I was taught to be strong. I was taught to be respectful. I was taught to follow the rules. I was taught to look people in the eye and to never ask a man for anything. I was taught to never cry in front of others (shows weakness). I was taught what it meant to be ladylike—crossed legs, closed mouth, muted lipstick, sexless, brimming with virtue, waiting for a husband. I was taught that a “strong black woman” is a warrior, never a victim. I was taught to fry my husband’s chicken in a heavy, cast-iron skillet. I was taught to use light starch when ironing the collars on his work shirt and to fix his plate each night at dinner. I was taught to make our “marriage bed” with tight, hospital corners. I was taught to wash our baby’s clothes in Dreft. I was taught to dust on Saturdays and mop on Mondays. I was taught to remain steely and stoic at all times and never to show too much skin. I was taught to never be a “tease” or “lead guys on.” I was taught to never dance too closely, thrust my hips into his crotch. I was taught to shun alcohol because girls who drink are “loose.” I was taught to be careful of the “company I keep”—girls who laugh too loud, live too free, are bad influences. I was taught to remain tight-lipped about the sensation that stirs my center when a man kisses me and I, somehow, like it. I was taught to fight and not trust. I was taught to exist and not live. I was taught all the things that would make me chaste, respectable, and virtually “rape proof.”
In the summer of 1998, I was eighteen years old and living in Atlanta, Georgia—a pulsing city, two hours away from home, thick with opportunity and danger and an urban heat that rose from the asphalt, bounced off the skyscrapers and slapped you right in the face. Atlanta was a goal, a trophy, a finish line to be crossed for ambitious, young black folks from Augusta. Atlanta represented a kind of gold-plated elegance that couldn’t be found in Augusta. If you really want to impress an Augustan, just tell them that you purchased your expensive purse, sneakers, car, jewelry, or cosmetic surgery in Atlanta and watch envy drip from the pores of their skin. I had moved to the South’s premier metropolis in August 1997 to attend Georgia State University (GSU). I lived with my godmother in Riverdale, an Atlanta suburb, and commuted to the city each day to go to class at GSU and work at the Parisian department store in Phipp’s Plaza. By May 1998, I had a boyfriend who worked at Enterprise in Midtown and lived in Stone Mountain. I had a hair stylist in Lithonia. I had a best friend who worked at the airport and another close friend who lived in the Allen Temple projects off Adamsville. I was a regular at Dugan’s on East Ponce de Leon. I took the Marta at Indian Creek to Falcon’s games. I parked at Turner Field and caught the shuttle to GSU when the Braves were on the road. I was something that my mother nor grandmother had never been—a city girl.
One night, as I was leaving work, an acquaintance whom I had met at a “get together” at my godmother’s house asked for a ride to his house. I knew him well enough. He was an older dude with a sketchy past, but he was friendly and had fat, round eyes and a contagious laugh. He flirted with me on occasion, but I never took him seriously. He was a jokester and everyone liked him. He’d even worked on my car when I didn’t have enough money to put it in the shop. I didn’t think twice about giving him the ride. When we pulled up at the nondescript, ranch-style home in southwest Atlanta, he asked me to come inside for a drink. I waffled. Then he insisted. It was dark, but not yet late (it wasn’t even 10PM yet) and after all, I was a city girl. And it seemed to me perfectly reasonable for a chic and worldly city girl like myself to have a drink with a friend after work, share a few laughs, then head home. Upon entrance, the interior was not impressive—sparse furniture, shag carpeting—but not unusual for a man living alone. I took a seat on the faux leather couch and waited until he returned from the kitchen, all smiles, with two cans of Budweiser in his hands. I cracked open my can and took short sips as I listened to him talk about his new job and trying to get “back on his feet.” He dotted his conversation with animation, his trademark humor, and exaggerated gulps of beer. For a moment, I thought he was priming me to ask for money. But he didn’t. He finished his beer before I had even drunk half of mine. He put his can down and leaned in to kiss me. I recoiled. I’ve got a boyfriend” I said, fully believing that that was more than enough of an explanation for not wanting to kiss a guy. He put his hands on my waist and pulled me toward him. “C’mon. What’s that got to do with anything?” His words were muffled because his mouth was buried in my neck at this point. I put my hands on his forearms to push him away and that’s when I felt the entirety of his body weight force me backwards onto the couch. He tried to kiss me on the mouth again. I turned away. “Please stop.” He pretended not to hear me. He pushed up my skirt, yanked my panties to the side, and forced himself inside of me. I closed my eyes tight and prayed to somehow sink into the cheap sofa and disappear. His mouth was sloppy and wet and frantic. The smell of cigarettes, beer, and sweat swirled in my nostrils. His hands were heavy and calloused; his grip unforgiving. The sound of his pot-belly slapping into mine was as earsplitting as it was revolting. I laid underneath him stunned—baffled at the ease with which he discarded my “no’s” and “stop’s.” Had I said anything to entice him? Had I smiled too much? Had I dressed too provocatively? He released this awful moan, full of satisfaction and relief, and collapsed on top of me, gasping for air, his damp body smothering mine. I slid from underneath him, twisted my skirt back into place, grabbed my keys and bolted for the door. He yelled something behind me, but I have no idea what he said. I just needed to get to my car and get out.
I couldn’t go home to my godmother’s house. I couldn’t go to my boyfriend’s apartment. I couldn’t go anywhere. I just drove. I circled I-285 until daybreak. When the sun pierce’s the golden dome at the capitol, it can be spectacular, even breathtaking. That morning I didn’t notice it and I never would again. Suddenly, this city that had painted me sophisticated, trendy, and smart felt terrifying and soulless. It had conquered me. I hadn’t conquered it. By the time that I finally did return to my godmother’s house, I was met at the door with a barrage of questions. Where have you been!?! I was worried sick! Why didn’t you answer your phone!?! What’s gotten into you!?! Have you lost ever-loving mind!?! I lied. I said that I’d gone out with co-workers after work, had too much to drink, and stayed at one of their houses until I sobered up. I apologized and then plodded up the stairs and hopped in the shower.
I didn’t tell anyone—not my mother, not my godmother, not my best friend, not my boyfriend. I didn’t call the police. There was no report filed. There was no rape kit. Nothing. Like the overwhelming majority of women who are raped or sexually assaulted in the US, I remained silent. What had there been to tell? I’d broken the rules, forgotten my place. I’d mistaken myself for a man—a being who owns their sexual agency, one who can take liberty in visiting friends of the opposite sex after dark and never have to worry about being assaulted. If I’d just remembered to remain pristine and flawless and faultless behind the glass of patriarchy, morality, and double-standards, then I wouldn’t have been raped. At the time, I placed the blame on myself. So, I never reported the attack. I just stepped out of the shower and carried on. I avoided my assailant on his rare visits to my godmother’s house. If he was going to be at a cookout or a Sunday dinner, I made sure that I was scheduled to work or went to a friend’s house. By the time that I had moved back to Augusta in 1999, I had taken his name, face, and all memories of that night and filed them under the NEVER EVER OPEN EVER tab in my brain. It would take sixteen years, two children, one failed marriage, hundreds of hours of self-reflection, and the keen observation of one highly-publicized celebrity sexual assault scandal before I could revisit that scar and break an unbreakable silence.
America’s dad comes undone
By the time that the Cosby scandal broke in 2014, I had become an obnoxiously typical American—a midlevel employee with two kids, a house in suburban hell, and a marriage that had just dissolved after seven years of faking happiness. I hadn’t achieved the success of Cliff and Claire Huxtable, but I had tried. The Cosby Show had been the representation of what the pinnacle of an overachieving black upper-middle class could look like in America. The show was so seductive because it not only depicted African-Americans as equal citizens worthy of the stability and wealth that they had worked to create, but it was also the brainchild of a black American icon. Cosby cast a long and unyielding shadow on the concepts of “black respectability” and “racial pride.” So, when the initial reports of rape allegations began to surface, many people (of all races) balked at the idea that this hero had been capable of such heinous acts.
I wrote an opinion column for the local black newspaper at the time and everyone wanted to know what I thought. As the accusers began to pile one on top of the other, I tried to avoid conversations about Cosby. I dodged co-workers in the breakroom, abruptly changed the subject when talking with friends. No one knew me to be a rape survivor, but everyone pegged me as “militant.” They expected me to rail against the mostly white accusers and their supposedly vicious lies. They expected me to defend Dr. Cosby as a respected bastion of African-American leadership. They would’ve preferred me to label the whole situation a smear campaign, maliciously aimed at muddying Bill Cosby’s good name. They wanted me to join in the chorus bellowing They’re after his money or Why did they wait so long to come forward? I avoided the conversations because I knew what it was like to hoard pain in a box of silence and swallow the key. I knew (based on the number of women who had come forward) that he’d probably done it. I knew that if I acknowledged their bravery then I, too, would have to unearth my own uncomfortable truth.
What was more, was the fact that confronting the Cosby situation head-on would’ve required me to nearly split my being in half. I would’ve been forced to choose whether my first loyalty was to being black or being female. African-American women often find themselves at this awkward crossroads when prominent black men are accused of sexual assault or domestic violence. For centuries, black male sexuality had been (and sometimes still is) a scapegoat for race-based violence and murder. Emmet Till was kidnapped and murdered because he was accused of flirting with a white woman. Countless lynchings of black men were justified by the false rape accusations of a white woman. An entire Florida town was reduced to ashes in 1923 because a white woman falsely accused a black man of assaulting her. So, today when African-American men are accused, the knee-jerk reaction of the average black woman is to say He didn’t do it; she’s lying because black men have a visible history of being framed for sex crimes. To be black and not support Bill Cosby unequivocally was a cardinal racial sin.
I knew better. I had already been maligned years earlier when I suggested that consumers boycott R. Kelly concerts after videos surfaced of him having lewd sex with a fourteen-year-old girl. Grown women routinely defended this man, suggesting that the teenager was “fast” and had tempted the R&B star intentionally. And when pictures of Rihanna’s bruised, swollen face were released in 2009 after Chris Brown beat her, I got into shouting matches with other black women trying to convince them that there was no provocation that could’ve justified his brutality. I was not mentally prepared to examine my real feelings about Cosby and his accusers. Engaging in the debate would’ve forced me to concede that I had been raped by a funny, well-liked black man and had told no one and had done nothing about it. I didn’t want to be labeled a coward (which was how I felt), or a whore like R. Kelly’s victim, or an antagonist who deserved what she got like Rihanna.
Granny always said, “Tell the truth to shame the devil.”
The truth was that it took years for me to realize and admit that I had been raped. An even harder truth was accepting the plausibility that my rapist never understood that what he had done to me was wrong, much less criminal. We had both been raised in a world where “boys would be boys” and girls were expected to be virginal, pure, asexual beings. It occurred to me that, perhaps, my attack did not begin on that horrible May night in 1998. Maybe it began the second that I was born black with a double-X chromosomal profile in the Deep South, where we allow our baby boys to experience the full range of human emotion—anger, sadness, fear, hope, lust, love—but baby girls must love without lusting, never experience a physical yearning or sexual desire. It occurred to me that the expectation of purity may well have been the very beginning of the victimization of countless women and girls.
The women who raised me had been made of steel, welded together by tenacity and grace. But, in whispers and private conversations they’d told me tales of abortions, extramarital affairs, illicit drug use, criminal acts, domestic violence—secrets that physically hurt to say aloud. My grandmother and I shucked fresh corn while she told me about the moment she knew she’d fallen in love with a married man. I had been painting my mother’s fingernails when she disclosed that she’d terminated a pregnancy at seventeen-years-old. An older, trusted friend once shared with me that she’d grown so tired of her husband’s physical abuse that she’d gotten in the habit of keeping a pot of boiling water on her stove, prepared to scald him before he could punch her. We’d been cooking pasta for dinner when she shared the memory. No one ever confessed to having been raped. It seemed like the one thing that remained too tragic to speak of, the leper of all things hidden. So, when it did happen to me I struggled to find ways to make it seem as though it hadn’t happened at all.
Staying mum physically didn’t quiet the cacophony between my ears, so I began the odious task of convincing myself that I hadn’t truly been raped. I told myself that since he didn’t don a mask and gloves or hold me at knifepoint, at the most, the whole episode had just been an unfortunate misunderstanding. And when feeding myself that fable didn’t stop the bad dreams or numb the shame, I just drank until all the memories dissipated into a blur. I spent my last year in Atlanta as a veritable “weekend drunk.” I dropped out of school, but kept my job. Most of my days off were spent binge drinking until I blacked out.
Unorthodox and destructive as it had been, my system had worked. Years passed and I forgot the incident. It wasn’t until I’d been married five years that I was even reminded of the attack. My husband and I had been parked on the sofa, zombified by a day-long thunderstorm and a Law and Order: SVU marathon. One episode depicted a classic “he said/she said” case involving a male professor and his female student. Unlike most episodes, this particular story didn’t lead viewers to a definite conclusion. The writers allowed the resolution to remain hazy, mimicking the reality for thousands of victims of sexual assault. My husband rose to his feet at end of the show.
“Eh, she’s lying” he growled.
“How would you know?” I retorted, annoyed by his attitude.
“I mean you can tell when a girl really means ‘No.’”
“Yeah. Say you’re with a girl and y’all are kissing and you start to unzip her–”
“Are you fucking kidding me?!?” I interrupted and stomped up the stairs, so mad that my ears felt like they were on fire.
I slammed the bedroom door behind me and everything came rushing back—the sticky leather, his clammy skin against mine, the gravel in his voice, his giant bloodshot eyes. The recollection startled me, left me breathless. Later that night, my husband said that I’d been too sensitive and explained that that’s just how things were in “his day.” Even in that moment, I wasn’t brave enough to tell my own spouse what had happened to me. I still couldn’t find the words to admit the truth.
After about two months of ducking Cosby questions, I walked into my co-worker’s office pulled the door behind me, sat down slowly in the seat across from her, raised my eyes to her face, and took a deep breath.
“Melvin. His name was Melvin.”
I fought back tears as I released the name of my rapist into the universe, the name that had lived in the recesses of my subconscious for sixteen years. I wasn’t telling the world, but I was finally telling somebody. My co-worker listened to me and cried with me. We were two brown women breaking all the rules…being vulnerable, showing feelings, shedding the armor that was supposed to make us invincible. It was in this moment that I realized that it wasn’t our statuesque stoicism or our stubborn reluctance to emote that rendered us unbreakable. It was, indeed, these instances of intimacy and exposure when we dared to remove our masks and beheld each other and chose to love each other and not judge each other, that fortified us. I was stronger for facing my past and speaking the truth.
I’ve never been quite sure what force led me into her office that morning. It could’ve been the daily inundation of Cosby coverage on the television, in the newspapers, on the blogs and social media. It could’ve been a subconscious need to release the weight of the secret. It could’ve been the fact that I had seven-year-old and fourteen-year-old sons who were watching the scandal unfold with the rest of the world and my desperate desire for them to not turn out like their dad—believing a woman’s word to be disposable, her body not always her own. I couldn’t allow them to grow up thinking themselves beasts incapable of self-control and, therefore, absolved of all responsibility for their own sexual proclivities. They needed to know that no amount of honorary degrees, Grammy Awards, or just plain good deeds could erase the perpetual taint of violating a woman (or a man for that matter). They needed to understand that they could not hurt others without forever damaging themselves. Releasing myself from my own shame would be the first step in offering them that education.
Fast forward to November 2017. Weinstein, Smiley, Franken, Spacey, Simmons, Rose, Moore, Lauer—all now disgraced household names connected to a movement that asks women to step out the centuries-long shadow, be seen and heard, and create courage out of what was once shame.
The Sunday before Thanksgiving, the movement became literal dinner table conversation in my home. I wondered aloud how powerful men must be living day-to-day, retreading their steps, re-examining their lives, and praying that their past bad actions don’t resurface to destroy them. Unexpectedly, my ex-husband agreed with me and suggested that the reckoning had been long overdue.
“Well, you know…Hollywood has always had a problem. You know, with the ‘casting couch’ and all that type of stuff.”
“Ken” I interrupted. “Do you think this is appropriate to talk about in front of the kids?” Our youngest son interjected.
“I know what the ‘casting couch’ is.” His eyes as wide and bright as the day he was born.
“Tell me what you know about the ‘casting couch’. Where did you learn about it?” I asked feigning calm, not wanting to reveal my inner horror.
In the back of my mind, I was imagining my eleven-year-old perusing videos on Pornhub on his phone. At first, he only offered a nervous grin. I returned a raised eyebrow of insistence. His father shot a glare in his direction as well.
“It’s when people have sex to get on TV. I saw it on Law and Order: SVU.”
“Okay” I replied with palpable relief. “Do you understand why that’s wrong?”
“Yeah” he paused for a moment. “There’s no dignity.”
I nodded in thoughtful, measured approval. I wanted to lecture him about abuse, coercion, and patriarchal power structures. But he’s eleven and his dinner was getting cold. I took pride in the fact that he was comfortable enough to say the word “sex” at the dinner table. I was never liberated enough to have that type of conversation with my mother at his age. And my grandmother would’ve slapped me across my mouth for such boldness. Thankfully, times have changed and are still changing.
Watershed moment, indeed.