Grief and Betrayal: What Happens When Black Men Betray Us?

Over the past few weeks, social media has been in a whirlwind of think pieces and “call-ins”, as we (society) have grappled with the realizations that some of our faves (actors, entertainers), may not be as perfect as *we* (society) once thought. PLEASE do not read this as being in defense of ANY of the egregious acts of Cosby, Nas, Kanye, R. Kelly, or any other Black man that has recently made pop culture news for their thoughts or actions. I have ZERO desire, whatsoever, to defend any of that. I do wonder, however, how we can make space for more than one thing to be true at a time? AND, how can we allow folks to painfully interrogate/accept these truths within our communities? Is it possible, that SOME folks, may be both grateful that we (Black women and girls) are FINALLY seeing some accountability and justice, while also experiencing grief over the loss?

Before I start, here’s a NECESSARY disclaimer: I am NOT a pop culture critic, nor do I claim to be one. However, I have read a lot of different threads of folks calling Black communities, particularly Black women, out and in for their disbelief of Cosby’s convictions, Kanye’s rants (*insert eye roll here*), the #muting of R. Kelly, and the new allegations of interpersonal partner violence made by Kelis against her ex-husband, Nas. I want to suggest to you that maybe, just maybe, the feelings of disbelief are not about these particular men, but are instead about what they (may have) represented.

Before you write this off as another, “Cosby represented Black fatherhood and we can’t just throw that away” op-ed, hear me out. When working with folks who have experienced trauma and betrayal, it is more common than not for survivors to feel torn between what they believe they should be feeling, and what they are actually experiencing towards the people/person/relationship/experience that violated and betrayed them. Part of this dissonance is related to processing and wrestling with feelings of grief, for and/or towards someone that they feel they should be happy is gone and/or for something that they feel they should be relieved has ended.

Believe it or not, some folks experience grief and are immediately angry, some are confused, some in disbelief, some relieved, some saddened, some enraged, some even grateful…and every other feeling that you could imagine. Much of this complexity is because grief doesn’t only apply to the physical loss of a person. We can grieve people, places, things, relationships, experiences, could-haves, should-haves, would-haves….the list goes on and on. Given this, is it at all possible, that SOME folks are grieving the (informal and one-sided) relationships and representations that they may have once experienced with these celebrities?

Now, WE know that when Black men mess up or are wronged in some way, it’s usually (historically) Black women that show up on the front lines for them. WE also know that, when we are hurt, mistreated, and even murdered, it’s usually other Black WOMEN that show up and mourn for us. To be clear: We DO NOT have to let these folks back in to our homes, earphones, tv screens, or hearts, simply because they once provided some form of entertainment or artistic pleasure for us. We DO NOT (and should not) have to apologize for the terrible things that they have done, for the sake of #theculture. That is a cycle of violence that has been sustained and preserved by our culture and communities for far too long.

We CAN, however, sit discomfortably in the process that it takes to accept that the person/place/thing/relationship/representation/experience that we once knew and believed in, is not *that* anymore. Feelings of betrayal aren’t assuaged away simply because, “no one should feel sorry for them”. While that may be true for many of us, it’s normal to feel betrayed by (the relationship you felt you had with) someone you once admired or respected (yes, even if that person only PLAYED a beloved character on a classic tv show).

I guess my hope in sharing this, is that we can add some nuance to the conversation about why SOME folks are struggling to come to terms with the news. After all, a consequence of becoming attached to/invested in (via time, money, viewership, etc) any (public) figure is knowing that at any moment, they could betray the trust/relationship that we once had in/with them (*knock on wood that Queen Michelle Obama won’t ever leave me hanging out here*).

If you see/hear someone saying, “I’m not sure how to feel about all of this”, consider for a moment that they may be grieving a relationship that they once held to/with that person’s art, music, entertainment, portrayal, etc.. While it should go without saying, we also know and unapologetically believe that feeling (momentarily) conflicted over consuming/eliminating one’s art does not AT ALL compare to the necessity of valuing and protecting Black girls and women.

As consumers, we are often called to separate art from reality, entertainers from their on-stage personas, characters from real people…that’s just part of the *relationship* that we can’t ignore. We also can’t ignore that these informal relationships can be complicated and messy and not necessarily black and white, particularly if *we* are grieving and/or feeling betrayed. If you have any thoughts about this process of grief and betrayal, I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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