Danielle McGuire is the author of “At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance — A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power.”
When singer R. Kelly was arrested and indicted on 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse last week, it was his name that made headlines. But a litany of women should have gotten attention, too, for all their hard work that led to this moment: Dream Hampton, executive producer of the Lifetime docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly”; Kenyette Tisha Barnes and Oronike Odeleye, the founders of the campaign to #MuteRKelly on radio and streaming services; Kim Foxx, the first black woman to serve as Cook County state’s attorney; and scores of survivors and their families who bravely testified about Kelly’s alleged sexual misconduct.
These women are part of a critically important — and too often overlooked — tradition. Black women have had to organize largely in defense of themselves, often without help from white women allies or even black men. Their testimonies and campaigns for justice have been catalysts for some of the most important social movements in U.S. history.
Allegations of sexual assault, molestation and child pornography by Kelly stretch back to the 1990s, when he married 15-year-old singer Aaliyah Haughton and settled a lawsuit brought by Tiffany Hawkins, who said Kelly began having sex with her when she was in high school. Chicago Sun-Times reporters Jim DeRogatis and Abdon M. Pallasch filed the first investigative report of similar allegations from other young women in December 2000.
Over the next two decades, as he continued to enjoy enormous success as an artist, Kelly was acquitted on charges of making child pornography in Illinois; settled numerous lawsuits securing his victims’ silence with nondisclosure agreements; and was accused by parents of young black women in a 2017 article of recruiting their daughters into a “cult.”
Why has it taken more than 20 years and testimony by about 50 accusers to get to this moment?
Because we live in a country where a history of racism and sexism — rooted in slavery — has made assaults against black women’s bodies permissible. Under chattel slavery, enslaved women were considered property and, therefore, “unrapeable” under the law. Their material value was related not only to their productive labor but also to their reproductive and sexual labor: Each child born to an enslaved woman increased her owner’s economic holdings.
Unpunished assaults on black women’s bodies and stereotypes about their supposed hypersexuality persisted long after slavery ended.
Sexual predators such as former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who in 2016 was sentenced to 263 years in prison for sexually assaulting women while he was on duty, use this historical legacy and rely upon the persistence of these racist, sexist stereotypes to attack black women and girls with impunity.
But just as men have long chosen black women as victims because of their perceived vulnerability, black women have fought back against sexual violence. Their work has often mobilized much larger movements.
Harriet Jacobs’s 1861 autobiography fueled the abolitionist movement by documenting the sexual exploitation at the heart of slavery. Ida B. Wells exposed how white men used rape as a weapon of terror to destroy the bodies and lives of black people during Reconstruction. Recy Taylor’s testimony about her 1944 kidnapping and rape, decades before the women’s movement, sparked a nationwide campaign for equal justice and helped launch the career of Rosa Parks. Betty Jean Owens’s 1959 testimony in a segregated Florida courtroom helped secure the first life sentences for white men for raping a black woman, a catalyst in the movement for equal sentencing.
Radical black women formed the Combahee River Collective in 1977 and put forward the theory of interlocking oppressions, which we now call “intersectionality.” Over the next few years, black women such as Diane Williams, Paulette Barnes, Sandra Bundy and Carmita Wood were the first to file and win workplace sexual harassment claims. In 1991, Anita Hill spoke for millions of working women when she stood before the Senate Judiciary Committee and testified about enduring years of sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In 1999, Aurelia and LaShonda Davis convinced the Supreme Court that Title IX does provide a remedy against schools for failing to control student on student sexual harassment. And most recently, Tarana Burke launched the #MeToo movement, providing the language that made possible an international reckoning of sexual assault and rape.
For more than a century, the work black women have done in their own defense has benefited all of us. Dream Hampton, Kenyette Tisha Barnes, Oronike Odeleye and Kim Foxx have done more than re-center the conversation on the most vulnerable and least protected among us. In helping to secure the indictment of a man who has long been a symbol of impunity, they’ve helped send a clear message that no man is above the law. If we can hold on to the hope that insight promises, we might be on the brink of another moment of essential but overdue change where the battle to prioritize and protect the few ends up opening new possibilities of freedom and safety for all of us.