Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Living in My Skin - Part 3






As a Black woman in a racist, sexist environment living in my skin has been burdensome this lately. It feels heavy and hot like I am walking around on a 90 degree day wearing a fur coat; I am suffocating. The mistreatment of us disturbs me. In light of things happening recently, I had to contemplate what it means to live in my skin. I went back into my archives and found pieces I had written about sexual abuse in the Black community.  The articles go back to 2009 but the issues are constant. Much of what I’ve written has remained the same. I only updated where I thought necessary. It is my goal to disrupt the dominant narrative that exists in our society around the devaluation of Black women and girls. We are not promiscuous gold diggers using our bodies as currency to get ahead. We are not “fast” “hot” “sassy” “thots” “hoes “or any of the other derogative terms used to dismiss us as sexual beings and make us sexual objects. We are not perfect. Like everyone else, we make mistakes.  And like everyone else, we deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. We deserve to be valued. We are, after all worthy human beings, too. This a three-part essay series. I will publish a new essay every day for the next three days. Please feel free to comment on any of the essays that resonate with you. Thank you for reading and sharing your most valuable commodity—time—with me.



ESSAY #3 – TODAY
In light of the R. Kelly cult allegations, I'm going to share a personal story that I've never shared publicly before. For years I was ashamed at my response to the situation because of  the message I received growing up. 

There were certain expectations to be upheld, and you did not do anything to embarrass yourself your family and your race. And then there was gender. There were good girls and bad girls. I was good and that meant that if I followed the rules, nothing bad would happen. 

It’s mind boggling how much of the responsibility to remain safe is put on the backs of girls. We are told that boys will be boys, and we learn early not to do anything that will make a boy be a boy. It is only as I have grown that I’ve learned how dangerous this type of thinking is. This is a disservice to both girls and boys. Girls cannot control the action of boys, and it’s hell on earth when boy and men are not responsible for their own actions.

If boys will be boys is always the answer when boys (or men) do harm, then who is there to protect girls (and women)? 

What seems like eons ago, I went to visit my friend in Atlanta. She is 12 years older, and at the time she bartended on the weekend. I was in my early 20s, so people in their 30s or beyond seemed old. So, my friend asked a guy friend of hers (he was older than me, but younger than her) to take me somewhere with a younger crowd. He said he had to go home and change his shirt. The club where we were going had a dress code. Men had to have shirts with collars. He was wearing a t-shirt. 

Me? I was dressed to go out. I had on a form-fitting black dress with the shoulders out—much like the current trend in ladies tops and dressed. I had on black high-heeled pumps and my hair was on point. I looked good if I have to say so myself.

Riding in the car talking, out of nowhere he says, “How do you know I won't rape you? There is a baby-past the due date pregnant pause in the car as I gather my thoughts. 

“Cause I lift weights,” I reply.

“You bi sexual?” 

“Sometimes.”

I can't say I even understood what bi sexual means or why I say it. My sexual experience is very limited. It sounds silly as I think back.

 “You just a shit talker from Chicago.” 

We laugh and continue driving. I push How you know I won't rape you? down in my mind. My friend knows him. She wouldn't let me go out with a rapist. Would she?

This is the time before cell phones. I don’t know the name of the club where she works nor do I know her phone number to the club. We get to the house. I don't even think to just stay in the car. I'm safe . . I think.

We go in. He asks if I want to come in the back while he irons his shirt. I decline and sit on the couch in the living room. A few minutes later, a key turns in the front door and three men walk in. They look at me and me at them. We exchange hellos and they go into the back. 

How you know I won't rape you? plays on repeat in my mind and I cannot move. My heart thumps loudly in my ears. I hear my date saying that he and I are going to a club. How you know I won't rape you?  When faced with fear the fight, flee or freeze reaction seizes me. And I am frozen where I sit. They talk for a couple of minutes and then they leave. He and I leave and go to the club. We have a decent time, but I don't forget his words. They hang in the air. 

Only by the Grace of God did I not end up raped and or murdered. I trusted my friend but she couldn't vouch for this man's character. How well did she know him? Had something horrible happened to me, fingers would have pointed at me. I would have been judged for what I was wearing. Judged for being out with a man I didn’t know. Judged for being young and na├»ve. Judged for being a young Black woman.

I'm reminded of incidents over the years with girls and women whose story had a different ending. There was the young woman who shared her story in a workshop. She was standing on the bus stop and a guy she knew pulled up and asked her where she was going. He said he'd drop her off, but he had a stop to make first. When they arrived, she said she'd stay in the car. He said it was too cold for her to sit in the car, she went in with him. There was a group of men waiting in the apartment. She said about 10 guys took turns raping her. At some point, she said it was as if her spirit left her body and watched the horror happening to her.

There is the young woman who came to talk to my students about rape. She was a survivor and was willing to tell her story. My students sat in silence as she relayed not 1, not 2, but three instances of acquaintance rape, and each time she blamed herself. There was the mother of one of my students who was raped twice. She believes that if you don't get the help you need when you are sexually abused, you open up the door for it to happen again. When she was seven, she was raped by her friends' brother. She said she didn't have words to explain this man's penis inside her. She didn't tell. One day, she and the girls--his sisters were playing--and one of them said, "Tell him you got your period." The next time he came for her, that's what she said and he never bothered her again. He was a predator. His sisters, and their friends and God only knows who else were his victims.

I don't share these stories to for shock value. I share these stories because I want you to know what Black women and girls are up against in this world. 

Living in My Skin - Part 2




Image courtesy of Google
As a Black woman in a racist, sexist environment living in my skin has been burdensome this lately. It feels heavy and hot like I am walking around on a 90 degree day wearing a fur coat; I am suffocating. The mistreatment of us disturbs me. In light of things happening recently, I had to contemplate what it means to live in my skin. I went back into my archives and found pieces I had written about sexual abuse in the Black community.  The articles go back to 2009 but the issues are constant. Much of what I’ve written has remained the same. I only updated where I thought necessary. It is my goal to disrupt the dominant narrative that exists in our society around the devaluation of Black women and girls. We are not promiscuous gold diggers using our bodies as currency to get ahead. We are not “fast” “hot” “sassy” “thots” “hoes “or any of the other derogative terms used to dismiss us as sexual beings and make us sexual objects. We are not perfect. Like everyone else, we make mistakes.  And like everyone else, we deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. We deserve to be valued. We are, after all worthy human beings, too. This a three-part essay series. I will publish a new essay every day for the next three days. Please feel free to comment on any of the essays that resonate with you. Thank you for reading and sharing your most valuable commodity—time—with me. 


Essay #2 April 2012
.
Even today, I am haunted by an incident that happened during my first year as a teacher. We were having a basketball game and I was the holding room for the students who were not attending the game; we were going to watch a movie. One of the girls came into the room with a glazed-over look on her face, but she wouldn’t tell me what was wrong. I asked her if she’d write it down, and she nodded.

Through a series of notes I learned that she had ditched school the previous day to have sex with her boyfriend, another student at our school. It was to be her first sexual experience, and it was to occur at his friend’s house near the school so that she could get back to school by dismissal and go home without anyone--other than the friends that were in on it--being none the wiser. It all planned out, but when she got to the house there were three boys instead of two. She changed her mind and wanted leave.

The boyfriend raped (her words, not mine) her while the other two watched. After it was over, she wandered around in the neighborhood until it was time to go back to school. She went home, but did not tell anyone about what happened until she told me.

I explained to her that the incident had to be reported and though she cried, not once did she recant or change her story. The police were called, the boys were taken into custody, but the charges were dropped. The grandmother said that whatever happened, her granddaughter wanted to happen. The girl was transferred to another school. Over the years I have always wondered what happened to her. If she ever found herself in a compromising situation, and felt that had no right to say no.

I know what that’s like. Although I wasn’t raped, I was coerced into a sexual liaison that I did not want to happen. About a month or so following the death of my father I had gone out with this guy for the second time even though he vexed my spirit. There was something about him that bothered me, nagged at me, but I ignore it. I should have known something was wrong when we stopped by his mother’s house and he said his brother and some friends were in the basement watching pornography, and asked if I wanted to watch. I said no.

We were looking at photos on the piano and there was a picture of his father and he started talking about his father and I burst out crying. He led me to a back bedroom and pulled me into an embrace. What I mistook for consolation quickly turned into seduction. Next thing I knew, he was kissing me and touching me. I told him to stop. He did, but had a hissy fit about how I was leading him on and I was grown woman . . . yada, yada, yada. At that point I just wanted to go home, and I thought if I had sex with him, I could just go home. There were other people in the house, but it didn’t occur to me to yell at him. I thought having sex with him was my ticket home. I have no idea as to why I reacted the way I did, and for a long time I was ashamed because I thought I had done something wrong. But now I share this story with the hope that someone else can a) learn from my mistake b) be more empathetic to the plight of young women who find themselves in compromising situations.

These stories come tumbling back to me all the time—at a workshop on rape in trainings on sexual trafficking. I listen to women sharing their stories of being raped and sexually assaulted by family members, friends and strangers. These women were like so many other girls, women and even men whose coming-of-age narratives including navigating the terrains of sexual assault by known and unknown assailants.

The stories are endless, and the abused does not have a face. The face of sexual assault can belong to any of us. We have seen a number of celebrities share their stores as well, but not much changes with how with deal with sexual abuse in the black community. What’s most unfortunate is that those that are abused-as children or adults-are silenced into shame because issues of sexual abuse are shrouded in secrecy.

We’re afraid to admit that we not only do we know the prey, but the predator as well. So, we choose to either act as though it didn’t happen or else we blame the victim. When another student wrote a letter to me saying that her uncle was creeping into her bed and forcing her to have sex with him, her grandmother came to see me and told me that she knew her son didn’t do that. I explained to the grandmother that I am a mandated reporter, and it is not my place to decide if allegations are true or not; I am required to call the Department of Children and Family Services if a child tells me that they are being sexually abused.

Though April is designated National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, we need to work collectively every day to end the horrific practice of sexual assault and abuse in our communities. If you, or someone you know is being abused, please call this toll free number: 1-800-565-HOPE. If you want to help, please volunteer to organizations working to combat sexual abuse. Here are two: RAINN and GEMS Something else you can do is go to iTunes and download Patterson’s, Don’t Touch Me a song in which the proceeds will go to sexual assault and abuse survivors.

Sexual assault and molestation will never stop unless we stop looking at as a taboo topic. It’s time to talk. And it’s a call to action.
 

Living in My Skin - Part 1




As a Black woman in a racist, sexist environment living in my skin has been burdensome this lately. It feels heavy and hot like I am walking around on a 90 degree day wearing a fur coat; I am suffocating. The mistreatment of us disturbs me. In light of things happening recently, I had to contemplate what it means to live in my skin. I went back into my archives and found pieces I had written about sexual abuse in the Black community.  The articles go back to 2009 but the issues are constant. Much of what I’ve written has remained the same. I only updated where I thought necessary. It is my goal to disrupt the dominant narrative that exists in our society around the devaluation of Black women and girls. We are not promiscuous gold diggers using our bodies as currency to get ahead. We are not “fast” “hot” “sassy” “thots” “hoes “or any of the other derogative terms used to dismiss us as sexual beings and make us sexual objects. We are not perfect. Like everyone else, we make mistakes.  And like everyone else, we deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. We deserve to be valued. We are, after all worthy human beings, too. This a three-part essay series. I will publish a new essay every day for the next three days. Please feel free to comment on any of the essays that resonate with you. Thank you for reading and sharing your most valuable commodity—time—with me.

ESSAY #1, sometime in 2009
 In 6th grade, I was a kindergarten monitor who took great pride in my job. One day during the students’ nap time two boys entered the room, and as they walked toward me, the one in the front said, “it’s time to f****!” When he flicked off the lights my heart moved into my throat and silenced my voice at the same time that I noticed he was the cute boy I had seen on the playground. There we stood frozen in time, and then the two of them walked out of the room. They didn’t touch me, and I didn’t tell. Why? At the tender age of 11 had I already internalized the cultural mandate not to tell on a Black male who threatened to cause me harm?
 Historically there has been very little attention paid to sexual assault of Black women and girls, largely because there is a common misconception that it does not exist, and if it does, it doesn’t matter. “The deeply held belief that Black women are less valuable than women of other races/cultural groups—a legacy of slavery—pervades all aspects of American culture,” said Johnetta B. Cole and Beverly Guy-Shetfall in their book Gender Talk.
When R & B superstar R. Kelly faced charges of child pornography and child endangerment, I prayed he would go to jail and send a message that there are consequences for crimes against Black women and girls. I was hoping that if convicted it might miraculously open up the conversation around the sexual violence against Black women and girls just as Rihanna and Chris Brown spotlighted domestic violence. Even though Kelly has a long, troubled and documented history involving underage girls, his support from males and females is unwavering.
 “When the verdict was announced, dozens of Black women (and some Black men) cheered outside the courtroom as the singer made his way past them to his waiting tour bus,” Allison Samuels wrote in her article Sexism on Trial on newsweek.com. VH1 featured two Kelly supporters who left their children in the care of babysitters while they went to court every day to support Kelly during his trial. Kelly is back in the news again this time for accusations of keeping young women in a cult. They are not under aged, but there are allegations that the young women are being held against their will. And nothing has changed. His supporters are even more vocal now. His personal life is none of our business. These young women are grown and Hugh Hefner does the same thing at the Playboy Mansion. I have no desire or energy to argue these ridiculous points. I don’t care about Kelly’s personal life, but I do care about the well being of young Black women. The idea that a magic number makes us grown is stupid. We can’t even agree on the number—17 for consensual sex (in Illinois), 18 to vote and 21 to drink. So when exactly is one an adult? And if what Hugh Hefner does sets the bar for our expectations, we are aiming the bar so low that we risk tripping over it.
Even though Kelly is a celebrity which in high profile cases most often vilifies the victims, the sordid story around Kelly’s fetish for under-aged girls and young women is indicative of how sexual assault and abuse is viewed by society in general, and the African-American community in particular, if the victim is Black and female.
 Growing up, I remember any adult could reprimand a child caught doing wrong, but I learned early that even though children had to be accountable to adults, the reverse was not always true. The same people, who told my mother if I stepped out of line, were the same people in collusion with the two men on my block who repeatedly sexually abused their stepdaughters over the years. There was a hedge of protection around my niece and me that no one dared penetrate, and to this day I’m thankful for that, because it allowed me to remain a child. But as I look back, I wonder why no one protected those two girls on the block and all of the other Black women and girls who’ve been led to slaughter by the men who were supposed to protect them?
 Some years ago, I read former Washington Post reporter Patricia Gaines' autobiography, Laughing in the Dark, and the book resonated with me because Gaines story is the story of so many African-American women and girls who share a twisted sense of solidarity around the issue of intra racial sexual violence. I understood her confusion, her shame and her sense of blame that she brought those things on herself because I had heard the same song sung by many Black females. I also understood her sense of helplessness. “Being a Black girl-child meant I had about as much influence in the world as there was in my itty-bitty finger. . .”
  Gaines remembers how the change in her body brought about a change in men—particularly her father’s friends who “liked to touch me intimately when no one was watching,” she says in the book. Gaines did not tell her parents because their friends “were like relatives and I didn’t want my parents to be disappointed in their friends,” she said in a phone interview. Growing up in the south Gaines said that everything around her affirmed that she was a powerless person—she was a first a child, then a girl child, then a colored girl child so she was “low on the hierarchy of power”—a pattern of powerlessness that would follow her into her adult life and lead to more abuse.
Some women, like Gaines, are breaking their silence. No!, is a documentary about intra racial sexual abuse in the African-American community by filmmaker, Aishah Shadidah who is also “a survivor of sexual violence,” she said in a phone interview. The film debunks rape myths, and explores the why behind the silence. Each of the women featured tells a horrifying story of being raped by a man or boy she knew, and for various reasons decides not to speak out against her attacker. As is most often the case, many of the women in the film, are single at the time of the sexual abuse—a time of increased vulnerability as we navigate our way into adulthood.
According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) 1 in 6 women will be assaulted in her lifetime, and college-aged women are 4 times more likely to be assaulted. The majority of rape victims (73%) know their assailants and rape often happens within the race so it stands to reason that young Black women will more than likely be raped by a Black male, and yet in most cases, the victims will not come forward. Victims of sexual violence often blame themselves, and Black women and girls are no different except we also shoulder the responsibility of race loyalty.
Fast forward. . . It’s 2017 and we are still strangely silent dialogue around sexual violence in the African-American community.  Even with a Black woman and two Black girls occupying the White House for eight years, our lips remain sealed on the issue of intra racial sexual violence. What will it take for us to speak up?