Editor’s Note: Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has been a producer, reporter and editor at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Jones is co-author of “Say it Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete.” She talks politics, sports and culture weekly on Philadelphia’s Praise 107.9 FM. The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
Watching CBS anchor Gayle King’s emotional interview this week with musician R. Kelly about the sexual assault allegations he faces, it would be easy — for some – to fall into false cultural stereotypes of the menacing, violent black man. Easy to see Kelly as a threat to King. And I don’t doubt that that was the gut reaction of many people in America this week who watched the first segment of a three-part interview on “CBS This Morning.”
But that reaction is a mistake. If you saw only the stereotypes, you missed a demonstration of the courage and code-shifting required of black women every day (indeed, of all women) — both in our professional lives, and in our personal lives.
Gayle King saw past this cultural trap. As R. Kelly’s agitation grew – as he raised his voice, cried into the camera, and finally stood, yelling and gesturing forcefully over King – she was unflappable, in control.
Women are generally experts at recognizing, de-escalating and calming the rage of angry men in order to get the job done. It’s not a role that we have asked for, but one many of us have had plenty of incentive to master. Women understand if we fall apart, become hysterical or fight back we risk putting our lives and often our livelihoods at risk. We also risk being labeled “unstable.”
“It wouldn’t do any good if we both got hysterical,” King later said when her colleagues asked her if she was afraid of Kelly. “I didn’t think he’d deliberately try to hurt me. … I never felt endangered talking to him. I just thought he had a lot of emotion and he wanted to release it,” she explained. “He wanted to get it off his chest.”
And that is why her interview with R. Kelly was so powerful. So brilliant. She sat quietly, calmly prompting her subject, and giving the world an unfiltered, unbiased look at Kelly for the first time since the Grammy-award winning artist was charged, last month, with 10 counts of aggravated sexual abuse of four women, three of them underage girls, from 1998 to 2010. Kelly denies these allegations.
In keeping her cool, King helped us understand this horrible story beyond the headlines. It was a master class, a virtuosic display of journalism.
But I know I’m not the only woman who found it personally uncomfortable to watch. Seeing the body language between those two – the aggressive arm waving and pointing, the profanity – took me to a painful place. It reminded me of moments in my life I’d rather forget – and some that many women could identify with – such as confronting an unfaithful husband, boyfriend, or abusive boss. The anger and frustration you feel when you know he is lying to you, taking you for a fool who will believe anything, and avoiding any accountability for his misconduct.
It’s the same feeling I felt while watching the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh. My gut told me that Christine Blasey Ford was telling the truth when she said Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were teens (he denies this) But before a congressional committee, Kavanaugh grew bombastic and sanctimonious in his denials.
He, too, faced a tenacious questioner, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, who asked him about his drinking and whether he had ever blacked out. Klobuchar, too, knew how to handle this kind of man. She calmly refused to back down, even as he exploded at her – gesticulating, yelling, crying and making angry faces over a challenge to his truthfulness.
It worked for him. He’s now a Supreme Court justice.
Klobuchar is running for president.
I had a deeper observation watching Gayle King’s nuanced interview with R. Kelly. It reminded me, on a much more personal level, that what the world views as violent behavior in black men (and women, like myself) — raised voices, clenched fists, foul language and angry tears – is part of the legacy of pent-up anger we carry with us every day in an America that remains unjust for us.
And like King, we all try to stand our ground. Compose ourselves. Pose our questions with compassion and with calm but without fear. It’s not easy.
When she sat down with Kelly, King was daring him to explain his alleged transgressions. He has been accused of many: having sex with underage girls, holding women against their will at his home, abusing women and controlling when they were allowed to eat or use the bathroom and other horrendous acts, according to reports.
Kelly failed to explain.
He adamantly denied any wrongdoing. He failed to take responsibility. He faulted everyone but himself for the situation he finds himself in now: The women he says only wanted money or fame from him are lying, he says; their parents were fine with him around their daughters until he stopped giving them money (which the families deny); people on social media have spread these lies about him. And most incredibly, of the nearly 50 people who said they witnessed Kelly have sex with or abuse underage girls, he said, well, “They are all lying.”
The truth is never black and white. It’s possible that some women did seek relationships with Kelly because they wanted his fame and fortune. I worked with professional athletes for decades and have witnessed firsthand the extremes some women (and their families) will go through to attach themselves to a celebrity. But that is not the norm. And it’s beside the point, even if a few underage women did befriend Kelly for his fame, it is no defense for the sexual abuse allegations Kelly faces.
This case will not be simple. It is not good vs. evil. So little in life is, no matter how much we want it to be.
But I don’t buy Kelly’s tearful, angry denials. I don’t believe he’s “being assassinated,” as he told Gayle King. And I definitely don’t believe that the dozens of women over decades who have accused him of sexual misconduct and abuse are all liars.
Kelly has had his say and now he will have his day in court (again). I hope justice is not denied this time around.