The first time I was hit by a man, I was 11. Actually, he wasn’t yet a man; he was 13, an eighth-grader to my sixth. And we weren’t fighting, or even roughhousing. We were rehearsing for a school play when he abruptly asked me to be his girlfriend.
Embarrassed and incredulous, I laughed and said, “No!” (I was 11, after all). Then I watched his face contort in anger, just before he coldcocked me. Twice.
I remember how everything went white for a moment and how I grabbed the edge of the stage to steady myself. When I opened my eyes, our drama teacher, a black parent who ran drama club as part of our after-school curriculum, was standing between the boy and me. After ensuring that I wasn’t bleeding or broken anywhere, she assured me that he was sorry and made him apologize. Then she asked me to apologize, too. After all, I’d laughed at him.
In that moment, I was made to understand that I was, at least in part, responsible for his actions. His wounded pride was of equal priority to—if not higher than—my safety. My forgiveness was instantly expected, and we were to proceed as if nothing had happened. And we did.
It would be years before I learned that my drama teacher’s husband was known to raise a hand or two of his own. But most significantly, I remember feeling that I’d experienced some sick rite of passage, and that it likely wouldn’t be the last time.
At 21, and a senior in college, I began my first and only cohabiting relationship. It seemed that my life was beginning to come together: Within months I had the degree; the Brooklyn, N.Y., brownstone duplex; the burgeoning career; and the man I expected to be my future husband. All that was left was to add two kids and stir.
We had a passionate relationship. That was the word I always used: “passionate.” With limited experience in either adulthood or adult relationships, I thought that level of passion meant ours was a love worth fighting for—literally.
I was so deeply in love, I dismissed the stories of his last relationship, nodding in agreement when he called his ex-girlfriend “crazy.” I imagined how she undoubtedly provoked him when he remorsefully admitted to once “shoving” her, and considered her vengeful for calling the cops on him. I self-righteously assumed that she’d been the poison in their toxic relationship, even while cringing at his increasingly harsher criticisms and controlling behavior.
Even when he “shoved” me the first time—into a wall, after dragging me up the stoop of our brownstone by my collar when I’d tried to leave, ripping my jacket almost in two—my mind spun less from the impact than from frantically trying to figure out how to fix our relationship. How small could I shrink to fix us?
Besides, I didn’t fit any of the clichés of an “abused woman.” In fact, the closest I’d ever been to witnessing violence in my childhood home was overhearing the terrifying screams and thuds of the neighbors upstairs, who my mother gently explained were “moving furniture” before she called the police.
But now we were the neighbors whose screams were heard through the wall, the spectacle on the front steps of our home as passersby stared on in horror. I’d just graduated from a progressive, woman-centric college, fully convinced of my rights and autonomy. And yet the next time would find me with the hand of the man I loved clenched around my neck as he threatened to bash my face in if I fought back. Clichés be damned. How small could I shrink?
This is the memory that instantly came to mind when I read the results of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest report, “Racial and Ethnic Differences in Homicides of Adult Women and the Role of Intimate Partner Violence.” Unsurprisingly (to me, at least), the CDC’s findings revealed that over half of female homicide victims between the ages of 18 and 44 are killed by intimate partners. Also not surprising: Non-Hispanic black women are killed at almost three times the rate of their white counterparts—the highest rate of all ethnicities, as a matter of fact. And 98 percent of those homicides are committed by men.
Two more years would pass before I left that relationship—even longer before I would readily identify it as abuse, and confess it to friends and family. By that time, he’d bedded and moved in with the neighbor who lived directly above the apartment we once shared, and I was filing dozens of Affidavit of Forgery forms to dispute a series of fraudulent checks that bore my name but, suspiciously, his bank and branch. (Did I mention that he was a graphic designer—and that financial abuse is a form of domestic abuse, too?)
The CDC study cites “argument and jealousy” as “common precipitating circumstances.” As a remedy, it suggests “targeted [intimate-partner violence] prevention programs for populations at disproportionate risk and enhanced access to intervention services for persons experiencing IPV are needed to reduce homicides among women.”
Sure. But specifically, what are we going to do about the black girls who are told long before they even have an intimate partner that their safety isn’t paramount? And what about the black boys who are being taught—along with the rest of the world—that black girls are of ultimately less value? As one Georgetown University study found (pdf), there is the perception that black girls “need less nurturing; less protection; to be supported less; to be comforted less; are more independent; know more about adult topics; know more about sex.”
What does that say about the perception of their worth?
As we saw with the emergence of yet another R. Kelly scandal last week—and the inevitable chorus of those who incessantly cape for “the Pied Piper”—there is an almost pathological undervaluing of the lives of black girls and women in America. (How else do you explain allowing a predator to thrive in our midst for over two decades?)
Despite ample evidence of #BlackGirlMagic and annual proclamations that Black Girls Rock!, when it comes to making black lives matter, the lost lives of black men are still generally the ones that take precedence in that discussion. And yet, the CDC suggests that 55 percent of murdered black women—women who still overwhelming choose partners within their race—will be killed by the black men they presumably love.
Given this evidence, it seems that we have two options: Believe that black men are inherently more violent, or believe that the lives of black women are inherently less valued. And while I refuse to accept the former as truth, there is evidence far beyond Georgetown’s or the CDC’s findings to support the latter. The truth is, how we talk to and about black women matters.
When we talk about how patriarchy and misogynoir function even among those who, as Jamilah Lemieux wrote, “are black, who were raised by black women and profess to value black people,” we rarely tell the origin stories. We don’t discuss how a “ride or die” mentality is often ingrained in our daughters before they ever learn the phrase. Or how our blind allegiances encourage our sons to value black women’s loyalty more than black women’s lives.
I never told my parents about the first time I was hit. Not because I thought I wouldn’t be believed, but because even at 11, I understood that I was to protect this boy, even above myself. It was my first experience of shrinking to fix a problem that wasn’t mine. And as predicted, it wasn’t my last.
Because all too often, this is the measure of a woman’s worth: We ride for our men, even when at risk of dying at their hands. What are we going to do about that?
If you or someone you know is affected by domestic violence, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233