tyson’s release in 1995, a few months before the Million Man March, the newly converted Muslim boxer got a somewhat muted welcome-back rally in Harlem, the home of Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey. Civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton and Percy Sutton, the former Manhattan borough president—and, back in the day, Malcolm’s lawyer—expressed public support for the former champ. Jill Nelson, a prominent New York-based writer and activist, was among the black female notables protesting this. It didn’t help matters that Tyson turned down a request to speak to Nelson’s anti-violence black women’s group, choosing instead to shop. Boxing promoter Don King was happy about Tyson’s redemption and return to the ring: He had a big fight lined up.
Support for Tyson then by many factions of the black community must be put in historical context, one that is relevant as black America continues to debate about Nate Parker.
During the 1990s, prominent black men in the public eye were seen by many black (male) opinion-makers and activists to be under attack.
*The Rev. Benjamin Chavis, who, as executive director of the NAACP, had upset many whites when he attempted to unify the radical and moderate wings of the black movement, got ousted in 1994 for privately agreeing to use NAACP funds to settle a lawsuit filed by a female staffer in which he had had an affair. Chavis, like Tyson, also did a hasty conversion to Islam after his fall—but Iron Mike chose orthodox Islam, while Chavis chose to join the Nation of Islam, a base from which he attempted redemption by organizing the Million Man March. Chavis left the Nation a few years after.
*Mel Reynolds, a black Chicago congressman, had to resign his office in 1995 after his indictment for being sexually involved with a 16-year-old girl. Convicted of 12 counts of sexual assault, solicitation of child pornography and obstruction of justice, he was sentenced to five years in prison. Ironically, this opened the door for Jesse Jackson Jr., who went to jail in 2013 for wire and mail fraud, to win Reynolds’ seat.
*And then there was the Rev. Henry Lyons, who in 1999 was kicked out of his top post at the National Baptist Convention for embezzling $4 million spent on mistresses and luxury items. The news came out when his understandably upset wife set fire to a house Lyons co-owned with one of his side honeys. He was convicted of grand theft and racketeering and also served prison time.
None of these cases are similar. But in the 1990s, black people on the street, in the black-newspaper press, and on local and national black-oriented talk radio were clear on how blacks—particularly their most prominent, influential men—had been historically smeared, so they reacted accordingly.
Nate Parker’s guilt or innocence aside, a friend of mine pointed out the following to me while I was writing this: Isn’t it interesting that Parker—who, unlike Tyson, was acquitted—is being portrayed as the black-rapist-of-white-girl of the original Birth of a Nation film? Rightly or wrongly, I keep thinking of this should-we-support-Parker’s-film controversy as, ironically, the 21st-century version of the late-1960s furor over white novelist William Styron’s fictionalized maligning of Nat Turner. Again a great anti-slavery hero is being tarnished in the public domain, obscuring Turner’s braveheart contribution via white supremacy’s fog.
Sadly, Parker was supposed to fix all of this, not get caught up.
But history should never be used to excuse abuse by black men. Admittedly, this idea is—and perhaps should be—a hard sell in a country created by still-celebrated white male robbers and rapists.
Black youths, particularly black males, are constantly warned to avoid the traps set for them by white America and the police, its state agents. So at the risk of “mansplaining,” it’s clearly past time to add male entitlement, including and especially sexual entitlement, to the Talk.
What is new is that black women are no longer on the sidelines of these discussions, and black male abuses—even ones seen to be historically exploited by whites trying to damage the black public sphere—are no longer tolerated in 2016. *Cough*—Bill Cosby—*cough.* Sisters are tired of taking one for the red-black-and-green team when they have to constantly leave the field bloodied, sexually abused and humiliated. Now they speak out—openly, directly and powerfully—online and on campus. The web, not even fully developed when Desiree Washington was attacked by Tyson, continues to hold black Twitter’s internationally seen explosions over Parker.
Mike Tyson’s advantage is that no one ever expected anything significant from him, then or now. Parker is clearly a different story. With the incredible pressure the filmmaker is now under, he will have to do more, much more, than just issue a statement of semiapology—well surpassing the minuscule and unsatisfying efforts of Chavis, Lyons, Reynolds and others of the dial-up-modem era.
Parker might have to enter into the public-arena ring, gloves on—fighting not for himself or his historically explosive art, but for the history and current state of black people, for future young black men and black women who will one day soon, fairly or not, judge him and his work by what happens next.
Todd Steven Burroughs, an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, N.J., is the author of Son-Shine on Cracked Sidewalks, an audiobook on Amiri Baraka and Ras Baraka through the eyes of the 2014 Newark mayoral campaign. He is the co-editor, along with Jared Ball, of A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X and the co-author, with Herb Boyd, of Civil Rights: Yesterday & Today.