I can still remember her bruises.
She was my colleague back when I worked at a bank, long before I ever thought about volunteering in battered women's shelters. Her husband came to meet her at work one afternoon; he snatched her up and threw her into the back of his pickup truck. We didn't see her for days, and when she came back to work, no one really wondered what had happened. Her bruises told the story.
Years later, when I was completing my Ph.D. in clinical social work, the memory of her, and of other women I knew from college and my own extended family, made me take a hard look at what domestic violence was doing to our people.
Domestic violence, the physical abuse or emotional intimidation of one's intimate partner to exert power and control, occurs in all racial and socioeconomic groups. It crosses gender lines as well, with a small percentage of women abusing men. But by far the majority of domestic-violence cases involve abusive men—and men are far more likely to seriously injure their victims. In our communities, the problem is particularly severe, but the silence around domestic violence is deep. And yet such abuse is the leading cause of injury among Black women ages 15 to 44, and Black women from all socioeconomic backgrounds are 35 percent more likely to experience battering than their White counterparts.
'Because we have such a contentious history with law enforcement, Black women are reluctant to call the police on their men, even when they should.'
Ironically, the racial and social mine-fields that Black folks must navigate contribute to our silence on domestic violence. Because of our contentious history with law enforcement, Black women are reluctant to call the police on their men, even when they should. Many abused Black women don't believe the police are there to protect them. Others consider the consequences their partners may suffer at the hands of the police too great a price to pay. After all, Black women don't want their families broken apart. They want their men healed, not imprisoned.
What's more, many of us don't even recognize domestic violence for what it is. Consider how easily we dance to music that calls for knocking women around, or how often we've heard a man say, even jokingly, that he needed to "pimp-slap" his woman. Sadly, many believe that conflict—just about any kind of conflict—is a justification for violence. It can play out like this: I wouldn't have hit her, but she disrespected me. Perhaps she was disrespectful. But we need to ask ourselves: What was our role in the conflict that led to the violence in the first place? And can't we find other ways of resolving conflict—or simply walk away from a relationship that demeans us?
My goal is not to demonize men. Doing so will not end domestic violence; in fact, it will only drive us into more antagonistic relationships with one other. But make no mistake: Ending the abuse must be our focus, because such violence can destroy our families and cripple our communities for generations to come. When children witness battering, they experience the same depression and loss of confidence and self-worth as those who are battered. And they are far more likely to grow into abusers themselves. That's why we have no choice but to tell the truth about the violence being committed in our homes.
The Black church has a tremendous role to play in ending the silence around domestic violence and breaking through the mythology that allows too many of us to think that beating women is acceptable. By working through church and community groups to identify the warning signs for domestic violence, we may be able to help prevent it. In cases where violence already exists, our churches must become sanctuaries, providing shelter, counseling and referrals. We must also reach out to abusers and their children, teaching them more peaceful ways to resolve conflict. We must all finally act as rivers flowing into a single ocean where all of us are respected. All of us are honored. All of us are safe.
Oliver Williams, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African-American Community, based in St. Paul. For more information, log on to dvinstitute.org.
This feature originally appeared in the November 2002 Issue of ESSENCE Magazine.