I may never detail for any public record or accounting the times that men have made me feel uncomfortable or unsure or violated by or about sexual or potentially sexual encounters, but I have those stories like most women.
I admire any person, woman or man, who chooses to speak out against a violation of their personhood. I have my own stories that I may tell or never tell because, without assuming any responsibility for any other person’s actions, how I behaved or what I said or what I felt is gray for me and only me, and I get to decide what to do with the nagging ambiguity that persists after something happens to me and my body that doesn’t quite feel right.
As long as I live, I get to decide now, and in every subsequent moment, if I haven’t always gotten to decide everything along the way, if I want to tell those stories, even if I don’t get to decide what happens if I do.
I know many of us are suffering a collective shock and sadness over the loss of Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and the other persons who died in that horrific helicopter crash. My heart aches for those that survive them. As a mother, especially, my heart aches.
As the news spread, I read articles and comments with my mouth agape, trying to imagine the grief of the mother of his 13 year old daughter and the anguish of the loved ones of all on board. Meanwhile, people online called other people online acknowledging the loss rape apologists and, him, a monster and a rapist. They wanted to relitigate the facts and share their perspectives regarding his culpability loudly before acknowledging that anyone else had died or suggesting that the lives lost, including his, were human lives deserving of empathy. They said that Kobe got what he deserved.
Even if a person had been proven to have committed and been convicted of multiple assaults, instead of accused of one, I couldn’t imagine anyone deserving to die in such a horrific way especially with their child. Even allowing this punitive perception of justice, which I categorically reject, I kept wondering in horror about the other people on the plane, the children in particular. What sense was there in their lost lives? Aren’t they worth acknowledging? In death and tragedy is anyone allowed gray?
That Kobe did admirable things that I haven’t seen many other people do on and off the court has been well highlighted, including agreeing to a offer a public apology to the alleged victim, carefully drafted to exclude an admission of guilt. But, as people shared their usual thoughts and prayers, I read as women, mostly white women, honed in on that well known transgression that Kobe Bryant is alleged to have committed when he was 24 in a way that I don’t think we had the language to do when he was 24 and we were whatever age we were in 2003, without allowing any space or nuance for any grief or expressions of regret around his death.
Times have changed since 2003. I don’t know many women who aren’t thankful that they have, myself included. I default to believing women and victims. However, the the well documented historical context and narrative of black men being falsely accused of sexual violence especially by white women rolls my certainty in this position in to doubt.
We can’t pretend that both things haven’t happened to deleterious effect in our country’s complex history.
Have individual black men raped or sexually assaulted or otherwise violated women, white or otherwise, in the history of America? Yes. Undoubtedly so. But, have individual black men been imprisoned, lynched, and murdered in other ways that other men have not for unequivocally false allegations made against them by women, white and otherwise? Yes. Incontrovertibly, yes.
We must hold both truths to be equal to do justice to reality, even if it winds us up in murky, gray, uncomfortable water.
As a black mother, and as a person generally, coequal with my disugst for rape and sexual violence, I live traumatized by the image of Emmett Till in that coffin seared in my mind’s eye, a perverse and damning mirror his mother lifted to this country of what our country does when black boys and men are even accused, even falsely as has been proven in the Till case, of wrongdoing, even wrongdoing far less nefarious than that outlined in the Bryant case. I live my whole life in a mortal fear of the day that my son will have to understand what that must mean for his life and his body as a black/biracial boy in this country, even 65 years later, and what that might do to his sense of self and place and personhood. I live knowing that what happened to that little boy happened during all of his grandparents’ lifetimes, and less than 30 years before his parents were born.
I grapple with two extremes. The extreme that tells me that men, powerful and not, can and do abuse women daily in ways that can feel like murders and that we must default to protecting and believing alleged victims, and the extreme that tells me that black men and boys are acutely vulnerable to such accusations and in other ways that society at large isn’t ready to or refuses to acknowledge.
I give no definitive or automatic pass for anyone here. There is no hard and fast rule for me at least on how to handle that discomfort and the guilt I sometimes feel around it in both directions, because both extremes are riddled with guilt knowing the reflexive and sometimes fatal consequences of being wrong either way.
While I feel sorrow for the lives lost on the helicopter, including Kobe Bryant’s, I haven’t watched the Cosby Show in years. Although it is unlikely that I will feel any great sadness or maybe anything, knowing that he served his time or at least some of it, I don’t know how I will feel when Bills Cosby dies, which given that he is 82, will be as an old man and probably peacefully. Does he deserve that outcome any more than Kobe Bryant did? The irony here is of course that Kobe had time in his shortened life to at least put a dent in restoring his image and to make amends with the community that mattered most to him and that was perhaps most disappointed in his behavior. I don’t imagine that Cosby will live long enough to do anything comparable now.
And, in my own life there are men, black and otherwise, that I will outlive who have committed horrible actions towards me and others and I honestly don’t know how I will feel when they die either.
As time passes, I know that I will continue to wrestle with what all this means for Kobe and for others about sexual assault and race and justice. Maybe I’ll pick apart the evidence with a new 2020 lens. I don’t remember how I felt in 2003. I was 19. The same age as his alleged victim.
But right now, I count it as a mercy that I alone, or any one of us alone, doesn’t get to decide the outcomes, especially when the water is gray. I don’t have to or even know how to choose who gets to have a legacy and what legacy, and who doesn’t. I’m grateful for that in this case.
And for today, and yesterday, and for now, I am unwilling to exert my energy about this in to anything other than a profound humility for the fragility of human life.