In 1996, I started seeing the ubiquitous, now infamous Hard Core poster all over New York City. Lil’ Kim: squatting, knees spread-eagled, legs open wide. Her animal print bra and (presumably) thong, wrapped around her vagina like a holiday gift, as she thrust her pelvis forward--it conveyed body confidence and sexual prowess.
In this brazen act of displaying her sensuality, Lil’ Kim received backlash and was labeled all kinds of “ho’s” (as a patriarchal, misogynist society is wont to do). But as a first year student in high school who, thanks to being the daughter of West Indian immigrants, was new to the hip hop game, I relished in it. I loved seeing a female rapper who was “hard” getting acclaim. I was 14-years-old.
Little did I know, the girl in the picture was only 3 years older than me.
In a fairly recent interview on Hot 97 (97.1fm in NYC), Kimberly Denise Jones reveals that she was just 17-years-old when she posed for that provocative photo. This poster, that was hanging everywhere from prison cells to bedroom walls, featured an underage GIRL.
Kim had a violent relationship with her father and, when he kicked her out of his house, she was the same age that I was when i first encountered her: 14. Kim had to start fending for herself and sold drugs and sex (with grown men) before she met the Notorious B.I.G. (better known as “Biggie”).
She was still an underage teenager.
In a 2016 XXL article, Kim said she was “only 16, 17-years-old” when she was recording Hard Core. She said, “I was just a little kid trying to enjoy my teenage life...they kind of marketed me as an older girl, even though I wasn’t.” Moreover, it was common knowledge that Biggie and Kim were engaged in an ongoing sexual relationship. Once we start doing the math, the uncomfortable truth starts to set in--did Biggie engage in sexual activity with an underage Kim?
This girl could have been me or any one of my middle or high school friends. We used to think it was cute to “talk to” (meaning get the romantic attention of) older guys. “He thinks I’m 19,” you would hear 14-year-olds say. But even as we gave into the glamorous appeal of being perceived as older women, our weekday schedules and backpacks alluded to the fact that we were children. The notion that we were even able to consider ourselves older speaks to an “underage woman” culture.
There is no such thing as an “underage woman.” There are only underage girls. Society doesn’t see Black girls as innocent or worthy of protection, so that’s why if you say “women” you twistedly make young girls responsible for their own harm and abuse. Biggie could have waited for Kim to turn 18 before he yoked her with promiscuity. Or, he could have chosen to lace her in the Afrocentric consciousness like Queen Latifah. But, he didn’t. Because, in this hypersexual/hyper-repressive culture, sex sells.
This exploitation makes Biggie no better than Robert (R.) Kelly. And, in the aftermath of the release of the documentary that proffers a comprehensive exposé of Robert’s calculated abuse of Black girls and women, many of us are still ruminating and saying, “but we knew this the whole time.”
The systems and silence surrounding Robert’s abuse of underage Black girls and Black women were known facts. Whenever I talk to Black women who grew up in Chicago, they all say the same things:
“Everybody knew to stay away from him.”
“We knew to stay away from Olympia Fields.”
”We knew he was a predator.”
If everyone knew, how could this evil keep happening? Mikki Kendall, a survivor of Robert’s abuse stated, “We all noticed. No one cared because we were Black girls.”
In Robert’s case, we knew. He told on himself and we still allowed it to happen for generations. In Biggie’s case, we didn’t know, but it’s the same principle. Now that we know, our actions must be in alignment with our knowledge or we, too, are complicit in the ongoing sexual abuse of Black girls and women.
And, if we’re honest with ourselves, we have known in our own communities, too. In our churches we hear things like:
“Everybody knows to stay away from Pastor John.”
“We know to stay away from that deacon.”
“We know he is a predator.”
And, yet, because it is grotesque--it is freakish to see and comprehend the act of a grown man sexualizing a little girl, we look away. It’s like when we’re driving on a highway and traffic starts to bottleneck. We wonder what’s causing the delay and notice a car accident; then, while driving, we crane our necks to see what happened. The people who are looking are curious about the occurrence, but they don't necessarily want to see a decapitated body. They want to know, cerebrally, but, they don’t want to be confronted, conceptually, with the disfigured truth.
It is painfully gut-wrenching to bear witness to the grotesque truth of childhood sexual abuse. We do not want to affirm it and, for victims/survivors, we don’t want to remember it. But if it’s burdensome for you, the viewer, how do you think survivors feel? Each and every act of childhood sexual abuse is evil, demonic, sordid, and must be condemned. But how do you denounce something you won’t even face?
What if remembering is the way forward? What if the very thing we are trying to ignore is what we need to recall? What if we need to let the painful memories bubble up and over instead of repressing them with religion? What if we need to embrace the nightmares instead of suffocating ourselves with negative self-talk?
What if remembering is how we re-member victims of childhood sexual abuse? Our bodies have been through too much for social constructs and respectability politics to try to erase us and our stories. We are here. We need more. And we deserve better.
Lyvonne “Proverbs” Picou is a preacher, transformational speaker, poet, educator, and creative social entrepreneur. She is the founder of beautiful scars(@WereSurthrivors), an online platform for Black women who are also survivors of childhood sexual abuse and/or male sexual violence. By harnessing the power of narrative, she is aiding survivors (and communities, at large) to shift from silence to storytelling in order to eradicate gender-based violence. She can be found on Facebook and LinkedIn, as well as Twitter and Instagram (@LyvonneP).