“He Too”: What Happens in the Arts When the Innovators Fall?
My “Me Too” statement, which debuted on social media at the height of last year’s clamor over the various high-profile men accused of abusing women, was this: “Me too, more times than I can count in more ways than I care to remember.” I wanted to contribute to the mass effort to raise awareness of the prevalence of violence against women, and I wanted to make more men aware of the impact that the Cro-magnon among them have on us. But I didn’t feel like taking that particular stroll down bad-memory lane. It would’ve taken too long for me to be more specific. There have been a lot of pervs, creeps, and stalkers in my life.
Apparently, there are pervs, creeps, and stalkers everywhere. Rapists, molesters, and domestic abusers too. Almost daily, the movement inspired by #Me Too, started a decade ago by social activist Tamara Burke in order to empower survivors of sexual violence, pulls back the veil on another guy who we thought was cool. And their accusers are becoming more vocal and less apologetic. This year at the Cannes Film Festival, Italian actress Asia Argento accepted her award and said,
I was raped by Harvey Weinstien in Cannes in 1997. I was 21 years old. This festival was his hunting ground. I’m going to make a prediction: Harvey Weinstein will never be welcomed here again. He will never disgrace the community that once embraced him and covered up for his crimes. Even tonight there are those that still need to be held accountable for his behavior.
It left her audience frozen and left me, watching on TV, with this thought: It’s a very different world than the one in which Woody Allen could stand accused of despicable acts and keep afloat in this world. That’s a good thing for the women vindicated by their own confrontations of abusers. Though I’m not entirely comfortable with the pattern I see in which accused men are almost immediately guilty upon accusation, I am enjoying the reversal of power. Women speak their formerly shameful truths, and the perverts tumble and fall.
I couldn’t care less about Weinstein or Allen, and I’m glad that there has been some payback for their behavior, as light and belated as Allen’s has been. And as Morgan Freeman now struggles to stay afloat in the good graces of the public, I can’t say I care much about him either. It seems pretty clear that he was a consistent nuisance to the women in his life—you know that guy on the job making one’s life miserable because the eyes, the hands, the comments, the close proximity—nay, the lurking—and the misuses of power.
But despite the empowering aspect of the numbers of men falling off their professional pedestals these days, each revelation is still somewhat shocking. There have been far more good guys than pervs in my life, so I’m prone to be biased in favor of men’s good behavior as I dodge the innumerable sharks in the water. Perhaps that’s why I’m so shocked when another public figure falls. And the more men fall, the more grey envelops the space that each man has left behind: what do I do with the legacies of men who I thought were good guys? What do we do with the remnants of the fallen false good guys who’ve made major contributions in our professional or creative arenas? Once the controversy clears around the revelation, do we pretend they never existed?
I’m embarrassed to say that when educational, literary, and lyrical scumbags take the dive at the behest of someone coming forward and revealing their violent side, I’m often at a loss. I’m happy to let Weinstein and Freeman—and finally, tardily, maybe Woody Allen—go under, if that’s where they’re going. But that’s because I’m not in film studies or the film industry itself. When men like Bill Cosby, Junot Diaz, and Afrika Bambaataa go under, though, I go under a little bit too. Their work is somewhat crucial to my work as an artist, a multicultural educator, and a writer.
I mean, I agonized over the Cosby revelation. He was an early advocate for Black Studies, and I had a quote from a 1968 TV movie of his in one chapter in my book. The quote was perfect for something I was trying to say about American education on slavery, and I didn’t want to remove it. It took me a full four months to cut that quote out of the manuscript. That’s how long my denial about the allegations lasted.
When I first heard the accusations about Cosby’s serial drug-facilitated raping of women, while the case was in some stage in which one could reasonably say, “well maybe it isn’t true,” I said to myself, “well maybe this isn’t true.” I mean, Black men in high power have been falsely accused of sex crimes for centuries; it’s the dynamic that set up many Black men to be lynched. Yet on the other hand, women’s true testimonies are way too frequently discounted and discredited. So, I froze in indecision until it became undeniably true.
Taking the quote out was very obviously the right thing to do, and I’m glad I did before anyone else read my book. But it still feels like a horrible end to a deep admiration I had. I grew up in the era of Fat Albert on Saturday morning TV. I attended Temple University when Cosby was repping us on NBC. I attended Howard University when A Different World was bigging up all HBCUs on TV. But more importantly—more devastatingly—I made my career as an educator out of diversifying and decolonizing curricula, fields in which Cosby was a giant. That’s the work that earned him his EdD.
So, do we have to eradicate him from the history of multicultural education because of his sex crimes against women?
Yes, I think we do.
If we don’t, we condone and contribute to rape culture.
So how do we handle his violence against humanity in light of his contributions to humanity? Do we give a disclaimer or caveat every time we mention him, like “the author’s mention of this scumbag is in no way an endorsement of his perversions. The author is trying to situate all this in her head”? Or do we need to invent a word or a phrase to use as a descriptor like those used in, say journalistic prose? “Comedian, educational innovator, and Fallen False Good Guy Bill Cosby advocated for equality in education long before it was revealed that he was a total pervert.” Here in Washington, DC and around the country , this is how most journalists handled former mayor Marion Barry’s drug use: adjectivally. At first, his vice replaced his name: DC Crack Mayor, he was called. Then, as it became more clear that he had been set up by a former lover to take that hit of crack in front of the planted cameras, the press softened a tiny bit. Every mention of his name was, and still is, preceded by words like “troubled” or “controversial.” (Cosby would have to get “misogynistic.”)
Somehow, none of it seems adequate, and I still float in the gray. I imagine comedians feel the same way about Cosby. After admitting that the charges against Cosby “look very bad,” comedian Dave Chappelle said that for him, wrestling with the allegations was like hearing that “chocolate ice cream had raped 54 people.” Sadly, I’m in the same boat regarding literary giants Junot Diaz and Hip Hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa. Chocolate ice cream seems to have forced affection on its female love interests and the underage teen boys in its care too.
When I heard about Junot Diaz’s abuses of women, I took a potent quote of his out of an article I was about to publish on Haiti. I was trying to link Haiti’s colonial history to the unkind decision of the Trump administration to revoke protection of Haitians who migrated here after the earthquake, and I’d chosen several lines from Diaz’s “Apocalypse” to do the job. It is the most succinct, well informed, morally clear, and eloquent statement on that country’s history I’ve ever read. But the article was to come out so soon after the allegations against him arose, that it was clearly not a good time to invoke his name. It was another difficult removal.
I may or may not stop using “Apocalypse” when I teach or write on the colonial histories that are often my subject. It’s gut-wrenching to imagine removing this favorite author of mine from my syllabi and my cache of people to quote when I write. And his solidarity with Haitians, as a Dominican, is incredibly important in light of those two countries’ ongoing conflicts. So I don’t really know how to weigh the charges against him: forced kisser, cross-cultural unifier; forced kisser, cross-cultural unifier? I don’t know.
When I heard about all the men who were accusing Hip Hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa of having molested them when they were boys, I didn’t know how to handle that either. Bambaataa is one of the founders of the culture, a profoundly influential peace-maker and cultural icon, and it’s impossible to remove him from the Hip Hop Studies that I teach every Spring. But how do I address the charges, which haven’t been proven in court but are too numerous to discount? And if I don’t address the charges, what am I tacitly condoning? Maybe I’ll put him and accused pervert Russell Simmons in a chapter all their own. I’ll call it “The Perving Pioneers” or something.
I’m still working out what to do with Kanye West in that class, too. His recent fall from public grace wasn’t because he committed any physical, sexual, or violent crime. He didn’t. But he made light of the most sexually violent, physically violent, and oppressive institution in American history. He did the most incredible victim blaming I’ve ever heard when he stated that American Slavery sounded like a “choice.”
Maybe I’ll cut him out of Hip Hop Studies and put him in Bill Cosby’s place in my book, but as an example of a person miseducated on slavery. (His mother did say once that he never did like to read.) But he did like to rhyme. So maybe I’ll just keep him where he’s supposed to be—in Hip Hop Studies. I could slap one of those cumbersome academic labels like “problematic in the realms of public discourse” on any material I present about his contributions and innovations to the art form.
I don’t know, but I’m giving it careful thought. Surely by the time I know what to do with Kanye West, I’ll know what to do with Bambaataa, Diaz, and Simmons. Whenever that is, it will be right on time; more alleged perverts and scumbags will surely have been revealed.
As I ponder the broad questions and tune in to the #MeToo movement’s demolition of all things Weinstien, though, something surprisingly encouraging does become clear: pushing the pervs to the margins of their own fields (where women, gender minorities, people of color, the poor, and LGBT artists and thinkers have been for too long) leaves room for more of us. Like how that female-led group of investors sought to buy the Weinstein Agency (and may still buy up its assets), we can replace the false good guys who have fallen.
Cutting out Diaz enabled me to add a Gloria Anzaldúa quote and an Edwidge Danticat link, I realize. Cutting out Cosby gives me more space to emphasize Sonia Sanchez’s contribution to the development of Black Studies. Decreasing the amount of time in which I wax adoring on Bambaataa leaves me the classroom time for that Roxanne Shante lesson I have long been wanting to teach, and downplaying Russell Simmons a bit leaves more space for discussion about Sylvia Robinson’s comparable genius.
When I think about it this way, it’s exciting. There are whole databases of women experts in our various fields and collectives dedicated to creating spaces for our voices! There doesn’t have to be no narrative where one was severed by the misdeeds of a creep, and there don’t have to be male voices just because men have dominated a given field. It’s a good time for writers, teachers, and other people positioned to recapitulate or reinvent narratives to go back to the drawing board—dig in the crates—and see who else’s creative work is in there.
Too many fellas have made it too hard for too long for us to get along in our professions. Their phone calls past the word “no,” their threats of violence, their actual violence, their touchy-feelies, and their slick talk have stunned us and slowed us down. Their insistence on shushing us, on eclipsing the truly good men and usurping authority from women and gender minorities, surely detracts from their field at least as much as their contributions enhance them. Sure it’s a complicated problem that arises when they fall off: if I sweep their legacies under the carpet, I lose their contributions. I also add energy to the erasure of them from histories they helped to build. But if I sweep under the carpet their sex crimes—or, in Kanye’s case, the crime of minimizing systemic and epidemic sexual violence by running his mouth about something he clearly hasn’t given much thought—I contribute to a society long complicit in the mistreatment of its people. It’s a good thing arts and letters, film, and all professional realms are so filled with so many alternatives to the fellas we thought were good men.
Sarah Trembath, or Sarah T. as she’s called, is a performance artist and a writing instructor at American University in Washington, DC. She is also a writer in cultural studies. Her short work has appeared in Everyday Feminism, The Rumpus, Sally Hemings Dreams ‘zine, and the Grace and Darkness anthology of DC-area women writers. She has completed her first book of creative nonfiction and poetry, entitled This Past Was Waiting for Me. It, like most of her work, has to do with America’s race-class history and the manner in which the hierarchies established centuries ago repeat, hold sway, and sometimes even do break apart in today’s world. Sarah T. is also instructor emeritus at Washington, DC’s Defend Yourself—a self-defense organization dedicated to eradicating gender-based violence and empowering marginalized people with their own self-protection. She lives in Anacostia, SE, DC with her husband and son.