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?