As an independent filmmaker, I spent most of 2016 saluting Nate Parker. He beat the system at its own game. The man got Hollywood to pay top-dollar to mass distribute a slave-revolt film. But just when it looked like Nate was about to bomb on White supremacy with one of its own most-potent weapons — mainstream media — my high hopes were checked by a low point in Parker’s past.
The revelation of Nate’s sexual assault case — which, incidentally, has been public knowledge for his entire career, had anyone bothered to look on his Wikipedia page — shouldn’t present the dilemma that it does. But Nate is the latest freedom fighter to show the limits of human activism. Gandhi may have been a ruthless bigot and MLK may have been frolicking with snow bunnies behind Coretta‘s back, but do our worst flaws have to cancel out our best deeds?
The Parker saga is proving that everyone’s moral deal-breakers differ depending on who they are and how they are marginalized by the culture at large. My mother immediately announced a lifetime boycott of Nate’s work after reading the details of his and co-writer Jean Celestin‘s case. I can’t fault her for having such a drastic response. I will never know what it’s like to be a woman in a species that treats rape like an inconvenient necessity of the dating game.
But I had the opposite reaction. As embarrassed as I am to agree with Al Sharpton, I thought the reemergence of Nate’s case was sabotage from rip. This isn’t quite Bill Cosby bidding on NBC or Michael Jackson buying the Beatles’ catalog, but it doesn’t take Cali weed to imagine a motive for destroying Nate’s character before his film could have its intended impact. But we can’t ignore the impact Nate’s past actions had on his accuser. Intended or not, they contributed to her 2012 suicide.
And it’s plain hypocritical to point to Nate’s non-conviction by a justice system we all know to be unjust as proof that he is innocent of any wrongdoing. You might as well be a George Zimmerman supporter with that logic. So the more I consider the situation, the more I question my own moral boundaries, along with the true nature of activism.
What actually inspires humans to seek social justice: pure righteousness or shrewd selfishness?
My conscious prioritizes White supremacy as enemy number one in modern-society’s struggle for justice. But I’m realizing that’s only because it directly affects me. Despite my light skin, White supremacy is a reality I’ve navigated since the day I learned what race was. And despite the privileges my skin tone represents in my own community, life has shown me that my nose, lips, and hint of melanin are just enough to remind an insecure White man of what he lacks.
So I’m naturally more concerned with police brutality and the prison industrial complex than rape culture or equal pay. But just as White people struggle to notice the patterns of systematic racism that fly beneath their privileged radars, I don’t always recognize the passively violent signs of misogyny that infest our patriarchal culture.
So I had to start questioning why I’m more likely to sh*t on Chris Paul or Draymond Green for their well-documented histories of hitting opponents in the nuts than I am to call out Ray Rice or Brandon Marshall for their well-documented histories of hitting women in the face.
The simple excuse is because I have nuts, I’ve been hit in them, and I would do everything in my power to eliminate that pain from the face of the Earth forever. But I also have a sister, a mother, and a nation of women I’ve sworn to protect. It’s taken me too long to realize I can’t protect them if, above all else, I’m focused on protecting my nuts. The fact that I immediately empathized with Nate and not his accuser was a wake-up call to the flaws in my mentality.
I knew I needed to stop holding onto my balls when I realized my biggest fear related to rape is the possibility of being wrongfully accused and not the possibility of a victim’s true story being overlooked. My parents were vigilant in making me aware of the many booby traps that await Black men in America in the quest to survive past 25. Now, two months into my 25th birthday, I still have a slight complex about being sexual with White women, likely because of what I learned about Emmett Till and the false claims that doomed so many men of color throughout this country’s history.
But The New York Times reports that only an estimated 2 to 10 percent of rape accusations are false and only six of every 1000 accused rapists will serve jail time.
So it shouldn’t have taken a Thanksgiving scolding from my sister, who is two years younger and 20 years wiser, for me to understand that by playing devil’s advocate to every incident of sexual or domestic abuse, I was perpetuating misogyny and rape culture. Stories about Cosby and Derrick Rose were in the news last fall when she went in on me. I was instinctively playing the role of skeptic in both cases. Not defending their alleged actions, but maintaining an air of reasonable doubt.
Selfishly, I saw myself more in the Black men who are still susceptible to neo-lynchings than in the women who are victimized every time a lame cat-calls them or a well-meaning elder shames them for dressing provocatively. Clothing should never provoke rape, but we know it can. And though we like to pretend we can forgive each other for our flaws and missteps, it can be harder than we care to admit.
But how do any of us decide who to forgive and who to exile?
The lingering shame from Kobe Bryant’s rape case has been focused more on his infidelity and dry snitching than the alleged assault. But in giving Kobe the benefit of the doubt, we enable the Darren Sharpers of the world to fly under the radar.
Even in his case, I can’t stop myself from pondering the root dysfunction that could drive a man capable of wooing Gabrielle Union to the point of systematically drugging and raping dozens of women. Is it wrong that even the most heinous violators of God’s laws make me consider the nature and nurture that created them?
Earlier this year, R. Kelly revealed to GQ that a family member molested him when he was a preteen. That’s no excuse for Robert to prey on teenage girls himself, but it adds some context. We already knew about the childhood abuse Michael, Chris Brown, and Mike Tyson experienced. And though their pain can’t pardon the pain they’ve reportedly inflicted upon others, it can’t be removed from the equation.
What made Cosby and the honorable Elijah Muhammad power-hungry enough to betray the faith of their loyal followers and take advantage of vulnerable young women? And what was it about 19-year-old Nate’s experience as a Black man in America that made tag-teaming a drunk White woman with his wrestling buddy his idea of fun?
I can’t help but ask these questions. Not to remove blame, but to gain understanding. I can’t turn my back on Nate any quicker than I can on Tupac, or any of my friends who’ve participated in activities that could have led to the same fallout as Nate’s case.
As this excellent post from Demetria Luca D’Oyley explains more eloquently than I can in this setting, there are elements to this story that many of the Black feminists who are coming for Nate’s head refuse to acknowledge or understand.
So while I can’t excuse the decisions Nate and Jean reportedly made that night, I also can’t help but rationalize them. And yes, typing that, I feel as guilty as Judge Aaron Persky should feel. He let Brock Turner walk because, like Turner, he or his friends probably partook in some questionable activities during their time at undergrad. And like Persky with Turner, I can’t help but see Nate’s humanity where others see a monster.
But not all monsters can be rehabilitated. As a loyal disciple of hip-hop, I paused before reacting to the overwhelming proof that Afrika Bambaataa abused little boys and that Big Pun beat his wife. Even when Cee-Lo proved he was really ’bout that date-rape life that Rick Ross was rapping about, I considered his perspective first. The rhymes and melodies he’s been sharing with me since childhood made him a friend in my head. And none of us want to believe the bad things we hear about our friends.
But if someone is truly your friend, they will tell you when you’re f*cking up. And you will do the same for them. So I have to tell all of my friends, real or imagined, how crazy we all look letting our selfish conscious override our righteous one. I don’t know why rape and racism are so common across all of Earth’s so-called civilized cultures, but they both need to be addressed, with honesty and bravery.
That means refusing to be pressured into the false dilemma of choosing to oppose either rape culture or Eurocentric culture. I can support The Birth of a Nation while still holding Nate accountable for his actions.
I don’t expect the women who’ve spent their whole lives enduring rape culture to feel empathy for the actor or his current PR dilemma. Maybe the shame he’s feeling now is karmic justice for the shame he reportedly inflicted on his accuser. But don’t expect me to ignore the empathy I feel for a young Black genius either.
I won’t hesitate to tell Nate to his face that his actions, both on the night of the incident and since its been spotlighted, were cowardly abuses of the power we’ve been privileged as men in a man’s world. But I will just as quickly stand behind him on his brave mission to dismantle the system that abuses its power over us everyday.
We can hold Nate accountable without holding him prisoner to his past. I just don’t understand why so many believe inflicting punishment and pain will bring us any closer justice.
Supporting The Birth of a Nation doesn’t have to mean letting Parker off the hook for his wrongdoing. But trashing and boycotting it before it can hit its target definitely means giving White supremacy another pass for its past.
I refuse to let Cousin Nate or Uncle Sam slide for any longer, but that doesn’t mean turning my back on them for good. It means facing their mistakes with a straight face and genuinely seeking solutions.
America raped my ancestors and has spent decades trying to brainwash their descendants into believing it was consensual. And, guilty or not guilty, Nate used a woman’s body like a disposable object and hid behind the powerful arms of patriarchy when called to answer for the violation. Both sides need to learn. Which is why I pray this entire controversy ends in a teachable moment for all parties.
Nate must accept full responsibility for his poor judgement and cowardly actions just as urgently as America must acknowledge and make amends for its evil deeds. That means neither can reference time passed, ignorance, or innocence in an attempt to duck accountability.
It’s harder to admit your own wrongdoing than it is to report the wrong that’s been done to you. But no matter what you’ve done or endured, you can’t get to a new future until you’ve fully embraced your past. Nate Parker is a hero for refusing to let America forget the pain and suffering it inflicted with slavery. By that same token, he can never forget the pain and suffering he caused his accuser. Accountability, like justice, is a two-way street.
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