In the emotional days following the death of Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna in a helicopter crash, Black people, in our shock and sorrow, seemed to be united. Through shares and retweets, in conversations both private and public, Bryant’s larger-than-life influence on our collective psyche was as palpable as the hush caused by his death. Black women, confronted with the raw vulnerability of Black men and boys facing the loss of their hero—and their own mortality—gave them a safe space to weep and mourn. This is radical, Black love, we thought. This is us at our best.
Then, Gayle King, a Black woman in the United States of America, dared to ask a question. And the jig was up.
On Thursday, CBS posted a clip of King’s interview with WNBA star Lisa Leslie, a longtime friend of Bryant. In the clip, taken from a longer interview about Bryant’s legacy, King pressed Leslie on whether the 2003 rape accusations, later dropped in criminal court and settled in a civil case, tainted the way that Bryant would be remembered. For Leslie, it was clearly a painful and difficult moment as she discussed her late friend just days after his passing. For King, it would soon become a disaster.
I’m uninterested in debating whether, as a journalist, King was wrong for her line of questioning. Not just because I do not believe in telling another Black woman, and a veteran of her industry at that, how to do her job, but also because it stands completely beside the point.
If you’re a Black woman reading this, you no doubt know the immeasurable weight of misogynoir. We’re always in danger of being crushed beneath the precarious burden of racism and sexism. We bob and weave our way through a patriarchy that makes no real space for us, especially if we dare to break free of the tropes of who we are expected to be. But if the backlash to King clarifies anything, it is that retribution never seems more swift than when Black women step outside of the confines of how a Black man expects us to speak, act, or think. It is how some people in Black communities can go from extolling the virtues of being a #GirlDad one moment, to being out for the blood of a woman who dared to go off of their approved script of behavior the next.
Indeed, it took mere minutes for the massive drag of King through the internet streets to begin. LeBron James framed his by calling for the protection of Lisa Leslie, no doubt at the expense of King. Snoop Dogg was more graphic with his, calling her a “funky dog head b****” who should watch herself before “we come get you.” Ari Lennox, a victim of misogynoir herself just weeks ago, shifted to being an aggressor without hesitation, labeling King a “coon” in a profanity-laced tirade. Bill Cosby, serving time in prison after being convicted of raping and drugging women, took to Twitter to drag King—or someone from his camp did it in his name.
Tragically, yet not at all unexpectedly, so many of those same men extolling the virtues of being a #GirlDad took no issue with degrading and debasing another Black woman, allegedly in honor of a man who spent years of his too-brief life striving to ensure that women were empowered and respected. And in the same breath used to ask the world to avoid bringing up Bryant’s darkest moments, most would dare not even consider affording any grace for King.
In an interview, Oprah Winfrey tearfully noted that her friend is “not doing well,” and had been forced to travel with security in the face of death threats. “Obviously all things pass; she will be ok. But she hasn’t slept in two days,” she added.
Yes, navigating this environment is something Black women and girls must learn quickly. In a sea of microaggressions, most of us rapidly reach a point where very little surprises us. And yet, what will never stop shocking me to my core is the neck-breaking pace with which the collective can turn against a Black woman and toss her to the wolves.
Though Kobe Bryant’s death may have elevated him to a god in the minds of some people, his legend already growing to mythic proportions, this is not about him. It is about violence—emotional, verbal, and physical—against Black women being the default of so many Black people in this country. The lie that abusers tell themselves is that it is to protect someone’s legacy, or someone’s job, or someone’s family, or someone’s freedom. But, in truth, it is because Black men have too few heroes and too many Black women are the receptacles for everyone’s pain and wrath because of it.
Money and proximity to power may provide some level of protection for King, but, today, she is still another Black woman left alone to pick up the pieces of herself.