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bhm: when the villain looks like us

February 13, 2019
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The great responsibility of the writer is to transform. To take evil and confusion and create goodness from it, to find a rhythm out of chaos. Writers don’t do this because they have more moral integrity or because they are somehow bent towards life’s greater intellect projects. Writers do this because it is the more interesting thing to do. It’s more interesting to do these particular magic tricks than accept evil for what it is and let life’s events just pile on top of each other without any effort to create a story to make it make sense. This self-appointed task is sometimes laborious and often delightful, especially once it is done and edited. However, unfortunately, the task is daunting and sticky.

O.J. Simpson never existed as anything else to me, but an accused murderer. By the time I came to consciousness — I was born in 1991 — the jokes, the news, and the verdict had already crafted a reality for me that O.J. Simpson murdered a woman, but because of the nature of the media, the story never moved beyond the murder and into a place I desperately needed, especially as a child consuming news media: Why would so many Black people find freedom in a man excused for murder? For me, it felt foreign to see Black people cheer and express joy because a Black man was acquitted of murder as some perverted idea of solidarity. I did not understand the racial moment in the ‘90s as an adult because I was a child, and it was through age and returning to the moment that I understood with more perspective these racial moments I found confusing.

Black people so infrequently experience justice that even when evil is done by members of our own community, it becomes an opportunity for some to celebrate a Black man’s freedom even one that desperately needs to be reviewed for his relationship with white supremacist patriarchy and violence. Black people finding freedom in toxic moments is not new, even though my childhood self found it confusing.

Street spectacles during huge moments in Black history are common and I’ve experienced it a few moments in my life: Black people gathering in public because of the death of Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross, and Aretha Franklin. I also remember Black folks’ relationship with other moments in Black history that confused me, I remembering seeing Black folks playing Michael Jackson music in the news of his death as a way to collectively grieve, but also when he was acquitted of child molestation. In the wake of his upcoming documentary  Leaving Neverland, I’ve yet again wondered why no matter what the belief of innocence or guilt is, why would these moments explode in a moment of joy for many Black people. There is no one answer, of course, because there’s no singular Black thought. There are only a multitude of Black thoughts and perspectives that will add to the larger pot of what comprises of the Black point of view. But it still frightens me to think that some Black folks’ relationship with justice and critical thought have been skewed because something deeply in them — some of us — need to see what feels like Black freedom, even if it is just white supremacist patriarchy and violence escaping accountability and the Black the body is the vehicle.

This must be the energy that facilitated the heinous actions of R. Kelly too. Again, R. Kelly’s abusive past is a piece of Black history that has happened in my childhood — by the time I interacted with it, the culture and those I’d like towards for intellectual and political guidance had me a joke out of a serious situation that forever molded by relationship with his actions. Simply, if the adults were joking about it, then why would I take it seriously? It was in adulthood that I reviewed this perspective and saw the R. Kelly events for what they were: a horror. Yet even still today, there are Black people that find his dodging of accountability and justice for violent acts as proof of Black freedom.

I’m afraid because of the nature of the justice system and its need to crush Black folks, there will forever be a shaky relationship with the Black community and the Black person exhibiting villainous behaviors; there will also be a population of Black people that don’t trust anything formed against a Black person, especially a Black man, because of our history with the media, law, and other institutions that have systematically lied on our boys and men. This is unfortunate and like most unfortunate events to do with Black people, it will be Black people that suffer the most because of this reality.In the wake of dream hampton’s documentary, Surviving R. Kelly, it felt like the impossible happened: Black people decided to go left and in unison, we moved left. We moved left away from R. Kelly, away from a past that was full of shame and neglect, and perhaps closer to a feminist justice. Like clockwork, reports of women yelling, “Take me hostage!” during an R. Kelly performance surfaced, and yet again, I’m bewildered by this reaction to evil but equipped with more experience than in my childhood as an adult writer today to turn even this into goodness.