Listen Harder. Look Longer.

26 Jul

“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:  

  1. shouting, hollering, excessive cursing, name calling, sarcasm;
  2. finger pointing or fist waving, especially in and around your face;
  3. arm or wrist grabbing or twisting.
  4. throwing or breaking things;
  5. 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.


7 Responses to “Listen Harder. Look Longer.”

  1. crunktastic July 26, 2010 at 5:42 AM #

    Very, very powerful, CF! And so true. And real talk: “love does NOT hurt.” Nuff said.

  2. kushisluv July 26, 2010 at 11:12 AM #

    thank you for posting this. so many strong women are survivors, some can’t even name it.

  3. Sean G July 26, 2010 at 12:18 PM #

    I thoroughly enjoyed this. So many times the media potray women of abuse as being weak or deserving it because they should have known better and left. Of course, a victim is a victim and should be treated as a victim. Not as a weakling or less than.

  4. Anisa July 26, 2010 at 2:21 PM #

    Hi everyone. I came across your blog, 2 weeks ago and ever since then, I’ve made it a priority to read this informative, challenging and supportive blog everyday.

    I’m 32yrs African woman, and up until 3 mths ago never knew what a feminist really was, and to be honest really didn’t care. Its funny my older sister has been a women’s advocate for over 15yrs, she’s got a Masters in developement specialized in gender. I can recall so many times she would talk to me about politics, women’s issues, vaw, patriarchy etc etc, and literally I would tune her out. She had a way of talking your ear off :-)…..

    I’ve dropped out of college once, and university twice. Simply because I felt like I couldn’t do it, that I wasn’t smart enough.(this way of thinking started mid-high school tbh) And so I worked low wage jobs, and figured that was my destiny. But after almost 8 yrs of shift work (mostly nights), I had enough of my dead end job, but also living at home. I saved some decent money, and I travelled, for an entire year in places like morocco, egypt, jordan, jerusalem etc. I met such amazing people who welcomed me into their homes. I saw the plight of women, illiteracy, child marriages, oppression due to strict patriarchal beliefs, I saw light in places where only darkness existed. I met people that offered what little food they had. Girls whose only desire was to go to school.

    And this cultivated within me the importance to make a differene in the world. And realized the importance of well grounded formal education…..b/c I already had a Ph.d in life. Through my travels, and meeting all kind of people.

    I also wanted to educate myself b/c I realized that I could do it, (right now I’m thinking of Bob Marley’s verse…..emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none-but ourselves can free our minds). And to be honest that was me, I internalized the notion that I wasn’t smart enough for higher education….and it took me over 10 yrs to free myself from this destructive belief.

    So this coming fall I’m walking back into the university that I dropped out almost 10 years ago, with renewed confidence, and a strong belief in myself, and taking the bull by the horns.

    I want to thank all the women that contribute to this amazing blog, for inspiring in me, the importance of an education, self-knowledge, critical thinking, and unwavering support. I’ve learnt so much from various blogs by woc, black feminists, muslim feminists etc….and through these channels its helped me to further the little knowledge I have on woman’ss issues. And therefore sparked a desire within me to follow a path of social justice and activism, specifically in regards to women.

    I guess I really was listening to my amazing, strong and loving sister, who taught me the importance of knowledge and to always think critically.

    I thank you all from the bottom of my heart.

  5. Joan July 28, 2010 at 5:03 PM #

    Beautiful powerful piece and incredibly cathartic for those of us who harbor both the burdensome secrets of these relationships precisely because we don’t “look” the type. Grateful for this one.

  6. MackDiva July 28, 2010 at 5:51 PM #

    After spending a year working with teens, this piece really hit home. I saw girls who’d been through some unspeakable acts at the hands of those who were supposed to love them…and if they hadn’t trusted me enough to confide their secrets, I never would’ve known. Very nice!

  7. kmay July 29, 2010 at 7:35 AM #

    Beautiful powerful piece and incredibly cathartic for those of us who harbor both the burdensome secrets of these relationships precisely because we don’t “look” the type. Grateful for this one.

    @joan. EXACTLY.

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