“How dare people compare Maya Angelou to men accused of domestic violence?”

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Moya Crockett
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She was a sex worker. They were alleged abusers. They’re not the same thing, says Moya Crockett.

On Monday, US rapper XXXTentacion was shot dead in Deerfield Beach, Florida. The musician, real name Jahseh Onfroy, was just 20 years old, and his unexpected death – it’s thought he was the victim of a random robbery – rocked the community where he lived. People poured onto the streets of Miami to attend a candlelit vigil in his honour on Thursday night, posing for photos with their arms crossed in Xs, writing messages in chalk on pavements, and releasing white balloons into the air.

Like all celebrity deaths, Onfroy’s murder also sent shockwaves across the internet. Thousands of fans shared emotional tributes to the rapper on social media, including Kanye West – who posted a photo of him on Twitter, captioned “I never told you how much you inspired me when you were here, thank you for existing” – and Louis Theroux, who tweeted that “notwithstanding personal demons, he was a huge talent” who was “bringing a beautiful new feel to hip hop”.

But others, many of them women, felt uncomfortable about the valorisation of Onfroy. Yes, his death was tragic and shockingly premature, these women agreed – but why, in their rush to praise the rapper, were music fans ignoring his disturbing record of alleged domestic abuse? In October 2016, Onfroy was charged with offences including aggravated battery of a pregnant woman (since named as his ex-girlfriend Geneva Ayala), domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment and witness-tampering. Last September, music site Pitchfork obtained a transcript of Ayala’s testimony in which she detailed the horrifying and long-running abuse Onfroy had subjected her to. At the time of his death, he was awaiting trial for the domestic violence charges against him, to which he had pleaded not guilty. 

In response to these women’s concerns, many Twitter users hit back by citing Onfroy’s age, as though violence can be excused by youth. One typical post, which had been liked more than 38,000 times at the time of writing, compared him to two towering figures from African-American history, and urged people to be compassionate when considering his alleged behaviour.

“If Maya Angelou died when she was 20, she would’ve died a prostitute and a single mom,” wrote @tattoo_tiller. “If Malcolm X died when he was 20, he would’ve died as Detroit Red, a woman beater & drug addict. People’s mistakes often lead to their great destiny. We all have a story to tell. Rip XXX.”

It’s true that if the late Maya Angelou had died at 20, she would not have yet had the chance to grow into the astonishing poet, author, civil rights activist and speaker that she later became. As a single mother with a young son to support, she became a sex worker in her late teens – something she documented frankly and with not a shred of shame in her 1974 memoir Gather Together in My Name.

It is also true that Malcolm X was a drug dealer and a pimp before he became one of the most significant and influential figures of the American civil rights movement. The activist and leader of the Nation of Islam, who was assassinated in 1965 at the age of 39, has been accused by some historians – notably his biographer Manning Marable – of misogyny and violence against women.

But why is Angelou’s past of consenting sex work and single motherhood being spoken of in the same breath as men’s alleged domestic abuse, as though the two are equally disgraceful? Being a single mum, last time I checked, is not a crime; domestic violence is. 

“Angelou, a trailblazing woman who lived her life with dignity and bravery and immense generosity of spirit, should never have been dragged into this conversation”

It’s also important to note that there is nothing inherently shameful about sex work. That’s not to say that it is automatically emancipatory; many feminists argue that the profession cannot be seen as universally empowering if a woman is forced to turn to it as a means of economic survival, as Angelou did, and I’d be inclined to agree. But I think we can agree that a woman who was a prostitute at 20 – or indeed at any age – should not be marked with a scarlet letter, or presented as someone with the darkest of secrets buried in her past.

Most significantly, there have never been allegations that Angelou hurt anyone by participating in sex work. Nobody, in all her years in the public eye, came forward to say that they had been physically or psychologically harmed by the brief time she worked as a prostitute in the Forties. The fact that she is being compared to Onfroy, who was accused of biting, head-butting, punching, kicking, strangling and stamping on his ex-girlfriend, among numerous other harrowing crimes, speaks volumes to the stigma that still exists around sex work, and the different moral standards to which women and men are held.

It also highlights how domestic violence is still casually dismissed by many people. As Twitter user @ShimminyKricket noted: “People really treat sexual misconduct, abuse and violence against women like a mere phase that some men go through. Women are just collateral damage on the path to becoming a mature man. That’s some bulls**t.”

That Onfroy was killed at the age of 20 is extremely sad. But women should not be chastised for rejecting a narrative that glorifies an alleged abuser. And Angelou, a trailblazing woman who lived her life with dignity and bravery and immense generosity of spirit, should never have been dragged into this conversation at all.

Images: Getty Images