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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 T. Kebo Drew
I have started and stopped and rearranged this piece of writing dozens of times. Once I began to write, memories came back from the place where I forget things, where I had dismissed them.
It is no small irony that I am also a history buff who has read residential school stories, slave narratives, and the coded language of slaver diary entries, abolition articles, legal opinions of the day and newspaper adverts.
And so I write this first: racism and white supremacy, slavery and colonialism, patriarchy and capitalism are built on the exploitation of people, their labor and their bodies. This crushing weight rests on the horror of sexual violence perpetrated against children of color, particularly for our Native and Indigenous cousins throughout the Americas, and for Black people as a whole.
I have a memory from when my family lived in Mexico so I must have been around 4 years old. My mother was cooking in the kitchen and I hid around the corner with my father playing a game with her. Every so often, he would send me into the kitchen to smack my mother’s bottom with both my hands. I would run back to him and giggle. After a few rounds, the ever-presented music playing in the background changed, and I think that my father said something about slow dancing. I remember clearly that my mother said, “not until she is 30.”
The twin roots of sexual violence, from outside of and within the Black community, are entwined together in both my maternal and paternal family trees. Every so often a branch starts from a woman whose name is known and an often unknown, and more often unnamed, white man. When my maternal great-grandmother was 13, 14, or 15, as the story goes, her father, who was himself the son of an enslaved woman and a white doctor that recognized him as a son, told her to “go see about that white man.” The fact that she was a girl herself was of little consequence because the family needed to eat, and “that” white man had resources. My grandfather, and to hear tell, his brother/cousin born from my great-grandmother’s younger sister, were born of these transactions. There are multiple stories on both sides of my family about a distant relative from generations ago, who marries a woman who already has a young girl child. Then, after many children together, his wife dies, and he marries his step-daughter and starts another family. Long before my great-grandmother bore a son from that white man, her older half-sister later became her stepmother.
There are whispers, so faint they are like wind and when I turn to listen they seem to disappear: the elder losing memory, who when talking about the life of a grown man that has been in and out of prison since he was a teenager, and does not form friendships with other men except his cousins, tells the story of the man as a four-year-old boy who said “that woman touched him.” To hear tell, we’re the third generation of queer Black kids and there is a story known only to us. In our parents’ generation there was a cousin, who was very Butch, or possibly Transgender, who was murdered after an attempted rape. There are the whispers of my paternal grandfather and how he treated one of my aunts, to which my own father most likely said, “well, he was an alcoholic.” There are whispers of my maternal grandparents, who learned of the preacher’s intentions toward my then 13-year-old aunt, who not only changed churches, but completely changed denominations.
It wasn’t until I began to start the healing process from my own experiences that I understood that I was looking at a tree full of sexual violence, watered with degradation and fed on blood. I was rocked into the ground, looking at the roots so very close to my own grave. It was clear that there was a continuum that connected me to my great-grandmother, the women of my family, and other Black women.
I have kept my own stories locked down, diminished. I only recently began to see my experiences as child sexual abuse.
After I was born, my parents left the South, left Memphis, for big cities like Chicago, where my brother was born, and then New York. My father would allow me to walk my big dog down the streets of Manhattan, and Rochester. He said that he watched over me as I walked, but that didn’t stop all the calls from the Black men on porches from inviting me to sit in their laps and give them some sugar. Something kept me from going to them, and to this day I don’t know what it was.
We moved to Mexico, a place that Black folks have escaped to since the 1800s for freedom and a break from the specific flavor of racism endemic to the U.S. My parents and so many other Black people where following in the footsteps of Elizabeth Catlett and Audre Lorde to find space to breathe. At one point, we lived in a big house that belonged to the rich son of a Nation of Islam leader, full of activists, hippies, and students.
There was the time that my father left my younger brother and me in a car to wait for him. He went into an apartment building and was gone from day to dark. I had forgotten which door my father went into, and my brother had to go to the bathroom. We weren’t to disturb him, whatever his was doing, drugs, drug deals or a woman. Eventually police officers noticed us and we were taken to the station, where someone recognized these little dark children and took us home. My mother didn’t know about that for 30 years. By the time we left when I was 6, I had learned to lie for my father, and keep secrets, especially anything having to do with sex.
My brother and I were separated from our parents for about 6 months because of police violence against my father. We went to Memphis to stay with our extended family, where there were games that the kids played with the determination of adults. When we were all reunited at our new home in Oregon, there was the little girl who insisted that she wanted to “go down” on me because she was going to show me what people did in bed. I did not know how to say no, and I did not know what to say or who I should tell. I knew how to keep a secret. A secret about the white men on the streets of the very white college town where we lived, who would call me over to their cars, and masturbate in front of me until I could gather my thoughts and run away. About the white man who saw my neighbor friend and I playing in the upper branches of a tree in the park. Who climbed up, reclined on the branches just below and took himself out. We jumped down so far and ran, and he stole all of the allowance money we have saved up. One night, when a white woman came banging on the door at home, saying she had been thrown into a van by two men and attacked. I don’t remember all of what was said, I think that she was raped. I could not talk about it with anyone, because that was one of the nights my father had his mistress over. I might have been 9 years of age. I remember feeling weary and older, much, much older.
By then, my parent’s marriage was so horrible that I prayed for a divorce. I became my father’s girl between my mother, and his mistress. I had already learned very early to take care of my father’s emotional needs. I became his confidant and his witness. I did not feel special. I knew about his relationships. I knew about his porn stash. I knew which women were attractive. I had heard him having sex with his mistress. On those days and nights that my mother was working, my brother and I were “with” him, so he couldn’t be with anyone else. Sometimes my father would take me on long drives alone with him so that he could talk, and once he told me to choose. That my brother would stay with our mother, and his mistresses’ son would stay with her, but I was the one to decide where “we”, him and I, should go. All I remember is my hot cheek pressed against the window of his truck with the cold rain falling outside. There was a level of constant forced emotional intimacy where there was no room for my own instincts, feelings, and development. At the same time, I was going through an early puberty. I was awkward, chubby and strong, with an intellectual understanding of human sexuality. I liked to read and I would look up any mention of lesbian in the library card catalogue. I felt mature and much older than I was, but emotionally I was like a 10-year-old, because I was in fact 10 years old.
When men my father hung out with said that I would make a good wife, he said that I would remain a virgin like my hair. He would joke about the kinds of men who needed to rape women because they weren’t handsome enough to have women come to them. I felt like an embarrassment to my father because I was not beautiful like my mother, or the kind of women that he found attractive. With my twinned family trees I got the wide hips and the thick thighs, I wasn’t shapely with a nice figure at all. He did not know what to do with this strange, quiet girl. The combination of my maturing body and the emotional closeness I had with my father, led people to ask if I was his girlfriend when they saw us together. He would laugh that off every time.
I was incredibly timid, hyperaware of everyone, and ashamed of my body. My father knew this because there were no secrets from him. Sometimes my body would become the subject of adult discussion, and his jokes. Often I would feel that I was being watched. I would have these bolts of intense feeling in my body, I thought that I was embarrassed that someone was looking at me. It was only later, in the few times in my adult life when I have actually felt attracted to someone, that I recognized it as desire, and not my own. As a result, I felt emotionally raw and physically exposed all of the time. I took to wearing clothes that covered me, my fat body, and my ugliness, completely. It was visceral, instinctual. To this day, when I feel emotionally manipulated or “screwed” over, I actually feel it in my genitals.
By the time that my parents separated, and we moved away, my father still had a strong emotional hold over me. He would manipulate me over the phone to get back at my mother, and every time she cried it was for something he told me to do. By that time, I was 12 and my brother had a little friend who would say every day, “hey, let’s gang bang your sister.” My brother would always say “no” and keep playing, doing what 10-year-old Black boys do. The distance from my father was a relief, but it didn’t stop the comments from boys and teenagers. They either said that I was fat and ugly (as my father alluded to without saying it outright). Or, like the Black boy in middle school who came from behind me and put his hands in the pockets of my corduroys, drawing the anger of our Black woman teacher because she thought that I was fast. It didn’t stop men either. Like the time I was sitting on the living room floor at my own house during a backyard bbq, when a white man, a guest of a family friend, started talking to me. I was mostly invisible in my life, shy and full of social anxiety. I happily answered all of his questions, although some of his comments went over my head. I didn’t show that I didn’t understand (because my father explained his disappointment at my failings), because I was so grateful for the attention that seemed to be about me. So when my mother came in like a cold storm telling the man, “she’s only 12!”, I was confused, then ashamed because of my own ugliness and his sexual intentions.
I thought that my father was an expert gas-lighter like his siblings, and a garden-variety narcissist as a result of childhood physical abuse and PTSD as a war veteran. This was how I diminished my own experience. For years, when people asked me about our relationship, I would say that it was uncomfortable or inappropriate. I never mentioned the level of emotional intimacy and the sexual undercurrent, because he didn’t touch me physically. Since his death 3 years ago, I learned words for the whispers and secrets that had bound me so tightly to my father, emotional incest, like strong shiny ribbons that bruise the skin and break it bloody. Along with the sexual myths about Black girls and teenagers, it was a nearly lethal combination.
Now I believe that it is a consequence and an irony of emotional incest, that what started the break from my father, was being drugged and gang raped by a group of young white men when I was 15. What I clearly remember of that night is that I once again felt grateful that anyone wanted to talk with me, and give me attention. I had never even held hands romantically with a boy or girl my age. So after I drank the water they gave me, and the first boy kissed me, I remember feeling this sense of wonder. By the time my friends, those 3 white girls who so casually used the word nigger to describe someone’s suntan, left me at the house, their departure was a dim concern. For close to 2 decades after I was gang raped, chronic physical pain and retrograde amnesia meant that I had to freshly relive the rape over and over again each year on the anniversary of that night.
Like my mother said, it was not until I was 30 that I was ready.
I had dismissed the child sexual abuse I experienced because I had blamed my own awkward, pubescent and teenage Black body for what happened to me. I struggled with beliefs that I did not deserve to be loved, that I should be grateful to anyone who could overlook my fat body to touch me with desire, and that I had to give all of my emotional energy and labor to be worthy of any attention. I had sexual relationships with people that I would not have coffee with today. Too often, my sexual desire and romantic attraction, to Black Butches, and Transgender, or cisgender Black men, felt much too much like family and too close to home. I struggled with my genuine love for Black people, emotional intimacy, and reminders of my father. Part of my healing process has been to look what I missed as a child. It is not an exercise in nostalgia but one of love for myself. I pull out memories from the place where I forget things, memories that started before I was born, and memories created yesterday.
Studies of survivors of child sexual abuse show our experiences and risk factors collide make us vulnerable to re-victimization as we get older. In the intervening decades since my childhood, survivor activists have changed the conversation about child sexual abuse. More people are haphazardly teaching children about body safety and consent, particularly from strangers. Yet as children mature and go through puberty, the conversation switches to their raging hormones. And that’s for white children.
Current activism about everything from the school-to-prison pipeline to police violence notes that our Black children are deemed older than we really are, with knowledge we do not have. Myths about our pain threshold, our strength, our assumed criminality and sexual deviance are written on our skin. We learn early to be courageous. We learn quickly to take care of our parents’ emotional needs and be watchful of white people’s feelings. We are taught that our bodies are not our own. We are taught that our emotions are not our own. And because I still like to read, I see studies that note that current rates of rape of Black girls and women, particularly in cities like Chicago and Dallas, is similar to the for rape of Black girls and women ages 15-30 during slavery (West and Johnson).
I fear for Black children now, and I fear for the children we once were.
And so I write this: we as Black people have survived a twisted breaking of souls and relationships, and child sexual abuse is a part of our history, our community, and our every day lives.
Love with accountability means that we need to understand age-appropriate intellectual, emotional, and sexual development for Black children, including teenagers. It means not simply praying for the lives of our children, and claiming that we protect them through control of their bodies and emotions, which leaves them more vulnerable. It means that we champion the wholeness of their bodies and their sovereignty over their own souls. We need to act on the entwined roots of sexual violence against Black people, from outside of and within our own community, by focusing on Black children and ending childhood sexual abuse. If we can protect the most vulnerable, small, soft and quiet beings, among us, then we can end the violence that consumes us all.
T. Kebo Drew, CFRE is a filmmaker, writer and dancer, she is the producer and director of Ain’t I A Woman? which has screened at the Langston Hughes African American Film Festival and Translations: the Seattle Transgender Film Festival, among many others around the world. She has also produced numerous films, which include Don’t Fence Me In: Major Mary and the Karen Refugees from Burma, which won the Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary from the 2006 Washington D.C. Independent Film Festival and the Director’s Citation Award from the 2006 Black Maria Film Festival. She got her start at a Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project – QWOCMAP screenwriting workshop in 2001, where she wrote two feature-length screenplays. She has performed in the U.S., Latin America and Europe as a poet and dancer. She is a Cave Canem Poetry Fellow and won an Audre Lorde/Pat Parker Award and an Astraea Emerging Lesbian Writers Award. She also won an Irene Weed Dance Award and Robert Kuykendall Dance Scholarship. Kebo is currently the Managing Director of QWOCMAP, which builds power through film that radically centers our marginalized communities to fundamentally transform the world where justice and equity are the norm. QWOCMAP creates, exhibits, and distributes high-impact films that authentically reflect the lives of queer women of color (cisgender & transgender), gender nonconforming and transgender people of color (of any orientation), and address the vital, intersecting social justice issues that concern our multiple communities. QWOCMAP uses film to shatter stereotypes and bias, build community through compassionate public discussions, and strengthen social justice movements. QWOCMAP is in the second year of its joint Life Healing Project with San Francisco Women Against Rape, which combines Learning Circles and Filmmaking Workshops for LBTQ women of color to address the many forms of violence that impact our lives.