I didn’t find out until a few days ago that in addition to April being National Poetry Month, it is also Sexual Assault Awareness Month. This is an issue that has been close to my heart for a long time: I am a survivor of sexual assault.
I never intended to discuss this on my blog. I didn’t want people–okay, black men—looking at something that I wrote here about black male privilege or domestic violence, and saying to themselves, “Unh-huh, I knew it. I knew that’s why she was a feminist. And that’s why she hates black men, too. She’s probably even a lesbian.”
Sidebar: Not that there’s anything wrong with being a lesbian. Matter of fact, there’s everything right with it. if you read Essence Magazine this month, you will discover that if I was a lesbian, I’d probably be happily married with some kids by now, as impossible as my chances are for actually getting a black man to marry me.
I thought as well about any students of mine who might read this blog. Did I want them to know this painful, personal item about me? Would it make them not want to take my classes?
Whenever I thought about the issue of sexual assault, I would just move my mind to the side and then, skip around that issue. Until yesterday. Something told me, “Let the fear go, Honorée. Say what you need to, and then, let it do what it do.”
And for real, though, I realized if I was scared, I should have thought about that, like, fourteen years ago before I became a published writer.
The information is already out there for anyone who wants to find it. I’ve talked about my being a survivor in in my poetry. I’ve talked about it in written interviews as well. Or, if no one has read my books or interviews, somebody can look at my performance in Aishah Shahidah Simmon’s groundbreaking, brilliant documentary film, NO!, a film about sexual assault against black women, and see my cute face in there. I was ten years younger when Aishah filmed me, a little chubbier, and I didn’t have nine gray hairs like I do now, but yep, that’s me in the film, performing a long, personal poem about sexual assault.
What I’m trying to say is, if I want to be a coward and not reveal myself as a survivor of sexual assault, it’s a little too late for that now.
And guess what else? Regardless of what I have revealed to you in this blog post, I’m still fine-as-wine, sassy, brilliant, and accomplished. I still wear seriously cute outfits; if it’s after five pm on any given day and someone invites me out, I’m liable to don a tiara.
Not a thing has changed inside me by revealing what someone else did to me without my consent. What might change is what’s outside, such as someone’s perception of me. But someone else’s perception of me is not my concern.
As Lucille Clifton has said, “What they call you is one thing. What you answer to is something else.”
What I’ve done, by sidestepping the issue of my own sexual assault is what a lot of people do in my community. But I can pretty much guess at what white folks and other folks do, because all communities tend to behave in similar ways surrounding issues that they view as shameful. And sexual assault—rape (stranger or acquaintance) of women or men and child molestation—is considered shameful. Even though the shame should be on the perpetrator and not the victim/survivor, still it’s hard not to feel it when somebody tells you otherwise. That’s why we survivors keep silent.
Black folks pretend. They sidestep the issue when a child, male or female, confides that a family member did something violative. I know they do that in my family. I bet they do that in yours, under the pathetic excuse of “not airing dirty laundry.”
Sidebar: And to the sister I talked to on Facebook–who inspired this blog post–who said, we don’t air our dirty laundry in the black community, let me say this with all the love and respect I can muster: if you don’t want your nasty, violent business aired in public, don’t do nasty, violent things to children or other people who can’t defend themselves. It’s not up to the victim/survivor to keep a perpetrator’s secret; to ask her/him to keep that secret is to continue to violate him/her over and over.
And further, it’s not like it’s a secret anyway because nobody in a black family can keep a secret in the first place. That’s why I don’t tell one of my mother’s sisters (who shall remain nameless ’cause I don’t want to embarrass her) nothing right now, ok? ‘Cause telephone, telegram, tell that particular auntie.
Up until a couple of years ago I used to feel that black people just walked around in bubbles, that unless something hit them close to home, a particular issue wasn’t important, and so, it wasn’t something they wanted to talk about. Now I know I was wrong: when it comes to the issue of sexual assault, especially if sexual assault does hit close to home, it’s not something people want to talk about. Ever.
Take Mo’Nique’s family. They were just on Oprah, revealing stoic, pain-filled faces, while Mo’Nique’s older brother admitted that he had molested her when he was eleven and she was seven. This wasn’t news to us survivors. Mo’Nique already had dropped that dime on old boy a while back and we knew that she wasn’t lying.
And you know how we knew? Because when you drop the dime on a black male of whatever age, and you are a black female who is related to that black male, you give up the warmth of your family bosom in exchange for telling the truth. You become an outcast. You become a pariah. You will not be able to enter your ancestral home and partake of the holiday sweet potato pie that comes with all the other perks: the love, the care, the laughter, the understanding—all the cultural cushions that you need to fall on as a black person in this society.
In the black community, we need those cushions. I won’t whine about it; it just is what it is. That’s how come I know why it took so long for Mo’Nique to spill that family news on a national scale and I know she wasn’t lying. You don’t give up all that love for a lie, and you don’t give up your family for the promise of cheap publicity.
On Oprah, Mo’Nique’s family explained that they thought everything was okay, that she was past her brother’s sexual abuse of her, and that’s why they never talked about it. She and her brother seemed to get along very well, her parents said. Her other brother said the child molestation situation had been “blowed up out of proportion.”
In response to which, black female survivors–and black male survivors, too–across this great land of ours uttered a single phrase together: “Negroes, please.”
If this was the way this family talked on Oprah, lying and whatnot in front of a studio audience and millions of people watching around the world, how do you think they had talked to Mo’Nique at the family home when there was no one there to see? Oh sure, her parents really thought everything was fine with Mo’Nique, when the brother that had molested Mo’Nique then went on to molest somebody else’s child and went to prison for it for twelve years.
Unh-huh. Dirty laundry, indeed.
Even if you aren’t talking about your molestation at the hands of your own brother but you are talking about your rape as a young adult at the hands of a “brother” you know, the attitude is as follows: You better not try to destroy that brother’s life. All he did was take a little bit. What’s a little bit? It wasn’t like what Master Tom did to Kizzy Kinte. That was different–this is a brother, not a white man–so get over it, already.
If you try to call the police, hopefully, they won’t laugh you out of the precinct when you inform them that you and homeboy were making out, and you two had had sex before because he was your long-term boyfriend and you’d been hoping one day y’all might get married, but this time, when he wanted to have sex, you said, “No,” because he was getting rough and wouldn’t pay attention when you told him he was hurting you, so you started fighting him, and then he started slapping you, and…
You get the picture.
But let’s say, you try to tell one of your girlfriends on the yard—that would be your college yard—that your long-time boyfriend raped you, and your girlfriend doesn’t even have a man, and she can’t understand why you’re tripping because your boyfriend is a member of an upstanding African American fraternity founded in the early 20th century, he’s the first in his family to make it out of the projects, he’s the possessor of a 3.8 grade point average, and he’s going to be making good money one day and…
You get the picture.
What black woman is going to go against that grain? What black woman’s going to hold herself up to that sort of scrutiny and scorn from her own people, maybe even her own family? What black woman is going to turn her back on the only folks she knows and loves, in order to receive justice at the hands of an already racist criminal justice system?
And what about when we are talking about a little black child? Just who is going to direct a child who has been sexually assaulted through the already impossible maze facing grown black women? What courage does a child have access to?
So, Miss Lady lecturing me on Facebook about dirty laundry, please don’t hate on Mo’Nique for waiting thirty-plus years to tell her truth in public, until you have walked in her shoes.
I have walked in those shoes, and they pinched and gave me corns, but I just kept on walking and telling myself I was feeling fabulous, I was glamorous, I was strong, I was beautiful, I was a child of God, I was clean, I was talented, I was really past what somebody took from me even if I slept with the light on in the hallway because I was scared of the dark. Until finally I really was past it, and I could turn that light off in the hallway and love who I was in the dark. A dark which finally belonged to me.
It’s been a year and a half for me without that night light. This is not a metaphor. This is the truth.
Yay for me, goddamnit.
And yes, I cursed. You can do that when you are a black woman taking care of herself. This is how we do it, on the grown folks’ side of town where we have survived.
I’ve always tried to keep it real when it comes to issues that affect black women and the black community, and I hope I will continue to do so. But if you’re wondering why it took me a while to get all-the-way real, to take back my own night, now you know. I hope you understand my silence, but if you don’t, that’s okay, too.
It is my night, after all.