The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Thomas Jefferson is the R. Kelly of the American Enlightenment

Both men were lionized for their talents by a nation that ignored allegations that they abused black women.

A statue of Thomas Jefferson stands in front of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia. (Norm Shafer for The Washington Post)

Dream hampton’s highly praised documentary series, “Surviving R. Kelly,” which recently debuted on Lifetime, has shone a spotlight on the popular singer as an alleged sexual predator and statutory rapist. The series on the accusations against Kelly — which he denies — has arrived at a peak moment for #MeToo, a movement started by an African American woman but boosted (in both senses of the word: amplified and hijacked) by white celebrity culture. The fallout from the Kelly docuseries, including rigorous defenses of the man known as the Pied Piper of R&B, brings into focus this country’s long-practiced dismissal of black women and girls harmed by powerful men.

This abuse is not anathema to American ideals. In fact, such views and practices were present at the nation’s inception. Though he never faced legal charges, Thomas Jefferson was born into and left behind a country that would continue to normalize the sexual violation of black women and girls. A 1662 Virginia statue declared free or slave status for children born from interracial sex would follow “the condition of the mother.”

Nearly 30 years after Jefferson’s death, the Missouri Supreme Court would rule that enslaved black women, as property, must legally submit to sexual assault by their “masters.” Black women could not use lethal force to defend themselves from rape, a right that white women had earned in court 10 years prior. In this way, Jefferson is more than a parallel to Kelly. He is a precedent for the phenomenon that lionizing an abuser creates a lasting social norm.

(Kelly has repeatedly denied the accusations against him, and has not been criminally charged since the most recent sexual misconduct allegations became public. He was acquitted in 2008 of child pornography charges.)

Despite differences in time period and the types of contributions each made to American life, Thomas Jefferson and R. Kelly both thrived in a social ecosystem that celebrated their many achievements and normalized alleged predation of black girls and women in their homes. Jefferson, author, ambassador, U.S. president and staunch defender of American liberty, was a man who held 607 people in bondage during his lifetime. He also had sex for decades with a captive woman he inherited when she was a toddler and he was 30.

R. Kelly is accused of repeatedly engaging in predatory sexual behavior with adolescent girls, enabled by his managers and other members of his entourage. Both his marriage to the then-15-year-old artist Aaliyah and songs such as “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number” (sung by Aaliyah, written and produced by Kelly) also seem to hint at this pattern. The documentary presents additional testimony about black girls being isolated from their families, held captive in Kelly’s home.

Despite this, both men continue to be defended by adoring fans who privilege their accomplishments over their alleged transgressions, even denying the men’s guilt in the face of evidence (DNA tests for Jefferson and pornographic videos for Kelly).

Why? Because of the same social assumption: that black women and girls are disposable. Jefferson was legally permitted to do whatever he chose with Sally Hemings, because she was a black teenager and his property. But even after two centuries that have seen the end of slavery and vast strides made toward equality for women, the same idea still persists. Chance the Rapper admits as much in the final episode of the Kelly series: “I didn’t value the accusers’ stories because they were black women.”

To be sure, African American girls and women have benefited from the strengthening of legal codes that broadened civil rights for all people in the hundreds of intervening years between Jefferson and Kelly. Nonetheless, the poisoned roots of the past still flourish today. This harmful history includes the 17th-century slave codes that mandated enslavement follow “the condition of the mother,” which de facto legalized the rape of black women while making their violation profitable; 18th-century racist enlightenment thinking, such as Jefferson’s racist theories that animalized black women; and 19th-century proslavery legal and literary decisions that excluded black women from the category of “woman,” while describing us as mammy, jezebels, sexually advanced or “fast.”

These combine to create a structural apparatus arrayed against the full equity and liberation of black girls and women. This is what scholar Moya Bailey has termed “misogynoir,” a unique form of contempt for black women and girls. Misogynoir may have begun before the 17th-century laws that made Hemings legal prey for Jefferson, but it continues to adversely influence black girls and women who are seen as disposable and deserving of harm.

There have been profound upheavals and transitions during the 400 years of the American experiment. And yet the one constant throughout the nation’s long and diverse history is its consistency in praising famous men while overlooking, even denying, their bad acts, especially if they are committed against black women.

Public attention to their alleged acts of abuse has done little to diminish these men’s status. Jefferson was able to survive the publicity surrounding his sexual transgressions with Hemings, which were made public in an 1802 Federalist newspaper near the start of his first term as president. James T. Callender, a rival and critic of Jefferson, published the charges as a way to discredit him. Callender didn’t care about Hemings or her sexual vulnerability (calling her a “wench” and “African Venus”); for Callender, who was repulsed by the notion of interracial sex, public knowledge of Jefferson fathering children with an enslaved woman “would have rendered his election impossible.” Callender, who once dismissed the whispers about Jefferson and Hemings, publicized the news believing it would humiliate his former patron. It did not.

This widespread knowledge constituted an open secret, much as whispers about Kelly have occurred for decades, and even as video evidence of him having sex with minors circulated widely. Kelly was most memorably exposed within comedic genres, such as “The Boondocks" and “Chappelle’s Show,” which allowed the allegations to be examined and critiqued but ultimately dismissed. While he awaited trial for child pornography and pedophilia, Kelly was nominated for an NAACP Image award, which honors “those who strive for the portrayal of positive images and meaningful opportunities for African Americans in motion pictures, television, literature and recording.”

Strong emotional attachment to the work of Jefferson and Kelly fuels defenses of these men. Kelly’s songs, like Jefferson’s writings, are so moving that favorable feelings about the work generate affection toward the creator. “Some nights I just curl up in the semidark and just read his letters,” says Mary Kelley of the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, an organization founded to refute the DNA findings that link Jefferson and Hemings. “He just doesn’t seem to be a person who would do this.”

There are signs, however, that perhaps time really is up. The mounting, vociferous objections to Kelly, traceable from the long-standing #MuteRKelly hashtag right through to the “Surviving R Kelly” docuseries, have led to real consequences, including his record company dropping him. We’ve waited more than 200 years in Jefferson’s case, but time may be up for him, too, at long last. We see accountability at Monticello, where a Hemings exhibit titled “Sex, Power, and Ownership,” installed in a room on the property where she once lived, opened in June. We see it also at the University of Virginia, where the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies will release a podcast series this Presidents’ Day devoted to a critical examination of Jefferson, his writing and its complexities.

James Baldwin observed, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Identifying misogynoir as the common bond between the unlikely pairing of Thomas Jefferson and R. Kelly is the first step in recognizing the historical roots of the multiple nexuses of structural inequities that continue to plague the lives of black women and girls.

It is useful to think about the long history and rigid set of precedents “Surviving R. Kelly” represents. It is incumbent upon all of us to acknowledge the ways our actions might be seen as complacency toward the perpetual vulnerability of black girls and women. Be it bumping R. Kelly on a Spotify playlist (which I don’t) or working at Mr. Jefferson’s University (which I do), the uncomfortable truth persists: Black girls and women were allegedly subjected to illicit and coercive sexual acts by men responsible for some of America’s greatest hits.