I turned 38 this week. It seems as I age, as I become more cemented in who I am as a (sometimes) bad Black feminist, teacher, lover and mother, it has also become more difficult to separate my politics from my pleasure.
For instance, as I sat excitedly in a theatre mesmerized by the beautifully produced and directed documentary Finding Fela just last month, I had to give in to the truth of what’s become a common experience for me. I was forced to acknowledge that another Black man, artist, activist and genius that I adore—Fela Kuti—in many ways, didn’t give a sh*t about Black women.
These kind of painful acknowledgements make so many moments where I want to celebrate Black male artists and activists, to uphold Black men period, difficult and, often, exhausting. Like when my partner, who idolizes James Brown, speaks with so much glee and love about how amazing Brown was, and I have to interject that J.B. also beat the hell out of the women he claimed to love.
Or when one of my favorite monthly dance parties chooses to showcase the songs of R. Kelly, a man I’m convinced grossly sexually assaulted countless Black girls, and I have to put away my dancing shoes and miss the event because I can’t party and bullsh*t with his music serving as the night’s soundtrack. The awkward reckoning happens as I’m speaking with my students about how amazing a leader and humanitarian Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was and I have to also acknowledge his apparent philandering and sexism.
Although King’s image has been sanitized (and even neutralized when one considers his more radical stances towards freedom and equality—especially prior to his murder), historians agree that King had many affairs outside his marriage, and continuously butt heads with Black women working in the freedom movement many viewed him as heading (like Ella Baker, for instance).
And there are more, too many more. A seemingly never-ending list of what the world (and we) considers phenomenal Black male brilliance has been accused (and sometimes, but rarely, convicted) of mistreating and brutalizing women. There’s the amazing poet and rapper Tupac Shakur, who we rarely address as a convicted rapist. And what about Dr. Dre, who we celebrate as he tops the Forbes Hip-Hop list this year, but who we never address as being often accused of beating women? Mike Tyson, the rapist. Floyd Mayweather, the all around disgusting human being (if we’re honest about the way he’s routinely abused women and children).
I find myself here again, evaluating my list, as I read Barbara Bowman’s personal account of being one of the many women that have accused Bill Cosby of drugging and raping them. Bowman asks, after attempting to bring her alleged rape by Cosby to the public eye, why her story is only now receiving momentum and recognition.
Bowman writes, “Only after a man, Hannibal Buress, called Bill Cosby a rapist in a comedy act last month did the public outcry begin in earnest.” Because, of course, we never believe the stories of abuse that women tell, often even as women. I recall discounting many of the women in the cases I mentioned earlier with respect to the Black male geniuses I loved or admired, and I’m only one of many. There simply is no country for women, and particularly Black women, as victims of anything. Facts only.
All that being said, how do we, as Black women, love the Black male geniuses we do, wholeheartedly, while acknowledging their flaws and downright awfulness? Is it possible? I suppose we all must answer these questions individually. We have to decide what kind of wrong is unforgivable. We have to ponder whether those wrongs gone unchecked (as they often do) might possibly continue in the lives of the perpetrators. We have to contemplate whether our silence, or our looking the other way, somehow makes us complicit in the crimes committed. We have to wonder why such outrages against Black women go mostly unrecognized, and even when recognized, are often somehow presented in ways that blame them.
We have to do the kind of hard, soul-searching, mental and emotional work that shouldn’t be necessary in order to enjoy a film, a record, or a rerun of everybody’s beloved The Cosby Show.
What makes speaking truthfully about Bill Cosby’s several rape allegations arduous, especially as a woman who champions women, is that I (and so many of us) to this day have a difficult time recognizing The Cosby Show as fictional. We have, instead, cemented the show in our minds and on our vision boards as the kind of lives, families and partnerships we want, deeply.
As has been voiced many times over in reporting on our being mad at Bill Cosby, the comedian, in his role as Heathcliff Huxtable, was the father and later the husband we all wanted. Claire was the wife and mother we all hoped to be. But none of these facts or attachments supersedes the reality of Cosby’s alleged criminal, predatory and abhorrent behaviors.
How to (and whether we should) separate artists who behave terribly (and criminally) from their art isn’t a conversation unique to the Black community—see Roman Polanski or Woody Allen for example—but our reactions to those artists who fail us may be. We’re taught, especially as Black women, that speaking out against the actions of Black men—public figures or not—means we’re being divisive, that we’re sleeping with the enemy, that we’re working against a larger unified community. (Though we all should ask ourselves if we want to be parts of a larger unified community that sees truth-speaking and standing up for Black women as “divisive” instead of righteous.)
Although we know this to be untrue (from Selma to Ferguson, Black women are on the front lines fighting hard to champion the lives of Black men), we are still left feeling like traitors if we say, “Hey, this is not okay and something must be done.” And it hurts.
Even as I write this, I’m preparing for the backlash from both Black men and Black women concerning how I, by vocalizing the truths we all acknowledge quietly, am working against Black men—and the Black men we hold the highest at that. If I betray them, our best and brightest, how can I be trusted to love and support the everyday brother struggling to survive in America?
The weight of my honesty, and my asking you all to be honest too, makes me want to backspace towards an empty page. It’s more weight than any Black woman who loves Black men and Black women should have to shoulder. And it almost makes me want to submit to the defector I’m often accused of being.
Playwright Pearl Cleage sang a similar song when she published the essay Mad at Miles, which became the title of a collection of essays Cleage published in 1990. In it, she blamed Miles Davis for putting a hex on her, because she simply couldn’t bring herself to write that he’d committed “self-confessed violent crimes against women such that we ought to break his records, burn his tapes, and scratch up his CDs until he acknowledges and apologizes and agrees to rethink his position on The Woman Question.”
Cleage repeated this truth throughout her essay, almost like a chant, as a reminder that whenever she, or we, became enamored with Davis’s genius (which is undeniable), we had to also become enraged at the way he treated us. Cleage wrote on regarding Davis that, “Either we think it’s a crime to hit us, or we don’t. Either we think our brothers have to take responsibility for stopping the war against us, or we don’t.”
The same message applies whether we’re talking Davis or Cosby or Kelly or Shakur or [insert another name from the long list]. We cannot continue to “celebrate the genius in the face of the monster.” We can no longer afford to love those Black men who have shown us that they do not love us, and that is something that none of us should be afraid or ashamed to say.
Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and solider of love. Follow her musings on Twitter @jonubian.