Abuse: no one talked about it
By Sierra Lewter, NYU Tisch School of the Arts Film and Television
Editor’s note: This is the personal story of one young African American woman’s rape as a child. Her name is being withheld to protect her privacy.
“Margaret” grew up on a farm in rural Georgia with her mother and grandmother. At the age of six, the 60-year-old white man next door raped her in a trailer. He told her he would kill her great grandmother if she told anyone.
So she didn’t until she was 16 and learned that the man also raped his own granddaughter, who killed herself. Then she told her mother.
After she learned of the assault, Margaret’s grandmother stood up in church and told the entire congregation what had happened. The pastor told Margaret to come to the middle of the sanctuary for prayer and a laying on of hands.
More than 40 women in the black church walked up to her with tight hugs and whispered tear-laden stories about how the “same” that happened to them and their loved ones. They said they couldn’t tell, didn’t have a choice and didn’t know how. No one talked about it.
Three years after she told her mother about the rape, Margaret left home and went to college. She was sexually assaulted four months into her freshman year by a serial rapist who’d broken into her dorm.
Years later, in a late-night conversation, Margaret’s grandmother shared with her that she, too, had been was raped at age 16 and became pregnant with her first child, Margaret's mother.
Her grandmother never told her mother because she “didn’t know she needed to” and “what had happened had happened, and I couldn’t do anything about it.”
“Code of Silence” stops some African American girls and women from reporting sexual abuse.
* * *
L.Y. Marlow remembers the night less than two years ago like it was last night.
Her daughter called screaming that “her boyfriend was busting her head against the bathtub.” ‘Mom, he’s going to kill me!’ And then the phone went dead.”
Marlow called the police. “Please. Please don’t kill her,” she begged of the boyfriend on the phone.
Her daughter lived, but it was only the latest violent assault Marlow’s family had endured.
Like millions of African American women, Marlow’s family has been scared – sometimes for multiple generations – by sexual abuse and violence, by fathers, grandfathers, cousins, boyfriends, brothers, boys in school or down the street. Marlow’s infant granddaughter, named Promise, had been in a bed nearby when her daughter was attacked. To try to break the cycle of multi-generational abuse, and to protect her granddaughter, Marlow quit her job and started a nonprofit, Saving Promise.
A “code of silence” in the African American community keeps many girls and women from reporting their rape or the rape of their children, said Marlow. Families often close ranks behind the rapist to protect the family’s income, she said.
“There’s a code of silence, and there’s also a code of normalcy,” she said. “There can be intergenerational abuse that is ‘just the way it is’ in some families.”
Black women are three times more likely to be victims of domestic violence than white women, according to a report by the Women of Color Network, published on the Justice Department’s website. And they’re more likely to be abused or raped by their intimate partners than Hispanic or white women, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. Nearly 44% of black women have been abused by partners, including being raped, versus 37% of Hispanics and 34.6% of white women. One in eight black women are abused by a family member, according to the CDC.
Their stories are often minimized or rejected by family members who had the same experiences when they were young, experts and extensive research shows, and urge them to just “get over it.”
This “code of silence” leads to feelings of self-guilt and unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drugs or alcohol abuse.
Octavia Sykes, an adolescent therapist at the Body Image Therapy Center in Baltimore, argues that this “code of silence” links back to slavery and it has evolved over time after multiple occurrences like the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, where poor black men with syphilis were given placebos and falsely told they were being treated. With the recent wave of some of Hollywood's biggest power players being called out for sexual harassment, it may seem as if America is making great strides towards equality and justice. However, Sykes claimed that this continual and seeming support of only white victims has the potential to diminish the black voice on sexual violence even more because black women may feel like their tragedies don’t matter.
“This lack in protection is the sole reason why black women experience such high rates of sexual abuse and low rates of holding others accountable for their actions,” said Sykes, who formerly worked at Baltimore’s Rape Crisis Center.
Sykes says these centers need more funding so outreach workers can do more than take reports and can actually provide counseling as she did when she worked there.
Marlow of Saving Promise recently partnered with Harvard University’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health on a project to develop “evidence-based strategies” to fight domestic violence.
A few women of color have discussed their cases publicly. Oprah did in 1991. But Anita Hill’s public allegations of sexual harassment against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991 backfired, and she was roundly criticized while he was confirmed.
The code of silence within the community is a direct cause of the continued negative reactions that survivors receive from their friends and family, which reinforce feelings of self-blame, according to a 2006 study in the American Journal of Community Psychology.
“Silence that has accompanied the abuses black women have endured for centuries is a practiced silence, necessary to their survival,” Patricia Broussard wrote in an article published by Florida A&M University’s College of Law entitled “Black Women's Post-Slavery Silence Syndrome.”
“Since they were considered property, they were without means to deny their owners, or their owner's agents, sexual access to their bodies.”
Malcolm X, the Black Nationalist leader who was assassinated in 1965, once said, “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.”
Marlow’s daughter, who uses the pseudonym Treasure, had two physically abusive relationships because of a lack of esteem her daughter has for herself. She dates that back to something horrific that happened when Treasure was only 11.
Treasure’s grandfather regularly abused her grandmother and their children, including her father. Treasure’s father went on to become physically abusive to Marlow. Then when Treasure was 11, she and her 9-year-old female cousin were both sexually molested by their grandfather in the living room as their grandmother slept upstairs.
Marlow and the other girl’s mother pressed charges. The victims and their mothers sat on one side of the courtroom while their grandmother and many other family members sat on the other, supporting the man who molested them.
Her grandfather’s sentence was only community service and therapy. Within a year, he raped another woman and went to prison for several years.
Treasure hasn’t broken the cycle of abuse quite as well as her mother yet, but she’s making progress. Soon after Promise was born, Treasure’s aunt contacted her to say her grandfather broke down on the phone with her. He said he wanted to apologize to Treasure for what he did to her – and to develop a relationship with her daughter, Promise.
“There is not just a code of silence in our family,” said Marlow. “There’s a code of silence in our culture.”