Over the last week, the #TimesUp movement has been in full motion after the conviction of “America’s Dad” Bill Cosby, followed by the powerful #MuteRKelly movement.
Commentary has come in droves with many feeling that the men are being targeted as a scheme to emasculate and destroy the image of Black men — crying how the two are being “publicly lynched” for all to see. Words have meaning, and we are walking a dangerous slope of the normalization of lynching, using this false comparison.
Use of the term “lynch” to describe what these two men are dealing with publicly is disrespectful to our ancestors who were met by death in this way. Our ancestors didn’t die so that their demise could be mentioned in the same breath as two sexual predators. They are being held accountable for their actions over the past 30 years. Their trials have been held in the real court room as well as the court of public opinion, however they are not being “lynched.”
They are being discussed with nuance, complexity, anger, and rage. They are not being hung up from trees like our ancestors, with white spectators laughing and cheering as their souls exit their bodies. They are not being beaten like piñatas, and having their cadavers photographed as if hunting animals and taking a trophy.
Bill Cosby and R. Kelly are still breathing despite the horrible things now attached to their names. Cosby convicted in criminal court, Kelly in the court of public opinion. They have lived lives with millions of dollars and luxuries that our ancestors were never afforded. Words have meaning, and we must stop doing this.
I’ve seen this normalizing of terms within our culture. Folks often use the word “rape” in ways that they shouldn’t be. I’ve heard guys say, “All these repairs on the car are raping my pockets”.
Playing basketball, I’ve heard guys say “you straight raped me” instead of using the word foul.
Rape is often dismissed as only two percent of those accused of it are ever convicted and using the term in a way to describe the “taking of something without consent” outside of sexual violence diminishes its meaning — making the word carry less power. We can’t do it with the word rape, and certainly shouldn’t with the word “lynch”.
The exact number of lynchings on record is 3,959 — with many thinking that number is much higher. Their names are now forever etched in stone at the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice, dedicated to the victims of lynchings, slavery and Jim Crow. From the ceiling hang 800 stones to memorialize the hangings of every black body, one stone for each county in which the lynchings occurred.
All these names telling a different story. A story of pain, of being enslaved, of racism and the grievous history that has been being Black in America. They aren’t telling a story of committing rape and sexual assault against Black women. Their names remind of where we come from, and we take strength from them. We honor them knowing that they are the shoulders upon which we fight against white supremacy every day.
They aren’t tearing down the image of Black men, or emasculating men. They are people we are proud of. They are not R. Kelly and Bill Cosby, and their legacy should not be tainted in equating the two situations in any way to what our people have been through. We have watched what lynching looks like back then with our ancestors, and now with every Black person killed while unarmed by police. R. Kelly and Bill Cosby are not being lynched.
Words have power and we can’t allow them to be used in a way that diminishes their true meaning. Our ancestors have been through too much for us to intertwine their legacy with two black men who don’t deserve our support.
George M. Johnson is the Managing Editor of BroadwayBlack.com. He has written for Ebony, TheGrio, TeenVogue, NBC News and several other major publications. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.