Bill Cosby Black community black excellence criticism Monique Pressley rape and sexual assault rape culture
I’m Not Here for Monique Pressley. At All.1/17/2016
by Jameelah Jones @SunnyDaeJones Ever since the public learned that Bill Cosby’s lead defense att...
by Jameelah Jones
by Jameelah Jones
Ever since the public learned that Bill Cosby’s lead defense attorney is Monique Pressley—a black woman—his pending Pennsylvania sexual assault case has mutated from overtly damaging to covertly revealing the seldom spoken-about oppressions that are pervasive within the Black community: classism, rape culture, misogyny, and internalized inferiority complexes to keep the list short. The HBCU grad has been revered as a pillar of Black Excellence and a pinnacle of Black woman success. The overall tone of the Black community has not only been of acceptance, but outright celebration of her accomplishments. I must admit that her expertise, no-nonsense approach, and zeal for her client seem appealing… until, of course, one has truly absorbed what she represents.
Monique Pressley is, in many ways, the antithesis of Black Excellence. If anything, she is proof that we have yet to conceptualize what the term truly means. Black Excellence is not a Black woman embodying the empty, overused, resectable pretense of racial “progress.” Progress is not Black women using their own positions of power to uphold rape culture.
Progress is when rape culture is finally eradicated.
Monique Pressley could use her legal expertise to dismantle the powers of patriarchy, misogyny, and rape culture. Yet what does she do instead? She shames women for making “poor choices,” while scolding them about their “responsibility to report.”
I also feel the urge to address those who will say, “Well, if you ever got in trouble, you would want somebody like her defending you.” Yes, I would prefer a Black female lawyer should I ever need one. (Let’s remember that Black folks do in fact, need lawyers for many other reasons beyond trying to beat a charge.) But most importantly, we must not erase the context for Pressley’s arrival onto the public arena: Bill Cosby is not just “in trouble.” He is accused of sexually assaulting approximately 50 women over more than four decades. I can confidently say that's “trouble” I would NEVER find myself in.
To claim Monique Pressley as the Black woman we would ALL want to have on our side is immensely problematic. Most notably, it erases the damage she is causing survivors of sexual assault and rape—especially those who are told to be silent about their pain—so that she can be celebrated. She represents the notion that these women’s time would be better served uplifting a “Black community” that has long since discarded them.
We have allowed the shadow and fear of Black inferiority to creep over our community so much so that we see any flicker as a bright light leading us to the promised land. But what if it's leading us over a cliff? (Shade intended.)
Could it be the Black community has so internalized the idea of Black Excellence as an exception—rather than the rule—that some of us are willing to settle for the likes of Pressley and Cosby? Black excellence doesn't always look like a well-educated, Black lawyer viscerally defending a Black man. Can we find Black Excellence in the Black rape survivors—the ones doing all they can to survive in a world that consistently blames, shames, and ignores them?
When we use Black Excellence to contextualize the work and legacies of Bill Cosby and Monique Pressley, we risk the dangerous consequence of deeming part of our community disposable, undeserving of the title. Aligning the notion of Black Excellence with Cosby or Pressley makes said “black excellence” a repackaged narrative of respectability.
Many of Cosby’s critiques of the Black community are nothing more than thinly veiled jabs at Black women—particularly those who do not follow the socially acceptable narratives of respectable behavior. Hailing Pressley’s education and career as the paramount example of Black Excellence erases Black women whose stories don't include attaining a law degree. The viral celebration of Pressley also sends the message that Black women, even if they are successful, are only worthy of attention and praise when they are defending Black men, however reprehensible these men’s actions may be. What would it look like to redefine Black Excellence in a way that does not depend on a rigid, antiquated, oppressive contrast between “good” and “bad” Black folks? What if we could build a community that embraced excellence and did not require prestige for entry? What if Black Excellence also meant making a conscious effort to center and uplift the lives of Black people that do not benefit from a classist, patriarchal hierarchy of achievement?
A definition of Black Excellence that celebrates and advocates for the full range of Black lives would serve us much better than one that panders to the existing standards of success and respectability.
No, I am not here for Monique Pressley. I have no obligation to her. My obligation is to the Black women most often forgotten while most of us are focused on uplifting the Pressleys and Cosbys of the world as ill-conceived examples of Black success, excellence, and humanity.
Monique Pressley deserves to be treated with decency. However, her name will not pass my lips as the kind of Black woman that I or my future children should strive to be. There are plenty of Black folks that I can love and support, who do not craft public careers on the backs of those who are victimized, erased, and most vulnerable.
I don’t have to settle for Bill Cosby. And I don’t have to settle for Monique Pressley either.
Jameelah Jones is a graduate student pursing a Master's degree in African and African-American studies at the University of Kansas. In her spare time, she writes poetry on the back of all her graded essays. Follow her on twitter @sunnydaejones.