Growing up in Chicago in the ’80s and ’90s, I went to school just down the street from Kenwood High School, where award-winning singer, songwriter, and producer R. Kelly notoriously preyed on young black girls. We all knew it was happening. When I was 17, at a restaurant in downtown Chicago with 14 other black girls between the ages of 11 and 17, Robert Kelly made a special trip over to our table to talk to us. The other girls were floored by the attention. By then, I knew better — my life had already been turned upside down by older men.
I was 13 when I was raped by a 17-year-old I thought was my boyfriend. I was not allowed to date at that age; he raped me after I had snuck him into the house while my mother was gone. Even though I had clearly said no, I didn’t tell anyone about the assault for years. Not even when, in a pre-emptive effort to discredit me, he started a rumor that I had performed “disgusting” sex acts on him, leaving me to suffer not only the degradation of the rape itself but also the disparagement of my peers. I stayed silent to protect my family, fearing what they might do to him if they found out and what might happen to them as a result. Black girls often have more reasons to stay quiet than to speak up.
I was 14 when a 23-year-old man told me I was beautiful. He bought me things, walked me to school on occasion, even protected me from a schoolyard fight. When he started demanding sex, it seemed normal. I felt desired, so what could be wrong with it? Fortunately, it ended abruptly once my mother began to suspect something.
By 15, I had a baby.
By 23, I had contracted HIV.
Outrage over child sex abuse is loud and fierce in the U.S. Yet when the child being harmed is a black girl, instead of outrage, we hear a stony silence. Jokes. Accusations that the girl made it up or was asking for it. Consequences rarely seem to follow for the perpetrator — only for the girl. She learns that it is normal to be used and violated by adults. She learns that sex is the only way to make herself important to men outside her family. She learns that she is worth less than everyone else around her; that she will not be believed; that she has more to gain from staying quiet and doing as she’s told than from speaking up to defend herself, to seek protection, to have the final say on what happens to her own body and her own life.
My parents were not to blame — I never told them. Nor was I to blame: A 14-year-old child cannot consent to a sexual relationship with an adult man. Only the man who used manipulation and unequal power dynamics to prey on a vulnerable little girl was responsible — and a society that defends and protects that predator, and many more like him, by ignoring, dismissing, disbelieving, mocking, and devaluing black girls and women like me.
“The most disrespected woman in America is the black woman. The most un-protected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” Malcolm X’s words still ring true today. Abuse, neglect, and derision of black women are part of the shameful American legacy of chattel slavery and have profound impacts on our lives long before the word “slavery” enters our vocabulary.
Experiences like mine trap too many women like me in cycles of violence and poverty. Today, as the membership engagement coordinator with Positive Women’s Network — USA (PWN), a national advocacy organization led by women living with HIV, I train and support women to advocate for policies that protect our health, safety, and bodily autonomy. Ending violence against women is one of our six priorities. Women and girls should feel safe to report violence when it occurs and should be supported in healing from trauma.
Valuing black women and girls is about more than just condemning R. Kelly. As an advocate, I always have an ask. Today, my ask is this: Commit to protecting black girls. To believing black girls. To trusting black women. To supporting black women. Ending a problem as ancient and pervasive as this one requires all of us.
Evany Turk is the membership engagement coordinator for Positive Women’s Network — USA (PWN), a national advocacy organization of women living with HIV. She is also a woman who has been living with HIV for 17 years. Before starting at PWN-USA, she was a certified community health worker and a community advocate. Evany is the creator and author of evidence-informed community support group modules designed for women living with HIV. She is passionate about youth and young adults; she believes with mentorship they can change the world. She is from Chicago and currently lives in Dallas.