On Friday afternoon, powerful men and women took Center Stage at the 2019 Essence Festival to share their stories of survival from sexual assault and abuse, as well as the importance of speaking your truth and sharing your story, despite the blame, shame and backlash that could follow.
Actor and activist Terry Crews, his wife, Rebecca King Crews, and R. Kelly survivor Asante McGee sat down with psychiatrist Dr. Jessica Clemons (affectionately known as Dr. Jess) for the panel Breaking the Cycle of Silence to Heal Our Communities.
Clearly, all the people sitting on this panel had important stories to share, with Crews becoming a prominent male voice in the #MeToo movement after sharing his story of sexual assault at the hands of a Hollywood executive, Adam Venit and with McGee being one of the faces that have become well-known ever since the documentary Surviving R. Kelly.
On the panel, they discussed the importance of speaking up and sharing their story, even though there is a lot of fear, a lot of repercussions and a lot of backlash that came their way.
” For me as a woman and then being a Black woman when we’re actually abused a lot of people don’t actually take us seriously or believe us,” McGee said. “So as a mother and as a woman I felt that my story needed to be heard and to help whatever victims that they have out there, not just his victims but there are other victims all over the world, men and women.”
Rebecca King Crews, who was with her husband the night he was assaulted noted that prior to telling the story it was like being in a prison, one that they eventually broke free of from telling their truth.
“It was important to speak the truth in that setting because largely we were dealing with people that had control over our livelihood and not only that did that put us in a state of being a prisoner, being a prisoner within our system, within our entertainment industry, but it provided a source of intimidation about how you were going to make your living on top of the fact that there was a sexual assault,” she said. “So speaking the truth for us meant in a way breaking out of a prison of fear and intimidation and standing up against something that was unjust.”
As for Terry Crews, it was not just about setting himself free, but also about giving back that ability to others who may be going through the same thing. It is why naming these acts of violence and advocating for survivors has become his and his wife’s “destiny.”
“It’s a way of breaking up a whole, setting free a whole nation of people who have been suffering and this is why it’s important,” he said. “It was something that was our purpose. This has become our destiny. It’s probably the most important thing we’ve ever done.
However, coming forward is never an easy job. You only have to watch the news cycle or read internet comments to see how ugly and toxic the skepticism of these truths can become.
McGee noted that after filming the documentary, after getting death threats and all sorts of awful comments she began to suffer from depression.
She was compelled to write her book No Longer Trapped in the Closet: The Asante McGee Story, to give people a better understanding of who she was, and what truly happened to her.
“I was physically abused by my mom and then I was in a marital abuse for 13 years and so I was looking for love in the wrong way,” she explained to Dr. Jess. “And so I just wanted people to maybe understand a little bit about my background and understand that abuse has no age. And so, stop telling and blaming victims, ‘oh you old enough,’ or ‘you knew better,’ it has nothing to do with age or anything like that.”
However what made it worth it, in the end, were those in the public who ended up thanking her for sharing her story, or finding the courage themselves to leave their own abusers.
“I started getting those messages from people telling me ‘thank you for telling your story, because of you I was able leave my abuser,’” she added. ” When you receive more uplifting messages versus the hate, then that just gave me the willpower to continue speaking my truth because I feel like I would not be silenced anymore.”
For the Crews family, it became a movement to shift the narrative. We all know Crews as a big and strong, capable Black man. Could he have fought off his assaulter? Absolutely, but the way the media would have swung the story – something that he had addressed in the past – gave him pause.
“I had warned my husband on many occasions that he couldn’t just go beating people up. Because he had done that,” Rebecca King Crews pointed out candidly. “And I said you’re going to go to jail, or you’re going to get sued and we’re going to get messed up because of someone provoking you. So we’d had this conversation and literally we just both knew the only thing we could do was just leave the party. Because the way the narrative would play out: Angry Black Actor Beats Up White…Executive. And Terry would have killed him.”
“I’ve discovered that I had to think my way out of situations and not fight my way out of situations,” Terry added. “It was a real pivotal point, this was a watershed moment because by listening to [my wife], it saved my life. I would not be here right now, if I would have punched that man, I would have been in jail and everybody would have believed the story that I just got angry, he spilled a drink on me, I got angry and I beat him up and no one would have believed me.”
“The strength comes when you think your way through, you pray your way through and all of a sudden, the way became clear,” Crews said. “There are so many Black men that have come up to me and told me that this thing had happened to them. But they were set up. They’ve been molested, they punched back and they had to spend years in jail because of something like this happening and no one believing their story. This is something that is so common, it happens so often that it blows my mind and we really blew the lid off of this thing. This is why I say this is our purpose. Now people know it’s okay to tell your story, it’s alright.”
Of course, Crews also praised the #MeToo movement, something he has done extensively in the past, for giving him the courage to speak up publicly.
“This was pre-#MeToo, if I had gone to the police or anything like that I would have been laughed out of the precinct and this was also a time when people believed that you as a man could never actually be sexually assaulted,” he pointed out. “And when the women of the #MeToo movement came forward, I viewed that as a hole in the fence and I watched those women escape and I ran right after them, and that is when I came public. With the inspiration and through the courage that they showed actually gave me the courage to go forward and tell my story.”
Rebecca King Crews through it all stood by her husbands side, supporting him through prayer and of course, encouragement, but also noted that “they messed with the wrong people.”
In the end, Rebecca King Crews dropped a word about understanding the culture of blame and the importance of listening to and absolutely believing all victims in order to help break the cycle of blame, shame, and silence.
“The culture of blame is something that we do to ourselves to protect ourselves from the idea that we could be victimized. So, one you have to absolutely believe people. When you have your children come to you, your friends come to you, people come and share their story, believe them, empathize with them and encourage them to speak up and to stand up,” she insisted. “It is important to not let victims feel like they are alone and like they are the fault for what happened to them. And if you are a victim you must absolutely erase the idea that you did anything to deserve what happened to you.”
Watch the full panel discussion below: