TV Writer Keli Goff: The Complexity of #MeToo for Black Women (Guest Column)

Courtesy of Julieta Cervantes; Courtesy of Subject
'To Kill a Mockingbird,' now on Broadway, centers on a black man falsely accused of assaulting a white woman. Inset: Keli Goff

A history of false accusations against black men drives many to question credible abuse accusations against figures like R.  Kelly and Justin  Fairfax, but "if we keep putting violence against women on the back burner, our community will never heal."

Actress Taraji P. Henson and singer Erykah Badu recently faced significant backlash for inartful comments seen as empathetic to R. Kelly, the R&B singer credibly accused of assaulting multiple teenage girls.  Though they later attempted to clarify their remarks, many were shocked that anyone would risk their career or waste an ounce of empathy on someone like Kelly. But some of us were not shocked at all. Because one of the largely unspoken realities of #MeToo has been just how complicated it is for women of color.

This complexity has been magnified in Virginia, where assault allegations against Lieutenant Gov. Justin Fairfax, who is African-American, rocked the political landscape and divided African-Americans in particular. Some who had argued that assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh rendered him unfit to serve on the Supreme Court suddenly went silent or made excuses. Those excuses tend to be comprised of those who believe the accusations against Fairfax are politically motivated and those who believe they are tinged with racial overtones — even though his original accuser is black. (A second accuser had just come forward at the time of this writing.)

Though supporters for these men have been criticized for victim blaming, misogyny and loyalty bordering on insanity, behind closed doors many African-Americans discuss how our tortured history haunts our views of #MeToo.

Playwright Loy A. Webb mines those closed-door conversations in The Light, her play about a black couple whose relationship is tested by a black celebrity's assault allegation, which opened at Manhattan's MCC Theater on Feb. 10. Webb tells The Hollywood Reporter that she was inspired to write The Light after sexual assault allegations against Birth of a Nation star and director Nate Parker resurfaced prior to the film's October 2016 release. Webb recalls hearing, "If black women don't support this movie, there will never be another black movie about a black figure like Nat Turner." She also notes the black women she encountered online who identified as assault survivors yet said they would still support Bill Cosby and Parker. Webb felt conflicted.

I did too — feelings that capture the complexities of modern black womanhood in the age of #MeToo. None of my white female friends worried that projects that matter to all women would cease to exist if Harvey Weinstein's or Les Moonves' career imploded. For black Americans, there is endless agonizing over how the success or failure of one person who looks like us may ultimately affect us all. While #MeToo has created a global sisterhood, it has also highlighted this disconnect between women of different races.

When Lena Dunham dismissed Bill Cosby as "just a rapist" and joked about him roasting on a pit in a 2015 conversation with Judd Apatow, her coarseness affirmed why many black people are loath to abandon problematic black male celebrities (and consider Dunham problematic). Even people who abhor Cosby's crimes acknowledge that he opened doors for African-Americans in entertainment and beyond. (GOP strategist Karl Rove, among others, cited The Cosby Show, and its depiction of a relatable black family, as paving the way for the election of Barack Obama.) Dunham's joking about seeing Cosby burned on a roasting pit before being convicted of a crime lies at the heart of the black community's tendency to "circle the wagons," as a friend put it, to protect black men.

Danielle Belton, editor-in-chief of African-American magazine The Root, says the tendency of some to defend black male celebrities can be traced back to high-profile cases of black men being falsely accused of racially tinged sex crimes, and killed, like 14-year-old Emmett Till. (It's worth noting that To Kill a Mockingbird, a story that centers on a black man falsely accused of assaulting a white woman, was adapted for the stage by Aaron Sorkin and is now on Broadway, and Marshall, a true story of a black man falsely accused of rape, was released in 2017.) Belton stresses that "there's a big difference between Emmett Till and R. Kelly." She believes that two realities can co-exist: "Black men can be oppressed and black men can be predators."

But given our community's history, coming to terms with these two realities is not easy. Some black women feel caught in an impossible position, as mothers, sisters or wives of men who have historically been targeted in a way other men have not. Yet historically, black women have been targeted in ways other women have not, from female slaves who were regularly raped by their masters, to the first public faces of sexual harassment. (The landmark 1986 case establishing sexual harassment as a violation of civil rights was brought by a black woman, Michelle Vinson, while Anita Hill would bring the term into the national consciousness with her 1991 congressional testimony. In both cases the men accused of victimizing them were also black.) All of this means that while #MeToo is just as important for black women as it is for other survivors, the reckoning #MeToo has forced may be even more painful for those of us in communities of color.

Webb explained that the first title of The Light was Bigger Fish to Fry, because she believes black women are often told to put our pain on the back burner because the community has "bigger fish to fry."

She's right. Black women are made to feel that way. But if we keep putting violence against women on the back burner and never confront our ghosts, our community will never have a chance to heal from its history.

Keli Goff is a television writer, a producer of the Netflix documentary Reversing Roe and a contributor to KCRW's Left, Right & Center.

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.