A Culture Of Silence

Black women have fought tirelessly to protect our communities while placing our lives on the back burner. No more. It’s time to prioritize ourselves.
Kirsten West Savali Nov, 08, 2018

From an early age, many Black women and girls are taught that it is our duty to protect Black men and boys at all costs—even at the expense of our own safety, and even if it violates our bodies. Some women are given the impression that we must protect our men and boys from White supremacy’s cruel grip and police brutality, and that we must become the containers into which men pour their anger, oppression and sexual pathology, eventually becoming keepers of secrets that could kill us.

This toxic silence, positioned as loyalty to Black men and boys who move through society as dehumanized targets of White aggression, denies us the opportunity to live as fully realized beings. Instead, all too often, the bodies of Black women and girls found collapsed at the intersection of systemic barriers and sexual violence are deemed collateral damage.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Crime Victimization Survey, 2011–16, about 50 percent of all sexual assaults against Black women go unreported to police. Additionally, according to Tricia B. Bent-Goodley, Ph.D., a professor of social work at Howard University, “Black women have been found to withstand abuse, subordinate feelings and concerns with safety, and make a conscious self-sacrifice for what is perceived as the greater good of the community, but to their own physical, psychological and spiritual detriment.”

A HISTORY OF PAIN

This protectiveness, this complicated need to shield Black men even from themselves, is steeped in our history in this country.

The transgenerational retelling of this history, however, often minimizes a hard truth: The enslavement of Black people in America and rapes of Black women were used as a systemic tool for expansion. As slavery shape-shifted into sharecropping, then Jim Crow, then mass incarceration, the sexual violence against Black women didn’t end.

In the 1940’s iconic civil rights leader Rosa Parks documented the rape and sexual assault of Black women—including Recy Taylor, who was gang-raped by six White supremacists in 1944, and Gertrude Perkins, who was abducted and raped by two Montgomery police officers in 1949. Parks also fought for justice on the women’s behalf in Alabama.

In Soul on Ice, Eldridge Cleaver’s controversial 1968 memoir, the former Black Panther wrote of his strategy for raping White women as a method of political warfare, with Black women and girls serving as his training ground. “I started out practicing on Black girls in the ghetto—in the Black ghetto where dark and vicious deeds appear not as aberrations or deviations from the norm, but as part of the sufficiency of the evil of a day,” Cleaver wrote. While these acts were carried out before his association with the Black Panthers, the idea that a Black man would feel emboldened to commit terrifying acts on his own community speaks volumes.

More recently, in 2016, former Oklahoma City police officer and sexual predator Daniel Holtzclaw was sentenced to 263 years for the rape and sexual assault of seven Black women and one Black girl, ranging in age from 17 to 57. These are just a few examples of the pervasive, institutional sexual violence that Black women continue to endure. To demand our silence when the perpetrators are masked as our protectors is as physically and psychologically violent as when the assault comes from men whose skin resembles our own. Ironically, we were taught to keep silent for our own protection, but swallowing our truths and hiding our wounds only serve to compound the devastation.

It is not simply that Black women and girls who have been sexually assaulted or raped fear what will happen to Black men. Often they also experience shame and fear as they anticipate how their stories will be received. They brace themselves to be called hoes and fast-tail girls who asked for it, schemed for it. They know that their sexuality, already commodified and fetishized, will likely be used against them in the court of public opinion.

According to The Women of Color Network, “stereotypes regarding Black/African/African-American women’s sexuality—including terms like Black Jezebel, promiscuous and exotic—perpetuate the notion that Black/African/African-American women are willing participants in their own victimization. However, these myths only serve to demean, obstruct appropriate legal remedies, and minimize the seriousness of sexual violence perpetrated against Black/African/African-American women.”

The ‘Me Too’ movement—started by Tarana Burke more than a decade ago to center and affirm the lived experiences of Black women and girls—has created space for a boldness and freedom that we have too long been denied. Still, our stories are too often crushed beneath the boots of misogynist media gatekeepers who are more committed to protecting men in power than to championing Black women and girls.

THE OTHER SIDE

Randi Gloss, 28, an entrepreneur, a writer and an activist who founded Glossrags—which creates socially conscious designs—believes she experienced this silencing firsthand. In 2015, Gloss agreed to go out with a man who seemed “patient and caring” at one point, but that would soon change.

“The date was decent. Burgers, banter, basics. But then he mentioned something about my butt after I came back from the bathroom, and my comfort level began to dissipate,” Gloss tells ESSENCE.

Despite her initial reservations, Gloss enjoyed the rest of the date and agreed to meet him at his apartment later that evening. When she arrived she says it became apparent that he had more in mind than simply hanging out. “After watching television for a while, he leaned over and whispered in my ear, ‘I really want to taste you,’ ” Gloss says. “I told him no. That I wasn’t in a rush. That I wanted to take things slow. Apparently slow [to him] meant asking me again. He asked me to lie with him and motioned to his bed. I didn’t want to, but I did. He took off my tights and underwear. He didn’t ask for permission to perform oral sex, but I let it happen. Then nonconsensual, unprotected penetration.

“I was in shock,” she continues. “I kicked him out from inside of me and demanded to know what he was doing, to which he responded, ‘I thought you wanted it.’ ”

For almost three years, Gloss has wrestled with what happened to her. When she tried to tell her story, she claims she was met with resistance from media outlets, which ultimately refused to publish her account. That rejection has left Gloss frustrated, angry and leaning on friends for emotional support. “I had no idea how difficult it would be to speak out,” Gloss says.

Activist and author Sil Lai Abrams, 48, faced similar barriers when she attempted to come forward. Abrams alleges that, in 1994, Def Jam record label cofounder Russell Simmons raped her, and that in 2006, A.J. Calloway, currently a cohost on the television show Extra, sexually assaulted her. Both men denied the allegations. And after months of her going back and forth with MSNBC’s Joy Reid, NBC decided to shelve the story due to, the network claims, a lack of corroborating evidence. Though The Hollywood Reporter did finally publish Abrams’s story, she cautions those women who speak out to be measured in their expectations. “Even when you are successful in getting your story told, there is no guarantee that your claims will be taken seriously, that any action will ensue or that the men responsible for violating you will be held accountable in their professional and personal lives,” Abrams says.

She admits that the hypercriminalization of Black men—specifically how White men, White women and White judicial systems have demonized them as sexual predators by nature—was a concern. But what almost silenced her was the fear of not being believed and having her own people turn against her. “We talk about freedom for Black people,” she says. “Well, I want to be free from sexual violence. Black women are constantly at war with themselves about the need to stand up for ourselves and our instinctive concern for Black men, even those Black men who do bad things to Black women. And when we finally gather our courage to come forward and say, ‘My brother hurt me,’ we’re deemed race traitors. So how do we find justice? I don’t know. For the most part, I think justice is a myth.”

Many of these horrific stories remain buried to this day, but the bodies of Black women and girls are more than unsolved crime scenes. The little Black girls being molested by uncles or cousins or pastors or fathers deserve more. The little Black girls who are told to be quiet while their mothers’ boyfriends rape them deserve more. The Black women who have learned that even if they scream, the accolades and adoration thrown at their assailants will always be louder than their cries, deserve more. More justice, more freedom, more protection, more love.

“I have wanted to burn the dress I wore that day,” Gloss says. “I have wanted to watch it go up in flames and smoke and burn and disintegrate until it was no more. But I realize that neither I nor the dress was to blame. It was not my fault. I did not do anything wrong. I felt like I was not given an opportunity to say yes. I was not given an opportunity to say no. I was not given an opportunity to make any choice at all.”

Despite Black women’s loyalties and learned silences born out of a complicated racial history, one fraught with sexualized terror against us, shielding rapists—of any color—is neither revolutionary nor right, and those who claim to care about Black women and girls cannot continue pretending that it is.