By Marie A. Sutton
There is a sleepy street on the east side of Birmingham, where a pudgy, old man used to live with his blind seamstress wife. Each day, he’d get his exercise by walking up and down that curvy street in the cool of the evening as honeysuckles perfumed the air.
He was a quiet, mostly polite man. But it was a well-known fact that if you were outside during one of his walks and were young, female, and hidden from beneath the beam of a street light, he’d expose himself.
That’s just the way it was.
And yet many mothers sent their young girls to his house to be fit by his wife for frilly Easter dresses and starched first-day-of-school outfits. These youngsters would go into the bathroom and change into their new wares to make sure the hips didn’t fit too snug or the collars weren’t too tight. All the while, the old man would sit and glare.
Were those perfectly sewn stitches and rightly aligned zippers so good that they sewed up the lips of folks who should have said something?
The recently aired Lifetime TV docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly” has me thinking of that old man and the many others like him who have used their power to violate. It also brings to mind how some in our community have benefited from silent tongues and eyes that look the other way.
R&B artist R. Kelly, whose birth name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, is accused of sexually assaulting countless women, many of whom are underage and have brown skin. For years, we gave him a pass because he can sing. We didn’t allow our ears to be attuned to the cries of young women because they were tickled by words like “You remind me of my jeep.”
It wasn’t until the Lifetime series created an overwhelming case of why we can no longer deny his deeds that many were shamed into acting. Conversations were alight on social media. Sadly, though, many mourned the loss of their playlists more than the loss of a child’s innocence.
I stopped listening to the “Pied Piper of R&B” a long time ago out of protest, although, regrettably, it was not an immediate action. I remember being in college in the mid-1990s and hearing rumblings about Aaliyah, a 15-year-old girl, who was allegedly married to this grown ass man. I shook it off as hearsay and continued to jam to his hits.
“My mind is telling me no, but my body is telling me yes.”
“I don’t see nothing wrong with a little bump and grind.”
For too long, I, like many others, helped to finance his deviancy and another woman’s pain.
According to statistics from the “Black Women’s Blueprint,” 60 percent of black girls experience sexual assault by the time they reach 18; that’s more than the 25 percent of the national average. And, the “Status of Black Women Report” notes, “African-American women experience significantly higher rates of psychological abuse—including humiliation, insults, name-calling, and coercive control—than do women overall.” Sadly, only 12 percent of child sexual abuse is ever reported to the authorities. That’s 88 percent of victims whose abusers get off scot-free.
Unfortunately, many times we know when something is going on but choose to look the other way or even ask that child to be the sacrificial lamb so that we can benefit. With their silence, we gain something: music, money, peace. But that child loses it all.
Who will cry for them? Who will cover them?
It takes a village to sexually assault. For R. Kelly, allegedly, that village was managers, bookers, friends, supporters. We should ask ourselves if we are part of someone’s village. Are we being silent for the R. Kellys who live right here in Birmingham?
The abuser may not make R&B hits, but his mama is your favorite auntie.
The abuser may not be a millionaire, but he’s your man and pays your light bill. The abuser may not have a voice like silk, but he’s your deacon and prayed for your daddy when he was sick.
It’s a personal sacrifice to out a sexual abuser. So, what are we choosing to ignore to ensure that our comfort stays intact?
Little brown girls are hushed and told that they are being “fast” when their womanly body blooms “too soon.” Their beauty is a curse because it lures in the demons who defile them. So, they hold on to the secret because “what happens in this house stays in this house.” They carry it like a baby in the womb. They nurse it, but it is toxic, rotting their souls and poisoning their purpose.
The young women are changed, because they were violated in dark rooms, underneath covers, and behind closed doors. They must bite their lips at family events, swallow their fears and brace themselves while the hairs on their necks rise when he walks into the room.
It’s time to sing—not lyrics of R. Kelly’s music, but sing out the transgressions of the abusers so that not one more girl or boy will be hurt. Sing, “It’s him!” Sing, “Stop!” Sing, “I’ll protect you from him.”
Nothing we can gain from silence is worth the destruction of a child.
Marie A. Sutton is a Birmingham writer with a passion for telling stories of the African-American community; she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org