Race & Identity
My struggle to protect black men when they’ve been my abuser
It wasn’t until a couple of weeks before New Year’s that I publicly stated that I was a former victim of child molestation via Facebook status. It hadn’t hit me until then that this was the first time I said it out loud to a non-familial audience, so when I got a Facebook message from one of my older brothers who lives in southern Africa — asking me what happened, how come he didn’t know, if he could go hurt the person who did it, and if he was asking too many questions — I realized that I have never really talked about it.
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Rewind to 24 years ago. My mother, 33 years old, my brother, 8 years old, and myself, four years old, came to the United States in 1991 from Uganda. My father had recently died about three months prior to our arrival in the States. We left behind five of my half-brothers and our entire family. The transition and relocation were very hard, lonely and scary. The kids were mean, the adults were mean and everybody just seemed to hate us. We slept on floors in sleeping bags for quite some time at my mom's older sisters place, sometimes moving back and forth between there and my great-aunts’ apartment. We jumped from place to place in the beginning because our own relatives didn’t want to take in a single mother and two young children. At one point, my mother sent us off to live with distant relatives for a year or so, to save money and get us our own one-bedroom apartment. She worked as a babysitter, nanny and dog-sitter to save that money. My brother was sent to New Jersey and I was sent to Pennsylvania. After being reunited with my mom and brother and getting help from Catholic charities, eventually things got a little better.Fast-forward to 1997. I was 10 years old and my abuser was (as is usually the case) someone close to my family.
He was my uncle in the same Ugandan community as my brother, mother and myself. We had just moved out of our old apartment. The uncle and his two sons (my older cousins) who we lived with for several years, had moved to another apartment complex. That night, he had come over to get some things he left behind from the move. My older cousin was home too; he had come to our apartment to visit and play catch-up with my mom and brother and was in the living room playing video games at the time. My brother was at track practice and my mother was working nights again. My uncle said he had something for me in my mother’s room. As a child, with a child's innocence, I believed him. I followed him into my mom’s room and there, the sexual abuse began. He forcibly kissed me, touched me, groped me and fondled my vagina and body parts. I was scared out of my mind, shocked, paralyzed and at some point, I suddenly snapped out of the paralysis and began to cry and scream hysterically.
He started panicking and trying to bribe me with toys, money and trips to amusement parks, for me to stop. I ran out of the room, grabbed the cordless phone and locked myself in me and brothers bedroom. I called my mom right away, crying and screaming. I’m not even sure if any words actually came out of my mouth. My cousin ran and started yelling my name, banging on the door, trying to figure out what happened. My mother came home and I could see the look on her face. She was ready to kill. She asked me questions about what happened over and over. To be honest, I actually don’t remember too much after that. It’s as if I went numb, feeling violated and constantly uneasy. All I recall after that moment, about two weeks later, is me being called into a meeting with my mother, another uncle and an aunt. With my brother being angrily sent off to play outside. I was softly interrogated for a couple of hours, my mother emotional and furious. She told them that she was going to press charges and that was final. They begged and pleaded my mother to not go to the police and how it would look in the Ugandan community and for her to also forgive and forget. Thank God they released me and finally let me go play outside with my brother and friends. They stayed in that meeting for several hours later.
Fast-forward to my 29th birthday. That night, after partaking in some of life’s liquescent celebratory pleasures like many millennials my age do, I slid into one or two DMs. Probably shouldn’t have, but I was feeling amazing, on cloud nine and owning my #BlackGirlMagic (not to mention those guys were cute). However, I also started thinking about the last 28 years of my life, specifically my academic and professional accomplishments. I was pretty proud of how far I’d come and excited to explore this next phase in my journey. Still, in the middle of my reflections, the dreaded love life questions kept on popping up. I’ve had my fair share of failed relationships, I’ve been stood up a time or two — I mean fully decked out in my most fabulous of first date outfits ready to go. I’ve been cheated on, lied to, and in situationships that just didn’t make any type of sense. In summation, I’ve had the regular dating life that most women living in the DMV area have unfortunately experienced. I’ve been disrespected by black men and have also been uplifted by them as well, but surely far less uplifting has occurred than I would have liked. But this time thinking of my love life was a bit different.
After the night was done and I came home and finished talking to one of my good friends in Nairobi on Whatsapp, I sat there on my bed and I wanted to know why I had not been in a successful and healthy relationship for so long. I began to question myself; was I too opinionated, too dark, too tall, too “fat” (P.H.A.T. of course), too available, too pro-black, too educated, what was it? One thing I did know was that at some point in my early 20s I emotionally and physically had the inability to become intimate with a man. I didn’t have walls up — I had barricades, rabid pit bulls, electrical fences, snipers and a big brother who would summon goons at a drop of a dime. For a long time, I was comfortable playing the role of the 'homegirl' because she was safe. She was fun. She protected and guarded herself and fell underneath the radar of any male interactions, which could potentially turn violent. She wasn’t deemed as sexy, so not much was required of her. She could dip in and out without having to commit to anything or anyone. Little did I know that my 'homegirl' disguise was one of the many defense mechanisms I used to shield myself and it wasn’t much of a disguise after all. Simply put, I feared black men.
I loved black people, the black struggle and essentially the liberation of the black community so much so that all of my degrees thus far have been focused on black and African Diasporan issues. Consequently, much of my academic and professional life has been centered on understanding the historical and intimate interactions between black men and black women. I found myself frequently advocating mainly for black men and making a case for their plight in the world in most conversations surrounding black issues. Since undergrad, I was locked-in and determined to make my black-love fairytale come true while attempting to make sense of my own internal battles. I’ve literally dated men from all over the African Diaspora. But something had never really settled well with me. How could I reconcile fighting the black struggle and advocating for the liberation of black people, and at the same time, hold this little secret I had and have so much resentment and fear toward black men?
This is a question that many black women, having been sexually abused or not, have struggled with and continue to struggle with. The actions of people such as Bill Cosby on the surface speak to the larger discussion of rape culture, patriarchy, power dynamics and the structural discrimination and neglect of the experiences of women. It also further ferments the flawed idea of the black male sexual predator, who regardless of his professional and economic accomplishments, should never be trusted. However, on a deeper level for me, it brings up some things within the black community that are often not talked about — child molestation, rape and sexual abuse amongst black women and girls by black men. At first, I naïvely thought this was exclusively an African problem, until one girls night during undergrad, some of my closest friends, who are African-American, shared their encounters with sexual abuse. I was stunned at what I was hearing. I wasn’t alone. For them, they were not able to discuss what happened and their abuser was also a close family member and they were also asked to keep quiet. Statistically, black women report sexual abuse in drastically lower numbers than white women, but it doesn’t mean it never happens.
The feelings of neglect of black women from black men are ultimately rooted in our historical past. Historically, during slavery, the civil rights movements and the freedom struggles in America and in Africa, the face of liberation, power and the black struggle has been the black man. Aside from the challenges and conditions of the black person to become a viable and free human being in the world, black women have had to burden and weather the storm of the racial injustices, all while taking care of the family and her beloved black male counterpart. Power dynamics and power struggles occurred within the black struggle itself as black women were also fighting a very different battle than that of the white woman. She was fighting to be heard, respected, honored and loved by the world at large. Throughout the middle-passage, African female slaves were repeatedly raped and abused by crewmembers on the slave ships. Throughout slavery, black women continued to be raped by slave masters and plantation owners and there was no legal recourse that protected them from the sexual abuse. The sexual abuse of black female slaves was justified as legal because ultimately, she “deserved” to be raped and she innately had “promiscuous" characteristics about her.
Even during Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa Movement, Garvey’s own wife, Amy Jacques Garvey, began to outwardly question the actions of her husband and the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA) in relation to the absence of the issues facing black women. In Mozambique, during the independence and freedom struggles of the 1960s, female African Mozambican guerilla fighters were left out of the narrative. Female fighters were expected to perform sexual favors, take care of the soldiers, fight in the bush and were also often times raped within the army camps. After independence was achieved, most female combatants went back to being wives and fulfilling traditional roles and their stories were often never told.
The psychosocial trauma that was incurred during slavery and the colonial era in Africa had a hefty toll on the interactions and engagement between black men and black women. These periods in human history disrupted the cultural and social fabric of not only the black community but more importantly, the black family. For decades, little back girls watched the matriarchs in their family sacrifice, toil and fight to uphold a legacy. Black women have been taught to endure, despite how horrible the circumstances and the inconveniences of life. It is in those moments of enduring that she has also had to forget about taking care of herself and, to her own detriment, keep quiet, all in the name of protecting the black family legacy.
The reality is that both black women and black men are invisible. However, because of the male privilege that men are generally afforded, black women often fall to the wayside of black issues. The sentencing of officer Daniel Holtzclaw, a white cop from Oklahoma who was found guilty of rape charges and specifically targeting black women, is a good example of this. For weeks, the media coverage on this case was very minimal until Black Twitter and especially black women called attention to this matter. Holtzclaw's victims were sex workers, drug addicts and women who were economically marginalized. One of his victims said that she didn’t report him or say anything because she didn’t think anyone would believe her. This case speaks directly to the invisibility of sexual assault and the erasure of black women in society. Holtzclaw not only used his male privilege and the power that his police badge gave him but ultimately he understood that these black women wouldn’t report him and their lives really didn’t matter.
There is fear, shame and guilt attached to sexual abuse. It can be one of the loneliest experiences that anyone can go through. The healing process from my own experience of molestation has been long and challenging at times. It has taken countless years, prayers, meditation and educating myself on sexual abuse and the support from my family and friends to get to this place. I’ve forgiven my abuser, not out of sympathy for him, but so I may be released from the burden of carrying such a heavy weight. I’ve also forgiven myself for allowing that experience to hold me back from fully enjoying life. Despite these revelations, I’ve still had to grapple with many questions. Does my love, protection and advocacy of the black male experience both in America and around the world come from a place of wanting so badly to be loved, appreciated and protected by black men? Even in the midst of the historical dissonance between black men and black women, many black women still hold on to that notion of the black-love fairytale. The question is, do black men feel the same way? And where do they stand on sexual violence and abuses not only against women but, more specifically, against black women?
Loy Loggosse Azalia, MA, is an African/African Diasporan development specialist, and a PhD Student (ABD) in the Department of African Studies & Research at Howard University. She also moonlights as a contemporary African dance phenom, writer and is the creator of Reign.InTheCity, a “blogazine” for African and African Diasporans, who are global game changers, to share their story perspectives and experiences. Follow her on Twitter.