Author’s note: The following piece is not me trying to silence or dismiss the suffering of other communities. This stems from my longing for an intersectional conversation on sexual violence. It is my attempt to talk about the pain that is inflicted when rape culture and toxic black masculinity converge. I do not know what you will take from this. All I can promise is this is my unapologetic truth.
I have been involved in a number of social-justice collectives over the past three years. In some of those spaces I found a family, and we sustain each other amid a multipronged assault on our blackness. In others I have come across people who say they believe in liberation for all, but really seek to place themselves atop existing oppressive structures.
Putting aside their ideologies and strategies for a moment, I’ve noticed a common thread running through these groups. The thread being the idea that there is power in sharing one’s story with others. It is an understanding that speaking your narrative provides room for personal healing while simultaneously granting those around you opportunities to work through their own trauma.
I was vehemently against it initially. I considered story-sharing to be another mechanism designed to exploit black suffering. Most of the people who were brave enough to share their pain were black people—specifically black women. Their stories focused on intimate-partner violence, rape and state-sanctioned brutality toward them and their families.
More often than not, there were white people in their room who expressed how moved they were after hearing these horrendous stories. This angered me the most. I asked myself, “Why are we always the ones called to educate at the expense of retraumatizing ourselves? Why was it that a majority of white people could not bring themselves to act until we exposed our abused and scarred bodies?” I wanted no part of it.
While I understood it was a courageous and conscious decision for people to share a piece of themselves, I hated the idea of black pain constantly being served for public consumption. I promised myself that I would not participate in it. I kept that promise until I was sexually assaulted.
I was raped in the fall semester of 2015. I was raped by a black woman and it hurt me. It hurt me to know a black woman—someone I rode for and with in this movement—hurt me in such a way. As a result, my grades slipped, I distanced myself from my community and convinced myself not to seek help because I did not want a white person capitalizing off my pain.
I would be lying to you if I said my rigid conception of black masculinity did not keep me from getting the help I needed as well. There were a number of things I said to convince myself that I had not been hurt:
* “These things do not happen to men, especially not black men.”
* “You are a leader. You do not have time to waste on this white s—t.”
* “They are going to make you talk to a white psychologist and make you leave school. You can’t afford it.”
* “Just move on and get back to work.”
I want to spend some time on that last one.
It is my personal belief that white supremacy is so unrelenting, it forces black people to view self-care as self-indulgence, i.e., “My people dying every day, so I am being selfish/failing my community if I am not constantly working.” Eventually we become OK with not being OK.
Furthermore, we tend to dismiss resources designed to support us as “white people stuff” because we do not trust them or we believe in gritting our way through traumatic and life-altering events on our own. These sentiments have resulted in our black community perpetuating a code of silence on sexual violence.
In 2014 the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that for every black woman who reports rape, at least 15 do not report (pdf).The Black Women’s Blueprint stated that at least 9 out of 10 black women have been victims of pedophilia, street harassment and/or sexual assault; or they have a friend, cousin, sister, aunt, mother or grandmother who has been victimized. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 15 percent of black transgender people experienced sexual assault in K-12 education.
Robin D. Stone, author of No Secrets, No Lies: How Black Families Can Heal From Sexual Abuse, states that 1 in 6 black men report childhood sexual abuse. She continues by saying that fears of being perceived as gay by other men and a distrust of police often lead black boys to remain silent.
The statistics scream out, but the silence is deafening. It is heavy. I can almost touch it.
In maintaining this silence despite such overwhelming numbers, we as black men say to ourselves and one another that we see no problem with the violence impacting our community.
I am not saying we have to speak about it in front of white people, but we have to speak about it.
As black men who have survived sexual assault, we cannot remain silent, considering the violence being done to our children. They should not have to go through what we went through. If we have these conversations, we can help lance the sense of shame and embarrassment that has become synonymous with revealing assault.
If we fail to do so, we contribute to a culture of rape that will undoubtedly lead to more black girls and boys walking around broken. If we fail, we also deprive ourselves of a healing process—a process that can see us move ever so closer to becoming whole again.
Again, I do not know what you took from this piece. It was my attempt to share a personal narrative with the understanding that holding it in does nothing except eat away at me. It was my attempt to say explicitly that I, along with other black men, am hurt. I am f—ked up. I am in pain. I am broken. If nothing else, I hope these conversations move us to a point where we can be broken together and help put some of our pieces back in place.
Josh Odam is Brooklyn, N.Y.’s resident spaceboy. He is a third-year dual-degree candidate in political science and legal studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is fluent in English, Vulcan, Klingon, Shadiness and Trash-Talking and divides his time between UMass and residency at the University of Wakanda.