Last week I had the misfortune of watching the Aaliyah bioepic on the Lifetime channel. I was born and raised in Detroit, so there was no way I could miss a movie about a hometown legend who was a huge part of my music-culture growing up.
Aaliyah was one of those artists who, if you grew up at any point during the nineties, at least one of her songs signified a major part of your teenage years. For me, “Four Page Letter,” was that song. I’m pretty sure that I dedicated that song to more than one boyfriend, and to this day I still know all of the lyrics by heart.
So when I was watching the Aaliyah movie, per usual I found my mind pulled in multiple directions. On one hand, I was excited to see Detroit in a movie (that pretty much never happens). I was also excited to be reminded of the culture and style that I loved so much growing up. My mom didn’t let me rock the baggy pants and boxer briefs, but I sure did have that swoop over my eye!
On the other hand, like pretty much everybody on black twitter, I was shocked, horrified and disappointed by the way lifetime depicted the statutory interaction between R. Kelly and Aaliyah when she was less than fifteen years old.
“R. Kelly was Aaliyah’s producer and mentor, and was in a clear position of power over the teenage girl when they married, yet the movie paints their relationship as a sort of forbidden romance, a version of Romeo and Juliet where young Juliet still dies tragically but Romeo eventually gets indicted for 21 counts of child pornography.” ~ Flavorwire
Lifetime took a series of encounters that were predatory and potentially seriously damaging to a very young woman, and tried to make it seem innocent and romantic. The black feminist in me screamed in outrage at another missed opportunity to advocate and fight for the safety and well being of young black girls.
But then [once again] my mind felt split in half as I began to think about my own experience growing up as a teenage girl in Detroit.
I started thinking about the dances at Saint Andrews downtown, the dances at U of D high school, Cass’ Homecoming at Cobo Hall, and the 19-30 year old men who inevitably hung out outside of every event waiting for all of us to come out.
No matter what dance, football game or other event I went to, “alumni” [men] were always there every weekend (now that I think of it, I don’t ever remember seeing any women alumni… but I suppose that’s a whole other blog post). Every single one of my girlfriends, myself included, at some point during high school dated guys between the ages of 20-30, when we were somewhere between 14-17.
Inevitably the conversation went something like this:
“girl, isn’t he 25? Isn’t he to old for you to be dating him?”
“Naw girl… you know I’m mature for my age.”
Every, single, time.
So am I a hypocrite for pointing at this movie and screaming at what I perceived to be a wildly inappropriate series of sexual encounters on the screen?
I think like most things, life is really complicated. But here I am admitting, that like Aaliyah, I was intimate with men in a way that was sometimes predatory, and sometimes just really inappropriate. Unfortunately, like myself, many of these “older men,” didn’t know how to appropriately engage in sexual relationships with women, period. As a result, they tended to engage in intimacy with young women they could easily control, manipulate and dominate. Did this make them inherently bad people? No. But it did make them (and me), people who developed a set of issues around relationships (and sex) that took a good decade to undo.
Now as I approach thirty-years old, I can see the way in which, despite my self-proclaimed maturity at the time, I was easily manipulated as a teenager. But I can also understand how incredibly difficult it is to admit to that. After all, I’m trying to become a leading expert in the field of race, politics and gender, and here I am admitting that I was just as easily manipulated as a young woman in a lifetime movie.
The reality of the thing is, that we can analyze and speak out against the way in which sexual violence happens more broadly, but it is another thing to honestly identify the sometimes less obvious ways in which sexual violence has occurred in our lives. I think as people who advocate for the safety of young black people, one of the most frustrating things we encounter is the way in which our communities often refuse to call a spade a spade. We don’t want to admit that R. Kelly committed statutory rape, we don’t want to admit Chris Brown was an abuser, and we don’t want to admit that Cosby is a rapist. Often because doing so means that we also have to admit certain things about our own lives.
If we speak out against the sins of the rich and famous, then suddenly we may have to admit that the relationship where our “boyfriend only hit us once or twice” or kicked us out of our own house, was abusive. It means that we may have to start thinking about that guy who grabbed our breast at the club (when he was drunk) as a sexual predator. It means that the 25 year old guy we dated when we were 15, may not have been the great guy our family raved about back when we were in high school.
The list goes on and on and on.
The cognitive dissonance that black women in particular perform all of the time, to separate ourselves from the violence that we’ve encountered throughout our lives is both survival and suicide. But until we can even acknowledge that this is something that regularly happens in the hearts and minds of black women all over the world, we can’t even begin to start thinking about the politics of the thing.
The reality is that pointing out, claiming and then pushing back against sexual and gender violence is just as much of a everyday thing as a political thing. But if we are truly going to be #Sojourners and push back against this spectrum of violence in our lives, then we have to get brave and begin by seeing these things for what they are.