A question of power
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When it was my turn to click the link, the words that were attributed to the 'predator' cut deep into my stomach and cracked open old wounds, not because I had been assaulted in the way that was described in these testimonials, but because I was once involved with this man. I had experienced some of what was being described during my initial grooming by him. The feeling you get when you discover that you’re a member of a faceless group who are being identified as abused is similar to the sickness that follows eating spoiled meat. Your head spins, your insides churn and all you want to do is stick your finger down your throat to eliminate the toxic bile. To find out that someone you felt intimately connected to used a script of sorts to draw you into a well-practiced fantasy is to be violated in a way that won’t leave your body anytime soon. The smell and taste of him resurfaces and drowns your senses. You hear his voice, the soft insidious confidence of someone who takes pleasure in breaking another’s spirit, as clear as the moment he spoke to them. That night — the one that stands out from all the rest, the one where you feared for your safety — is reborn. He gets to hurt you again, but it’s different this time because somehow you thought that the trauma you carried for years made you special. However unhealthy, you felt bonded to him in some deep psychological and emotional way. You believed (or had to believe for some reason) that this darkness you shared was a unique human connection, except that it’s not. You’re not special, you are just one of many.
For me, the tragedy and confusion was heightened because it was a black man, one who called himself an “activist,” who was said to be victimizing black women.
For days, I watched and read from the margins of my own anonymity as the black poetry community asked itself about silence, culpability, blackness. I wrestled as I thought about my own actions of the past. Should I have gone beyond my anonymous post in “Rate My Teacher” or telling a mentor in my MFA program? When I said “I don’t want to get him into trouble,” was I entrenched in some manipulation? Was I afraid to violate the secrecy that he shrouded himself in, ashamed of my perceived weakness, or was it something else?
The media has cast a new spotlight on the topic of rape culture and sexual harassment lately. We watched Emma Sulkowicz, a student at Columbia University, carry a mattress around in the fall of 2014, a protest against campus sexual assault and the university when it did not expel her alleged attacker. That same year, comedian Hannibal Buress gave new life to the Bill Cosby allegations. As more and more women came out to be counted as victims, pop culture and the black community was forced to confront issues surrounding the protection of women versus the legacy of a famous entertainer. The Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas case was recently revisited in an HBO film called Confirmation, and the question about how race plays into sexual harassment allegations was a major theme.
It’s important because both black men and black women have sexual stereotypes imposed on them. Black man as predator. Black woman as promiscuous. It would seem, to some, that our people are so busy fucking or wanting to be fucked that society’s laws regarding boundaries and protection are impractical to apply. But inside the black community, how do our views regarding gender and race affect behaviors and attitudes about sexual harassment?
In the book Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power, essayist Carol M. Swain discusses the Anita Hill case and the phenomenon that turned the tide of black opinion against her. "For African Americans generally,” she writes, “the issue was not so much whether Hill was credible or not; she was dismissed because many saw her as a person who had violated the code … which mandates that blacks should not criticize, let alone accuse, each other in front of whites."
We all know it, have been taught it from the time we could speak and think independently. Family business stays behind closed doors. Black folk business is never told to white people.
“They already think we’re rapists and thieves,” say the men who sit in my father’s barbershop.
The conditioning to protect the image of the black community, black men especially, starts when we’re socialized to value each other according to gender.
When the accusations came about in the black literary community, I wondered if that conditioning had anything to do with why so many men and women stayed silent for years when rumors of misconduct had been hushed talked or ignored in writing spaces. Was it the obligation that we as black people feel to protect the black men as a matter of priority?
Freedom on my Mind, a book edited by Manning Marable, tells us “as black people, we cannot begin our dialogue by denying the oppressive nature of male privilege. And if black males choose to assume that privilege, for whatever reason, raping, brutalizing and killing women, then we cannot ignore black male oppression. One oppression does not justify another.” I agree.
The Facebook allegations came under scrutiny because of all the unknowns, names, chronology and context. The conversations born from those allegations made me think about men, about women, about relationships involving people who traditionally feel powerless, about institutions, about how truth and believability are measured by the skin-gender package of accusers and accused, about messy confusing abuser/victim entanglements, about the long history of black women sacrificing ourselves to uplift wounded black men. The implications are severe for everyone.
In this country, black women have frequently put the wellbeing of others before our own.
We cleaned the homes of white people and raised white children because we had to for money and survival. We care for our children, our children’s children, our fathers, our mothers, our uncles, our aunties, our sisters, our brothers, our lovers, our neighbors and any other living thing that needs us. Our personal lives are filled with narratives of black women who have had unreciprocated compassion for misguided and damaged black men. Our bodies are proof of it, scarred and broken, battered and bruised, our silence a mute testament to an ongoing and ignored crisis of vulnerability.
Elayne Brown wrote vividly in her book, A Taste of Power, about the pervasive sexism and oftentimes brutal mistreatment that women members of the Black Panther party endured in the '60s—physical abuse, sexual exploitation, debasing of abilities. Brown stated that she realized very early in her tenure with the party that as a woman, she would have to fight for her own freedom.
This dynamic has followed the progeny of more current social and cultural movements. In the late '80s, when hip-hop began its meteoric rise, it was understood that the culture was a male space. Rappers, DJs, break dancers and graffiti writers expressed the experiences of black and Hispanic life through their lens of manhood. Women were decorative. Objectified in music videos, we were props to showcase male virility and enforce the gender hierarchy that put us at the bottom. Female rappers, with few exceptions, owed much of their success to songs that focused on f*cking. On their album covers, they donned high-heeled shoes and bathing suits with their legs splayed wide open, an invitation to be penetrated and serve black male domination. In real life, a black woman’s refusal to be submissive is used as an excuse for all kinds of abuse.
Sexual misconduct, public persecution, false allegations, shame, fear and silence are not race specific in anyway but the engendered rules that dictate black male and female relations are unique. Our history of slavery and the collective white denial of the repercussions of that experience support our continued oppression. Because black bodies are still considered dangerous and unrapeable, we continue to defend ourselves from each other and from a population that see us as less than human. As black women, our truth is denied more than other categorized group’s. But does this explain why we as black women continue to excuse the bad behavior of our men, why we keep issuing free passes inscribed with “because slavery emasculated you,” while we internalize a guilt that is not ours? There is a conscious sacrifice being made because men claim that the same historic experience that our ancestral mothers faced has hurt them more. It could be the greatest manipulation of all time.
If we take it back to history, to Southern lynching and torching of black men for entertainment and intimidation, we can make a case for why our men needed to be protected then. Police killings make that case today but do not erase that fact that for women victims of lynch mobs and for those who have died during police encounters—Sandra Bland, Tanisha Anderson, Mariam Carey—the spotlight is dim.
When I was a little girl, I watched my mother, who was white, get brutally beaten by my father, who was black, for thirteen years. What I didn’t realize until I got older was the role my paternal grandmother played in keeping her and, by proxy, us children in that destructive environment. “He’ll die without his family,” my grandmother would say. “He needs his kids.” “Don’t put my son in jail.” My father’s needs always came before the safety of my mother, his awaited redemption was advocated as a priority, his emotional hurt tended to before my mother’s broken skin, fractured jaw or traumatized children ever had the chance to heal.
The women in my family were taught that our men were weak, that we had to be strong for them.
Being strong meant to love them despite the hurt they inflicted on us. So when I, and women who were raised like me, go into the world and encounter black men who hurt us, we love them still, feel sorry for them. It’s what we’re supposed to do.
I’ve never been hit by a man beyond a slap in the face. My experience with sexual harassment, which is not related to the accused poet, did not include sexual assault. I was sexually harassed as an undergraduate student after I agreed to be mentored by a Nigerian political science professor although I majored in Communications and intended to pursue PhD in African American studies. He was chair of his department and a rock star among black students on campus. During my senior year, he kept me close, suggested that I take one of his classes, offered to write me a letter of recommendation, give me tips for Grad school.
I was flattered and eager to hear his advice.
After graduation, I became his teaching assistant for the summer program where we met. He was respectful, caring. As the program came to an end and I readied my self for the move to Temple University, my mentor invited me to dinner, a ceremonious farewell as I made my academic transition. At the restaurant, he bought me drinks. His looked hands soft and his nails manicured as he passed each fruity cocktail. Everything about him was polished and clean. After dinner we walked to the parking lot. It was summer and the restaurant was on a dock. Ships passed slowly as seagulls swooped down with cocked wings to gouge discarded scraps from the kitchen. The warm salty air caressed our skin and the din of tourist chatter drowned out competing sounds of traffic. “I want to take you somewhere,” he said.
That somewhere was a condo in a gray complex with clapboard siding across the street from the restaurant. I followed behind him like a lamb being lead to slaughter making excuses in my mind. “Maybe there’s an after party here.” The alternative was that my teacher wanted to f*ck me and that was something too terrible for me to consider. We walked up to the second floor. The world around us was suddenly quiet. He pulled a set of keys from his pocket, jangled them in his hand and opened the door.
“I share this place with some other professors,” he said, “We crash here some nights to avoid daily commute.”
I get quiet when I’m uneasy, sink inside myself. With competing feelings of trust for his position and fear that that trust had been betrayed, I played my part in this seduction, remained polite, waited for him to prove me wrong.
“Sit down,” he said as he poured me a glass of wine.
“Aren’t you drinking?” I said.
“Oh no, I don’t drink alcohol,” he said, “I treat my body like a temple.”
I laughed, a half-hearted giggle to cover my nervousness. I looked around the room for exits, for places where someone could be hiding, for a clue as to what I should expect.
His Nigerian accent made everything he said sound refined. I took a sip of what tasted like pinot noir, placed the glass on the side table, tried to look relaxed. The room was a studio, not too small. The windows were closed and shades drawn, making it feel later in the evening. The couch faced the kitchen area. A queen-sized bed sat in the middle of the room like a large carnal centerpiece.
The professor was a dark-skinned man, small in stature. His eyes were big and round, his teeth white and strong. His black hair was shiny like his skin and cut close to his head. I watched him move around the house, take off his shoes and place them beside the bed. “He looks like a bug,” I said to myself focusing on his circular framed glasses, trying to turn him into something small, manageable.
He rubbed his hand over the gray and white linens that were tucked and folded in perfectly straight lines.
“Ms. Roach,” he said, "I have been planning this moment from the first time I saw you. I knew just by looking at you, by the way you moved, that you would be a good lay.”
The word “lay” changed everything. From the moment that I stepped into that apartment, I was in a battle for control of both my body and my mind. If there was any respect between us, it was based on intelligence. My challenging him in class might have been what made me a target. The word, “lay,” something that no one my age would ever say, somehow gave me my power back. It was a flaw that belied his image of perfection.
He walked calmly across the room, sat close to me on the couch and began to cajole me, explain my obligation to him for my academic success.
“As a woman, in order for you to get through grad school,” he said, “You’ll have to perform sexual favors. You’ll have to get used to that reality.”
He moved one leg closer to mine, put one lotioned hand on my knee then placed the other under my chin, grabbed my face and turned it toward his. “It’ll be good for you to start with me. I’ll show you want you need to do.”
A haze began to fill my head. I forced myself to focus on a way out.
“I see you thinking,” he said, “What’s going through your mind?”
Before I could answer, he lunged at me with an open mouth. My lips, nose and chin became sticky with his slobber. I fought the instinct to wipe my face.
“I think,” I said, “That you’re right, I should start with you. I’ll do it. But not now, I can’t do it now.”
He said okay. He drove me home, a block from my home, really. I ran the rest of the way, up the stairs to the front door and into the shower.
Later I went to the Program Manager—a black woman—for help. I wanted to know my legal options. Her tall slim body and cropped Afro made her look all African goddesses depicted in photos and statues I’d seen in all the offices of black faculty. She sat squarely in her chair. “First,” she said, in a soft clear voice. “I’d like to apologize. There have been rumors about him on campus regarding this behavior. A white woman from the English department actually told me to keep an eye on you because he was targeting you.”
I sat stunned while she continued.
“I assumed it was just another case of black male bashing and dismissed it, so I want to apologize to you for that.”
Her words filled the compact office like a noxious gas. To keep from suffocating I held my breath, looked at the spines of her books, the piles of papers on her desk, past her shoulder at the tacked posters on the wall.
“You can file a formal complaint,” she said, "Expose him and risk being labeled as a difficult woman, a troublemaker. That label could follow you through your academic career. You may have trouble getting your doctoral thesis approved and essentially get blackballed in the academic community.”
The other option was to say nothing. Breathe. Protect myself and him and leave it behind. I chose refuge from it all. Left him there for others to encounter.
It’s been 20 years since my night in the small dockside condo but I haven’t forgotten it. I remembered it in 2008 when the poet was approached on campus during my MFA program. It was that little voice of experience that said, “He sleeps with students,” that instinct I stifled in order to free myself from the past. I remembered it again when the unidentified accounts of sexual harassment and assault were levied against someone whom I wanted so badly to love.
The testimonies forced me to look at myself, and the role I played (that we all play) in this type of victimization. They also helped me understand abuse in a way that helps alleviate hurt and that’s important.
The Internet, with equal potential to cause harm, has become a safe space for victims to warn others anonymously. In the case of the unnamed testimonies in the black literary world, the conversations that they inspired have helped to make the vulnerability of black women more visible. Black men who enjoy male privilege are telling their stories about the accused. Their gestures are noble. They are also a quiet acknowledgement that a male’s voice is still needed to make a women’s experience more credible.
As we continue to speak about and fight against sexual predation, the question is where do we go from here? Will an acknowledgement of black male privilege lead to some practical action to end the cycle of black male oppression?
Power has never been relinquished. It was always been won in long bloody battles. Are black women ready to wage a war for our equality, for the safety of our bodies, our actualized self? Or will we continue to sacrifice ourselves as woman for the separate cause of blackness? Will the time come when blackness is no longer a male province? Or is this beginning of a splicing? Will black men and women abandon one another; abandon the monumental task of uplifting a whole race? If the black literary community can repair itself, become whole, and manifest its creative ethos, maybe there’s a chance for change. Maybe we can begin to see each other as equals. Maybe.