Lead Story West Edition

‘A conversation … long overdue’ about sexual violence and black women

LOS ANGELES — The moderator got right to the point.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor at UCLA, started a discussion entitled “Black Women and the MeToo Movement” at the Hammer Museum March 26 by saying: “This conversation about the sexual violence and assaults against black women is long overdue.”

“Bell Hooks and Alice Walker talked about gender-based violence,” Crenshaw said. “Before that, Anita Hill testified in Congress against the [sexual harassment] perpetuated by Clarence Thomas.”

Crenshaw said she was in Washington, D.C. during the Hill/Thomas hearings.

“We supported Anita Hill at the Capitol,” Crenshaw said. “We saw a number of black women holding signs outside of the hearings. We walked over to them and they were praying and singing praise songs in an effort to strike down the ‘Jezebels’ that were trying to hurt Judge Thomas. It was like Anita Hill was not to be believed and that it didn’t matter (if she was really telling the truth).

“Imagine what our country would have looked like if we had believed Hill’s story,” Crenshaw said. “The entire nation would have been in a better place.”

The panel at the Hammer examined how race influences sexual abusers who frequently don’t face consequences for their misdeeds.

Panelists included former model Beverly Johnson, Kenyette Tisha Barnes, founder of the #Mute R Kelly movement; music journalist Dee Barnes; columnist, editor and cultural critic Jamilah Lemieux; actress and activist Rashida Jones and author and assistant professor of History at UC Berkeley Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers.

Approaching the issue of sexual assault, Crenshaw said that one of the ways sexual predators snare their victims is through “grooming” them to gain a young woman’s confidence. She asked Johnson, one of the first black supermodels, to share her experience with Bill Cosby, who was sentenced to prison for sexually assaulting Andrea Constand after being accused of assaulting numerous other women.

“It’s a very sad story and disappointing that a man of that stature could be a monster,” Johnson said.

She recalled that Cosby invited her to come down to watch the taping of The Cosby Show.’  

“He said, ‘Come down to the set, there might be a part for you playing the role of a pregnant woman. I had done a little acting, so of course, I was thrilled, but it’s not that I didn’t feel little red flags.

“My daughter and I saw the taping. We went over to Cosby’s home, and we met his children and family. He said to me, ‘Why don’t you come back?’

“I visited his home again and was offered a cappuccino which he insisted that I drink. I took a sip and I immediately felt the room spin. I was so incredulous, I just looked at him and said, ‘You’re a [creep], aren’t you?’

“He dragged me out of his house and threw me in a cab. I was very angry and I wanted answers. I made a phone call to his home and his wife picked up the phone. So everyone seemed to know but me.

“Thirty years later, when Constand came forward with her case and when I saw the women come out and tell their stories and realized I had the same story, I said, ‘Thank God I wasn’t raped.”

“Cosby made you feel at ease by meeting his family,” Crenshaw told Johnson. “It’s one way to get you to let your guard down.”

Crenshaw asked journalist Dee Barnes to share her story about her own physical assault.

Barnes described being at a record release party in 1991 when Dr. Dre brutally assaulted her.

“Everyone stood around and watched. One person stepped in to help, but Dre pistol-whipped the guy. I was knocked to the ground and I was punched, kicked and stomped on. Dre put a knee in my chest and he was cursing at me. He knocked out my two front teeth. He had absolute rage against me because he felt that I had humiliated him in a video.

“I pressed charges against him,” said Barnes, who also sued Dr. Dre for $22 million dollars. The suit was later settled out of court.

“There are no consequences for the actions of certain rappers and R&B singers,” she said.

Barnes said she thinks so many people, and especially women, don’t believe claims against powerful men because of the money involved.

“The community protects many of them,” she said. After suing Dr. Dre, she said his legal team “hired a black woman lawyer to tear me apart so that they can show ‘Look, this woman is supporting him. He can’t be that bad.”’

Since the 1991 assault, the rapper, music journalist and TV host said she was forced out of working in the music industry and has struggled to find work. She also said that she is currently homeless.

Kenyette Barnes said she started the “Mute R Kelly” movement after discovering that Kelly’s sexual assault on a young girl had been turned into an X-rated video. She launched the campaign in the summer of 2017, urging companies to stop doing business with R Kelly and to also urge the public to refuse to listen to his music or attend any of his concerts.

“We have spoken to quite a few of the survivors,” she said.

“When they were selling R Kelly’s tape as a sex tape, it triggered something inside of me,” she said. “I fired off a tweet to media groups asking them to stop using the term ‘sex tape.’ I felt that I was standing up for the 14- to 15-year old girls who were being adultified and felt I had to educate journalists and tell them that you are adultifying these girls by using the term ‘sex tape.’”

Lemieux, an outspoken champion of black women and girls, said, “What determines you is your determination to push back. My father was a Black Panther and my mother was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

“I was sexually assaulted when I was 22,” she said. “The man wore a mask and had a gun. I knew that rape will happen to one in three women in their lifetime. A part of me felt that this was pretty much going to happen, I didn’t have any emotional attachment to him.

“I was treated like a suspect by the Prince George’s Police Department. … I had to deal with [law enforcement] that were sympathetic to R Kelly and Bill Cosby.

“The experience that women and girls had with R Kelly and Cosby mirrored our own experiences,” Lemieux said. “We stand in solidarity with them.”

Rashida Jones, a founding member of Time’s Up and heavily involved in its Women of Color Division, talked how the entertainment industry in Hollywood has changed in the last two years, particularly for black women. 

She said that the Time’s Up Movement is pushing for diversity.

“The good news is that everybody in Hollywood is so scared and we have employed the very, very powerful device of shame,” she said.

Jones-Rogers talked about her book, “White Women as Slave Owners in the American South.”

“For them,” Jones Rogers writes, “slavery was their freedom. They created freedom for themselves by actively emerging and investing in the economy of slavery and keeping African Americans in captivity.

“Southern white women’s roles in upholding and sustaining slavery form part of the much larger history of white supremacy and oppression,” she adds. “And through it all, they were not passive bystanders. Southern ladies stood by their men. They were co-conspirators.”