by Rochelle Robinson
I recently read Latoya Henderson’s essay, The Not Rape Epidemic, where I imagined the difficulty of reliving sexual trauma, of exposing her perpetrator(s), she must have experienced; and I was reminded of my own struggle with telling my story. Silence and shame can be debilitating.
There remains an ethos, oppressively ubiquitous and violent, that enables and normalizes rape, rape culture, and sexual assault. Locked in place is the pathology of shielding the perpetrators of these crimes while the victim is held liable for her own victimization: she brought it upon herself. Sadly, I find this firm belief that telling is betrayal prevalent in Black communities. It’s deceptive. It perpetuates a culture of dissemblance, obliterating any hope for collective and individual healing.
In 1965, twin brothers cornered me on the stairs in an empty, dimly lit hallway at Tilton elementary school. They groped me, tried to force my legs open and pull down my panties. I was in the second grade. The following year my mother enrolled me in private school where I remained until I entered high school. We all thought I would be safer in this environment. When my 7th grade Science teacher, Mr. Wiggins, attempted to kiss me behind the stage at the school’s recreation center, that 7-year old girl resurfaced and I found myself in another dark corner. Mr. Wiggins was tall, stylish, and downright handsome; schoolgirl crush material. He was also a well-respected, much beloved member in our Black community. On that day, as he drew close to me, I found the courage to run away. However, I lacked the guts to tell what he’d attempted to do as I continued to sit in a Science class taught by a man every parent trusted with their young daughters. Sexual assault knows no bounds. It was like giving him consent, a seat at the table where I was expected to know my place and mind my manners. For all the Black Power rhetoric emerging then, being a Black girl, a Black woman, meant having our physical and emotional boundaries consistently questioned, crossed, stepped on, and disrespected. By Black men. The new discourse gave us no recourse, and silence (both individual and collective) only deepened the gender oppression already established by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
In the late 70s, I was date raped by a brotha name Eddie. I remember thinking he was a nice guy and it would be safe to have a nightcap at his place. Only, it wasn’t. My sense of security and trust was breached by his roughness, his harsh words, his penetration. I remember saying, “No! Stop!” In that well-lit bedroom, all I could see was darkness. As I allowed my emotions to move into a box, I crawled into it to wait for the terror to end. I never saw Eddie again, and I had suppressed that night so well that I’d forgotten it ever happened. The first time I spoke of it was during a women’s studies course almost twenty years later—my feminist consciousness was sharp as a box cutter, no longer arrested by fear, ignorance or disgrace. It was replaced by a longing to tell what I wished I had during my previous assaults.
Black girls and women are rendered invisible and inconsequential in a society that devalues our gender, sexual, and racial identities. And, tragically, queer Black women find male oppression especially brutal. We have seen the manifestations of this most recently with the murders of Britney Cosby and her partner, Crystal Jackson in Texas. Their lives were disregarded, stolen, by the hands of Britney’s father. To be a Black woman or girl whose sexual orientation opposes what has been assigned/ascribed by those who feel it their right to police/restrict our bodies and our agency is extremely dangerous and puts us further at risk of being shamed, silenced, abused and murdered. It becomes a code of conduct that demands obedience and enables misogyny with regards to rape culture. And some brothers have had the nerve, the nerve, to say shit to me like rape is something that White men do, and/or lesbians are man-hating bitches that need to be taught a lesson. All the while staking a claim where it doesn’t belong.
Regardless of our sexual preferences (or as a result of it), we continue to bear the burden of sexual and domestic violence. As victims and survivors, we are expected to remain quiet. We are expected to pledge allegiance to race, which means embracing a sick and twisted loyalty to Black male predators (who sometimes are the pillars of our communities) at the expense of Black women and girls. This is a practice that has to end. If we are not safe amongst each other, where can we be safe? We should be talking about this. We’ve got to stop acting like it’s not happening. We’ve got to stop blaming the victim and start holding accountable those acting out these aggressions. And it needs to happen sooner rather than later before another sista from our community is harmed.
Audre Lorde said it best when she wrote:
As Black women and men, we cannot hope to begin 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 Black women—then ignoring these acts of Black male oppression within our communities can only serve as destroyers. One oppression does not justify another. ~ “Sexism: An American Disease in Blackface,” from Sister Outsider, p. 63.
Let’s appreciate the voice and courage of Latoya Henderson and the countless others before and after her who dared to come forward, to speak unspeakable truths, break silences, put shame to rest and in so doing, challenge multiple oppressions caused by patriarchy, trans/homophobia, racism, sexism, even at the risk of emotional and physical injury. For it is the telling that raises awareness and consciousness, helps another victim-survivor to feel safe, and can create a path to affect change. It propels us from the margins and places us in the center of our stories and experiences (where we belong), and forces society to look in the mirror and see how ugly it’s become. It reminds us that, regardless of society’s atrocities, we can be bold and beautiful and whole.
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Rochelle Robinson holds an M.A. in Women Studies from San Francisco State University. Her work has been featured in the online blog Decolonizing Yoga; two anthologies: Life’s Spices From Seasoned Sistahs (2005), More of Life’s Spices: Seasoned Sistahs Keepin’ it Real (2013); and Space To Breathe (Yoga Zine).