By Marlyn Thomas, Special to the AFRO
Salt n’ Pepa’s 1991 track melodically instructs us, “Let’s talk about sex…let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things that could be.” Almost thirty years later amidst recent allegations and confessions of sexual misconduct, we really do need to talk about sex and consent.
However, as a Black woman, I’ve noticed that there is not a huge African American woman presence in the mainstream conversation at this time. While a few Black women have spoken out here and there, speeches, online comments, and articles are riddled with the experiences and viewpoints of predominantly White women. So, why are Black women not chiming in at alarming rates or at least donning pussyhats?
To be frank, because sexual assault has been happening to Black women in America since slave ships, #Metoo does not validate our experiences. Recy Taylor, the woman who Oprah Winfrey invoked at the Golden Globes, did not have a feminist movement to validate her assault and perhaps that is why most of us were not familiar with her story. However, the NAACP and other organizations involved in the Civil Rights Movement stood with her.
Characteristically, it has not been until rich Anglo (and importantly) American women have come forward to share their stories, that people have taken notice. But Black women have long known the lewd behaviors of powerful men (and women) who could and did use fear and force to push sexual advances and postures of power. We have known all too well what happens when other women who could help or at least stand with us, stood aside and more often than not, stood with our abusers in race solidarity.
The legacy of wrongful incarcerations and lynchings of Black men and boys due to accusations and alleged verbal and physical sexual assault of White women faintly rings in our ears. So arguably, there is a collective apprehension about adopting the #MeToo movement. This apprehension encompasses not only Black women’s experiences, but all women who are not economically and/or socially able to stand up to their assaulters in a way that allows them to have basic necessities afterwards because there is no financial payout.
It is true Black and White women can work together on women’s issues. Typically Black women in America live in limbo of what construct should be prioritized, race or sex. But our concerns and motives do not run parallel with the current movement. Most Black women, even those who adhere to feminism, do not envision an all female regime to juxtapose the current White male patriarchy because we are well aware that men are not necessary in perpetuating patriarchy.
Women can and have participated as minions and strongholds of patriarchal ideas and those who occupy that space are interested in retaining power, not equality. Even now, there are accusations that men who are guilty of sexual assault in Hollywood did not do so without the knowledge and perhaps help of powerful women. Likewise, the celebrated success of a few Black women does not guarantee us a seat at the table with speaking privileges. Therefore, we tend to make due with what is available to us via our communities.
In Black communities, we have fostered women centeredness. Women’s Day and prayer breakfasts at local churches, sorority meetings, and the kitchen table to quote Paule Marshall have all been our sites for discussing our challenges and our triumphs. While the world may find these things small, they have been helpful in our communities and our homes for spiritual, social, and mental rejuvenation as well as the war rooms for problems and traumas.
These community-based sister spaces are by far not enough, but they are places where we are not skirting the margins. Our absence on social media in the #Metoo movement is not to be mistaken for quiet acceptance of violence or a misunderstanding of women’s power; indeed, it is a quiet from throats sore from screaming “me too” for two hundred years. It is a collective quiet that recognizes ignored voices until the seemingly right people spoke up and formed a movement. It is also a resistance to standing against Black men as many of us hope to see the Black family made whole again; for the current movement, has at times, grouped all men together as possible sexual predators and the rhetoric has increasingly become anti-male. This is not a value nor of value in the African American community, where the historical truth is women and men were sexually assaulted by slavers and later Jim Crow zealots.
Marlyn Thomas is a graduate student in the English Department at Morgan State University and is currently an instructor at Alabama A&M University focusing on African American culture and the Diasporan experience.