By Nora Mabie
Students, educators and community members came together this month to discuss sexual violence against black women and girls at the Pop-Up JUST Art Gallery, a program of the Social Justice Initiative at University of Illinois at Chicago.
Recent charges of sexual abuse against R&B singer R. Kelly ignited the meeting and discussion, part of UIC’s Reimagining Masculinities Initiative and hosted by other UIC cultural engagement centers.
Although sexual allegations against Kelly go back to 1994, when he married a 15-year-old girl, a six-part documentary series, “Surviving R. Kelly,” detailed sexual abuse allegations against the 52-year-old performer and aired on Lifetime in January. Following the documentary series, Kelly was indicted on 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse on Feb. 22 in Cook County. After spending three nights in Cook County Jail, the singer posted $100,000 bail Tuesday and plead not guilty to the charges.
The group convened to reflect on personal experiences with sexual violence, look critically at sexual abuse in the black community and discuss ways in which people can support black women and girls.
Many in the group shared frustration over how peers talked about the singer’s indictment.
“So many people say they try to separate the artist from his actions,” said Prevail Bonga, a freshman at UIC, adding that many people use this excuse to continue to listen to his songs. “But that doesn’t work because many of his songs are about his actions.”
The group discussed how families with different religious and cultural backgrounds often avoid teaching children about sexual violence and how many people do not feel comfortable talking to each other about sexual abuse.
“We, as women, learned at a young age to keep (instances of sexual violence) to ourselves,” said Miya Taylor, a senior at UIC. “We are policing ourselves and that is not okay.”
Many people said they had experienced sexual abuse but did not know how to tell someone about it when it happened.
“We spend a lot of time together,” said Keisa Reynolds, assistant project director of the Women’s Leadership and Research Center, who helped plan the event. “But we don’t actually get to know each other as individuals, and our silence is part of the problem.”
Participants also commented on how Kelly’s status as a celebrity is often equated with women automatically giving him consent – a concept that President Donald Trump reinforced when he was caught on tape referring to inappropriately touching women. “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything,” Trump said.
Many expressed frustration with the rhetoric surrounding sexual violence and advocated for bystanders to assert themselves when they see or hear of situations of abuse.
“We have to hold the people in our own circles accountable for their actions,” Taylor said.
After a hearing on Wednesday, Kelly is back in custody for not paying $161,000 in child support to Andrea Kelly, his ex-wife.