Before you read any further, I should remind you that I am a womanist/black feminist. And for all you people who think that a “womanist” is something else than a “black feminist,” please read your copy of Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens.
As a womanist/feminist, and thus, someone who believes in the empowerment of women, and black women in particular, I have a real problem with the rape and physical abuse of black women, and thus, I have a problem with the black male rapists and physical abusers given continuing sanctuary in my community. Over a decade ago, I was trained as a battered women’s counselor and worked as one, too, so I know a little bit about this whole issue.
That’s why I have a problem with Mike Tyson, our latest black abuser-du jour. I’m asking you: why the heck is Mike Tyson the subject of an award-winning documentary and the toast of the Hollywood film set? Why is he all up on the TV—on Oprah, no less—soliciting sympathy, and why on earth does his bid for sympathy seem to be working?
I’m not here to debate Mike’s guilt as a rapist. First, I believe he was guilty and second, if you don’t believe he was guilty, one blog post from me isn’t going to change your mind. I know a lot of black people still don’t believe that Mike Tyson raped Desiree Washington, even though he was found guilty by a jury of his peers and went to jail for that crime.
I remember when the charges against him came out and even after he went to jail, all sorts of people in the black community were in his corner. It wasn’t fifty percent in his corner and fifty percent in Desiree’s corner, like when Brad Pitt was caught cheating on Jennifer Anniston with Angelina Jolie and there were people who had t-shirts made up to say which woman’s “team” they were on. No, mostly everybody black was on Mike’s team. (The same thing happened with OJ Simpson, and I’ll just let that sad piece of information marinate with you.)
To many, Desiree Washington’s name is still synonymous with “race traitor” in the black community. But even if you don’t believe Mike Tyson raped Desiree Washington—even if you think she tried to renege on a legally binding contract with Mike Tyson which included giving him sexual favors—Mike’s been abusive in other ways toward others. For example, he bit off Evander Holyfield’s ear in public. (And so, logic might go, if he did that in public to a man who was just as strong and big as he was, what would he do in private to a woman who didn’t have as much strength?) Further, Robin Givens has maintained, for a long, long time, that Mike Tyson beat her and also, in her 2007 book, Grace Will Lead Me Home, she alleges that he raped her as well.
I remember back in the day when Mike was married to Robin, my friends and I talked about how annoying she was. The clipped, bill collector voice, the seemingly constant need for attention. She was just a person who got on your nerves. But somehow, my friends seemed to think that, since she was annoying, it was all right for Mike to abuse her. I never thought that.
I have members of my family that get on my nerves. And if you think that people on my job don’t get on my nerves —which, by the way, if you are from my job and you are reading this blog, I really, really love having that job and I need me a raise, too—you are sadly mistaken. But if I went around beating down people just because they got on my nerves, I’d be doing a bid for aggravated assault on the chain gang right now.
Again, people get on my nerves all the time, but since I don’t let my “id” lead me around by the nose, I don’t go around jumping on people whenever the feeling gets good to me. So why is it ok that Mike Tyson jumps on people and brutalizes them, and why do we feel sorry for his inability to control his anger and rage? Why do we keep running behind Mike Tyson, trying to make him into the saint he is not? Is it the lisped voice? Is it because he’s got that sad, confused, tatooed look about him? Is it his background as a kid with no responsible, kind black male role model around? Is it the wrongs that Don King committed against Mike, in addition to Don wearing that unfortunate hairdo of his?
Or is it that, in the cases of Desiree and Robin, black women and their bodies simply don’t have any worth at all in American society at large, and the black community specifically, so what is the big deal anyway?
I don’t feel sorry for Mike Tyson the criminal. Yes, it was horrible when his baby girl died, and I felt sorry for his and his wife’s personal loss. Nothing is worse than the death of a child. However, as someone who adheres to logic, I know that Mike’s personal tragedies, no matter how great, don’t excuse his crimes. One does not have anything to do with the other.
There are a lot of people out there with bad childhoods—and some of them are black men—and many of them don’t hurt people physically, let alone ask for second chances for the hurt that they’ve doled out over the years. But I hear you asking me, “Honorée, don’t people deserve second chances?”
Yes, they do, if they ask for forgiveness and make amends.
Here are the universally acknowledged rules for forgiveness, at least as I understand them: If, after wronging the community—and a crime against the body of a black woman is a crime against the community as a whole, just as it is when you harm a black man’s body—someone wants to be incorporated back into the community, he or she must make amends to the person wronged. Forgiveness by and acceptance into the community does not occur in anticipation of these amends, it is as a result of these amends. That’s if somebody is going to take advantage of community sanctuary. First, of course, he or she needs to go to jail.
Now, if the person who has committed a wrong against the community is not seeking sanctuary, and wants to go someplace else and live among those “someplace else” people then he or she can just get to stepping, and no amends are necessary.
Those are the rules of forgiveness, but the problem is no one has ever applied those rules to Mike Tyson, yet we are letting him right back in the door of our black community, saying, “Well, he went to jail. He’s already made his amends.” Yet, amends to the women he hurt are not necessarily erased by jail time. Jail time consists of amends to the state, not to the person wronged. The state doesn’t get to decide the worth of a particular black woman’s body—she does. And in America’s past, it wasn’t even an actual crime against the state to rape, much less hit, a black woman. (Click here and here.)
Further, Mike has never admitted to wrongdoing against either Desiree or Robin in the first place, jail time or no jail time. He has never said, “I’m sorry” without backtracking. Instead, he says, “Feel sorry for me; these are the reasons why I did these things.” But there are no justifications for raping someone or beating somebody down, and to insist there are justifications is to continue the trauma that was inflicted upon the victims of Mike’s abuse.
For example, Mike says he and Robin “beat each other up.” (To my knowledge, he’s never addressed her charge of rape against him, either to confirm or deny it). Have you ever seen Robin Givens? She’s a petite little thing. She can’t weigh more than a hundred and ten pounds. This teeny, tiny lady is the person Mike Tyson says he “fought with”? Mike didn’t say, “She sneaked and threw a pot of hot grits on me while I was sleeping.” No, Mike said, they “beat each other up.” Unh-huh, Mike.
And Mike still denies raping Desiree Washington. He even called her bad names in the documentary that was made to rehabilitate his image. Even if he wants to continue denying raping Desiree, did Mike have to call that sister out of her name in front of a film crew? And does his response to his abuse(s) of Robin and his convicted rape of Desiree seem like the actions of person who has changed significantly as a human being?
I don’t expect James Toback, the white guy who made the documentary on Mike, to have sympathy for black female rape victims or survivors of domestic violence; he doesn’t belong to my community, after all. I’m not accusing him of being a bad person or a racist. I don’t even know that man, and maybe he thinks he’s doing some sort of social service for black folks. Clearly, whatever his intentions, he just doesn’t get it.
But what I can’t comprehend is why we in the black community are so willing to press the restart button—time and again—for men who hurt black women. For instance, why would somebody like Oprah, a black woman who’s supposed to be an advocate for women and girls, give a venue for publicity to Mike Tyson, a man who has admitted to physically hurting black women—who has bragged about it in print, and now on film? And, by the way, why would she give a venue to Jay-Z, who calls black women “bitches and hoes” in his “music”?
Side bar: I still don’t believe you can be a musician when you can’t sing or carry a tune; read music; or play an instrument, even if it’s just “hambone” on your chest and thighs. You can go on ahead and leave nasty comments for me below, but when you do, please explain in detail your reasons for disagreeing with me, because I need that information.
I don’t wish to characterize black women as passive participants in our lives. We aren’t. Many times, black women are our own worst enemies: we usually don’t muster the same sympathy for our own tragedies as we do for those of our sons, fathers, lovers and brothers. We won’t believe other black women’s testimonies, we downplay what really happened or we blame our sisters for their own abuse.
When we black women are trying to deal with the wreckage of female bodies and minds in our community, we will say about another sister who has been raped or abused, “She must have done something to deserve it.” Or we say, “It could have been worse. At least he didn’t kill her.”
Those are always our consolation prizes, aren’t they?