My first job, about a decade ago in Harlem, was interning at a shelter for domestic violence survivors. Most were lower-income black and Latina women. A colleague and I would organize these makeshift financial sessions, giving these women overviews about how to build credit, manage debt, apply for housing vouchers and the like. I regularly heard stories from women there of how their credit cards or Social Security numbers had been commandeered by abusive ex-partners, completely torpedoing their credit scores—and jeopardizing their fresh, new bids for independence.
These were women who had been booted from city shelters for overstays and then curved by relatives, many of whom were dealing with their own shit. Most shelter residents were in their 20s, had babies or small children, and were living alone for the first time in their lives. They were unemployed, or underemployed, and doubly traumatized—first by their abuser and then by the indignity of having to tiptoe around this dank, cramped shelter, with all of its unapologetic summer-camp rules and curfews.
Kelis’ harrowing story of cheating and alleged abuse at the hands of your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper, Nas, reminded me of some of those women’s stories. The difference was that Kelis’ story was fight-or-flight on a grand stage, another nationally trending story that quashed the convenient talking point that domestic violence is still black folks’ ultimate, extra-secret tribalistic artifact.
The narrative of a young woman suffering intense emotional and physical abuse, with a dozen rational reasons to reserve the U-Haul and exit stage left—but more culturally salient reasons to stay—ain’t a novel one anymore.
The attention in cases like Kelis’ has a way of slyly turning not to how we eliminate the physical and emotional suffering of women, but how we preserve the virtue and (checking account balances) of our blessed, aspirational black men. Fans and other apologists will say that men like Nas, Ray Rice, Chris Brown and Fabolous never learn but still are deserving of less judgment from us and more chances, ignoring the brutal regularity and institutionalization of domestic violence.
With the direct, or indirect, awareness that women who leave abusive relationships are three times more likely to be killed by their abusers than women who stay, our public sentiments toward celebrity abusers certainly doesn’t make it any more comforting for survivors to make that perilous leap.
There is a whole mess of statistics that a person could drum up about the grip that domestic violence has on the United States. You can go by state or age group or drill it down to every minute a domestic violence incident occurs.
But the most important domestic violence statistics are the ones that illustrate just how close it is to us; the stats that show that domestic violence isn’t restricted to the less fortunate or the more fortunate, to those in the ’burbs, boondocks or those in the city.
And whatever domestic violence statistic you pull, and however carefully you dice the numbers, you’ll almost always find that black women are carrying the heaviest load.
Jay-Z, himself not as wise and upstanding as we once thought, long ago needled Nas’ double rap persona, asking on the 2003 song “Blueprint 2,” “Is it ‘Oochie Wally’”—Nas’ uncharacteristically sexual (and bad) ballad—“ … or is it ‘One Mic’?”—Nas’ sobering hip-hop battle cry.
Some 15 years later, this seems to be the same question that the culture is asking itself in confronting the fact that many of our idols are shrewdly opportunistic and their identities completely fungible; that you can go to bed with a rapper who thinks he’s soothsaying activist-artist Maya Angelou and eight years later find yourself waking up next to a soulless, philistinic Donald Trump supporter. And Nas—two weeks after Kelis revealed her truth, and still barely a peep from the hip-hop poet laureate—in retrospect may have played us all with his recent ode to black women in “Daughters.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 1 out of every 2 black women has been, or will be, a victim of rape, physical violence or stalking; and black women are about twice as likely as white women to die because of intimate-partner violence. Black survivors are also a lot less likely to leave abusive relationships; seek psychological help or social services, such as shelters; or even report intimate-partner violence to family, friends or authorities.
Even more unsettling, a large study by researchers at the University of Georgia shows that black girls are significantly more likely than girls from other races to agree that it’s OK for a boy to hit his girlfriend if “she made him mad, jealous on purpose, or insulted him in front of friends.” These poisonous seeds of gender norms and expectations seem to sprout early, and they’re so hard to weed out.
Think of the ecology of domestic violence as being partly crystallized by the narrative arcs of Pam (Tichina Arnold) from Martin and Esther (LaWanda Page) from Sanford and Son. Although these two proud characters had their own stinging comebacks, both came back, week after week, to have the same seemingly grander and more explosive indignities—and seemingly innocuous physical threats—visited upon them over laugh tracks.
Today we occasionally skim the surface of that nauseating cesspool known as WorldStarHipHop and see this kind of numbing theater played out on everyday black women, but now it is its internet consumers providing the collective laugh track. A silent epidemic this is not. It’s pretty damn transparent, the multigenerational taste-making in the comedy of going low and hard on black women.
And it’s not just that people—particularly men who hit or downplay hitting women—hate women, as VSB’s Damon Young recently wrote. Distilling violence down to binary notions of love and hate obscures the extent to which intimate-partner violence—and, really, all forms of violence—manifest as intergenerational, socially reproducing acts.
Acts of violence and antagonism toward black women, in their many shades, are part of a social legacy cemented in our health care system, politics and entertainment.
In the current wave of largely white, nonintersectional #MeToo feminism, it’s the reason we continue to find it easy to accept and laugh at the Pams and Esthers of the world and far harder to imagine a recurring bit in Friends where Joey talks about giving Phoebe a “two-piece.”