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"every 3 minutes a woman is beaten/every five minutes a woman is raped/every ten minutes a little girl is molested" –ntozake shange (with no immediate cause)
Ntozake shange's poem, with no immediate cause, begins with statistics that push us into awareness about the perpetual nature of violence against women in our communities. And while I know, from personal witnessing and experiencing (and knowing somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who has been beaten/raped/molested) how far reaching these pathologies are, it was not until this past week that I became fully conscious and aware of the responsibility that comes with awareness. And the power that comes with experience.
At 18 my naïveté led to particular vulnerabilities, specifically those associated with men and lies and (so called) love. I found myself somehow infatuated with a boy who was slowly murdering my self esteem and with it my ability to walk away from him. He played on my insecurities and isolated me from my family and friends. He used the same sweet voice that coaxed me into infatuation to berate and threaten me. And I held on to his anger like a secret, knowing that any confiding I did would result in me having to defend him, in order to defend myself, against everyone who didn't understand why he did the things he did and why I stayed.
Thankfully (and undoubtedly as a result of my mama's prayers), I grew out of wanting/needing him and escaped the situation before physical harm met the emotional damage he had already done.
Five days ago I found myself staring into the eyes of two beautiful young women (in their early twenties) who are survivors of physically violent romantic relationships. When I said "I didn't know," they looked at me in a way that made me feel out of touch. And despite their confusion at my surprise, if not for their confessions turned testimonies, I would have never known. And it occurred to me (as if for the first time) that women who have or are currently enduring abuse don't always look like victims.
They may be well dressed. Well spoken. Precocious. Charming. Elegant. Intelligent. Strongblackwomen. Handling their business. Raising children (alone). Going to school. Taking care of themselves. Taking care of you (encouraging to others). Activists. Advocates.
I remember being all those things in the middle of my surviving…but I was not self-loving at the time. And that, it feels, is what caused me to finally walk away from a man who tried to murder me with words. Loving myself…finally.
When I introduce Shange's poem (with no immediate cause) in class, it is oftentimes alongside "a nite with beau willie brown" (See for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enough) and we discuss how women are vulnerable, even in relationships, to violence. We also talk about how being aware does not have to mean being scared. Yet, as I sat at the table with the beautiful young women I was scared. For them. For myself. For the nameless faces of other women being abused (whether physically, emotionally, psychologically, etc.) in the name of love. For the sake of love. And I wished for a way to teach them what only experience and time had taught me—that the often repeated phrase is utterly true…love does NOT hurt. And we have to learn to stop loving men more than we love ourselves.
Reflecting on shange's poem and remembering stories and moments that perhaps could have served as signs and calls for help, I feel compelled to listen harder and look longer at the young women in my life. And if I see something (wrong)—I will say something! And if I hear something (alarming)—I will do something! There may be something in the manner with which she speaks, something in the way that she carries herself in the world, that serves as a sign or a notice that something is wrong. I want to be newly aware.
Pearl Cleage says that "the facts indicate that we are under siege, incredibly vulnerable, totally unprepared and too busy denying the truth to collectively figure out what to do about it." In Mad at Miles she echoes Shange's sentiment and offers warning signals as a way of anticipating violence in order to avoid it if at all possible. I list here five of the "early warning signals" she shares:
- shouting, hollering, excessive cursing, name calling, sarcasm;
- finger pointing or fist waving, especially in and around your face;
- arm or wrist grabbing or twisting.
- throwing or breaking things;
- threatening to do violent things to you
Awareness brings with it responsibility. To ourselves (in our relationships) and to others (in theirs). And while these situations remain hidden beneath long sleeves and dark shades, we have to bring them to the forefront.