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Content Notice: This article is part of the #LoveWITHAccountability forum on The Feminist Wire. The purpose of this forum and the #LoveWITHAccountability project is to prioritize child sexual abuse, healing, and justice in national dialogues and work on racial justice and gender-based violence. Several of the featured articles in this forum give an in-depth and, at times, graphic examination of rape, molestation, and other forms of sexual harm against diasporic Black children through the experiences and work of survivors and advocates. The articles also offer visions and strategies for how we can humanely move towards co-creating a world without violence. Please take care of yourself while reading.
By Lynn Roberts
Throughout my writing of this essay, I have grappled with what it means to break the silences surrounding childhood sexual abuse. My own silence began when I was around 6 years young and, while I have broken my silence several times since, I have also retreated back into various forms of silence over the course of my 55 years in this world as I know it. I am not certain if my initial silence was a response to being coerced by my brother (who is four years older) to engage in sexual acts without my consent, to the violence I witnessed almost nightly between my parents, or some combination of these events. Or maybe it was the case of child sexual abuse that shook our entire community when an 8 years young Black girl was abducted, brutally raped and murdered; allegedly by a Black man who was a friend of her family. She was the little sister of my first crush and the first boy I ever kissed. At the time, I was terrified that what happened to her could happen to me, to any of us Black girls. My voice became one of the few things I could control in my childhood. No one could make me speak if I did not want to. When I did finally choose to speak – around the age of 13 – I spoke clearly and confidently of many things and my parents were so pleased to hear my voice, that I was not reprimanded for the occasional sprinkling of curse words (many of which I learned from them). But I still did not speak about the coerced sexual interactions between my brother and I. While I don’t recall my brother ever telling me not to tell anyone, it was clear in my own mind that if I dared to tell anyone, chances were, I would not be heard or worse.
And so it is with the power of silence to betray us. While I can now wholeheartedly embrace and endorse Audre Lorde’s admonition “Your silence will not protect you”, there were times in my life when I thought it did protect me. My silence had protected me from the feelings that result from not being heard after I have been harmed and did choose to talk about it. It protected me when I endured being raped while a college student and feared first for my life and then being blamed by my mother for being raped. Such feelings can be just as deep and soul taking as the ones that result from not being protected from harm in the first place.
. . . and when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive.
It took me forty-something years to share my childhood sexual abuse with my mother (albeit I never shared my college rape) and, just as I could have predicted, she did not hear, let alone comfort me. Instead, she expressed her anger at me for not telling her then – when I was a young child – at a time when she could have done something about it. My waiting all those years to speak about it, she reasoned, had led my brother to withdraw from the family (and specifically her) out of his supposed shame and guilt. My mother might have been right. After all, my brother did not have any contact with any of us for several years, but the only conclusion I could draw from her reaction was that my mother valued my brother more than she valued me. It was very painful, and all too familiar. In my family and in my observations of the world, Black women and girls have often been expected to put the needs of our husbands, our sons and brothers before our own. What right did I have to bring up my harm when my brother was already broken from the blatant abuse and disregard of living as a Black cis-man in a White Supremacist society? Of course, I knew that as a Black woman living in that same society, I had every right to bring it up, but how could I expect my mother to acknowledge my right to do so if she had not fully recognized her own?
With this in mind, I recently asked my mother, now 85, about her own experience with child sexual abuse. I had only vague snippets of my own memory of what she had told me many times during my childhood, if only to strike fear in me when going outside the house to play. She recounted for me what it felt like to be 9 years old, alone and frightened as a Black girl growing up in racially segregated Los Angeles in the 1940’s. I already knew that her child sexual abuse involved a White man and a stranger, not a family member. I did not know that like me (or I like her), she had never told her mother. This time, my mother and I were able to imagine together what it would be like if she had told someone and, more specifically, if she had told her mother. With my urging, she practiced aloud with me what she would have wanted her mother to say to her as a child to make her feel heard, or do to assure her protection if she had broken her silence. I silently wished that my mother would ask me to do the same, but I was not prepared to break my own silence and ask for what I needed.
Accountability without Further Harm
I believe that ‘Love WITH Accountability’ should lead us to healing and is necessary not because we wish punishment or harm to the person who has violated us, but because we seek to live in a world without child sexual abuse and other violence. In a world with Love and Accountability, we can envision our own child self – that child who existed before the harm – or the adult we would have become if the harm had never happened to us in the first place. When we have Love with Accountability we can ask for what we need, even many years and decades after the harm. Through Love with Accountability we can envision the person who sexually abused us (or a loved one) as a child as still dwelling in this world (or family, or community) with us and not burning in hell or locked up for life in a prison cell. We see them as also capable of healing and less likely or no longer capable of causing further harm to us or anyone else.
Healing Happens in Relationship and Community
I have not felt a need to claim nor to shape my own identity out of what has happened to me or to label others based on what they have done that has harmed me. I do not refer to my brother as a perpetrator any more than I consider myself to be a victim or even a survivor of child sexual abuse. This does not mean that I deny his actions had a significant impact on me. Up until the child sexual abuse I experienced, I was developing what I now consider was a very healthy sense of my sexuality. I can remember masturbating without shame in private. When I was five and was caught “playing doctor” with my same age childhood playmates, our mothers did not shame nor punish us. All that changed and I was shamed into silence after being told that incest was wrong – something only backwoods PWT (yes, my parents used that kind of language then) did, not educated Black folks like us. It did not occur to me then that because he was four years older, my brother was exercising power over me and that was also wrong. I now realize that this early sexual contact without my consent might have shaped not only my intimate relationships, but also most, if not all, of my personal and professional relationships since. Maybe it contributed to my always being the one pursued rather than the one to initiate a relationship with someone I liked. Maybe it made me question then (and even now) whether I was sexually attracted to: boys or girls, both, or neither. Surely it has contributed to my heightened ability and propensity to anticipate, empathize and respond to the needs of others long before my own, whether those others are family, friends, colleagues, or even strangers. Even now, I am more concerned about how my writing this peace will help or harm others rather than my own need to speak about this.
Twenty years before I told my mother, my brother and I talked about his abuse of me. Neither of us had the tools nor the wisdom necessary to hold him accountable for his actions. With the silence finally broken, I felt some relief, but I was not healed. I figured we would always be family and that his harmful actions, however un-reconciled, would not change that. Indeed, for the second time during our adulthood, my brother has come to live with me. Had I only seen him as the perpetrator of my childhood, I am certain I would have felt unsafe welcoming him into my home, especially with my daughters, and now my young granddaughter also living with me. Instead, I have viewed this as an on-going opportunity for my brother and I to continue our journey towards healing from all the harm caused, witnessed and experienced during our childhood.
That said, my practice of ‘Love WITH Accountability’ requires that my granddaughters and grandsons must be given the tools they need to tell someone should their sexual and bodily autonomy ever be threatened without stifling their natural sexual curiosity and explorations. Just as importantly, the adults who care for them must also be given the tools they need to hear them, to protect them and to hold other adults accountable.
As my mother and I talked that afternoon, and on numerous occasions with my brother, I have discovered it is in these moments that all of our strengths and weaknesses as individuals and as a family are revealed and healing becomes possible. When we categorize and label the members of our family and community based solely on their transgressions against us, it removes the historical, familial, and social contexts in which all of our human interactions occur, freezes our most horrendous actions in time, stymies our opportunities for growth, and offers little hope that we can stop or prevent future harm. The pursuit and practice of ‘Love WITH Accountability’ that I continually strive for as a parent is different than what I have experienced and strive for with my brother or an elder parent. I have learned that there can be different pathways to Love with Accountability that are unique to each individual, each family, each community and the circumstances of the harm.The man convicted of raping and killing the baby sister of my childhood friends was sentenced to life in prison and continued to claim his innocence six years ago when he appealed to the state Supreme Court to review the case with support of DNA evidence obtained by The Innocence Project. The original verdict was upheld and, unless he has since died, he is now 71 years old – having spent the past 43 years in a state maximum security prison. I wish more than anything that this beautiful Black child would have been better protected and free to walk to a friend’s house in her own neighborhood without harm, as much as I wish for certainty that the person who sexually abused and killed her could be held accountable for his actions while also being treated for his own afflictions. He, too, was a child once, perhaps with a family in need of healing.
Crafting New Tools to Dismantle, Envision and Re-Build
While we must continually strive to dismantle the patriarchy, White Supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia that undergird childhood sexual abuse, we must simultaneously build a new foundation of families and communities strong enough to ensure the safety and well being of all our children. Every child is not as blessed as young Zuri to have a parent like spoken word artist and activist Staceyann Chinn teaching her that No means NO! That is what makes this forum so critical and why we must use every organizing, educational, cultural, artistic and social media tool at our disposal to counter the hegemony of rape culture that pervades American society from the cradle to the grave. Let us envision a society that does not empower the carceral state to intervene in the affairs of our families and communities, but instead builds Black Feminist magical spaces for multi-generational families to gather and be healed from the multiple harms of systemic oppression, especially child sexual abuse. Inspired by the writings of Toni Cade Bambara and Audre Lorde and quoting one of her students, bell hooks describes this magic in her book, Sisters of the Yam:
healing occurs through testimony, through gathering together everything available to you and reconciling.
The beauty and promise of approaching child sexual abuse as preventable, and as a family and community crisis rather than as a secret or a crime is that it allows us to see and embrace each person involved as wounded and in need of our support and guidance rather than our judgment and punishment. When this support is provided with Love and Accountability, then we are each also more capable of healing from our hurt, reconciling our anger, and further evolving as human beings. I am reminded and take to heart the words of the poet Gwendolyn Brooks pulled from her powerful ode to freedom fighter Paul Robeson:
“We are each other’s harvest,
We are each other’s business,
We are each other’s magnitude
 Lorde, Audre. “A Litany for Survival” in The Black Unicorn Poems. W.W. Norton. 1995
 hooks, bell. Sisters of the yam: Black women and self-recovery. Boston, MA: South End Press; 1993; p.17.
 Gwendolyn Brooks. Family Pictures. Detroit, MI: Broadside Press; 1971: 19.
Lynn Robertts, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Community Health and Social Sciences Program of the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy in Harlem. She earned her BS in Human Development from Howard University and her PhD in Human Service Studies from Cornell University. She has served on the board of directors of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective and, most recently, Black Women’s Blueprint. Prior to CUNY, she designed, implemented and evaluated several programs for women, youth and families in NYC. She identifies as a Womanist/Black Feminist scholar activist, mother, and grandmother.