Sharisse T. Smith recently penned a brutally honest, heartfelt essay about being raped at the young age of 13. The details of the piece were heart breaking. Not only was her father the rapist, but after Smith disclosed that detail to her mother, the couple still remained married and he continued to live in their home. This story is more than deeply hurtful and angering. It is a reminder of the many ways the Black community leaves its youngest girls vulnerable to predatory behavior and fails to provide the help so many need. That failure often begins in the home and ripples out into the community. It is also the direct result of patriarchy which often absolves black men of responsibility for their wrong doing under the guise of fighting the ramifications of society’s racism. And for the sake of Black little girls and women, it must end.
The domestic abuse statistics speak for themselves: Black women face the highest rates of victimization and are nearly three times more likely to be murdered by a partner compared to White women. Statistically, we experience sexual assault and domestic violence at disproportionate rates and we are also less likely to report such heinous crimes or seek help when we are victimized. In the case of Sharisse Smith’s personal story, she was not among those girls who did not seek help. After disclosing the details of the rape to her mother, the family sought therapy. This is the “help” that therapist, a Black male friend who also happened to be a family friend, received:
“A black psychiatrist who worked with my father recommended that we stay together as a family. He said it was important because we were one of the few remaining African-American families in our neighborhood, one of the few families where the father remained in the home. Our communities were in jeopardy, many of the black men in jail or in rehab. Some local men of color were around but they were struggling with unemployment, which left them feeling inadequate and open to public scrutiny. If my father were to leave, the damage to our family could be irreversible, according to this therapist.”
I often write about the precarious nature of the black female existence. We shoulder the burden of being saddled by society’s racism and misogyny. We are the constant targets of White and Black male contempt. No, Black women are not some protected class less impacted by racism than their male counterparts. And often times, there is no where for Black women to turn. No wonder we seldom seek help. White hate criminalizes, discriminates against and terrorizes all Black people. In turn, Black men sometimes terrorize their own families. And that terrorism is oftentimes passively condoned and even outright enabled (like in this case) by both the men and women in the Black community.
After all, it is not only the men in this story who failed Sharisse. Her mother, who also came from a past riddled with emotional and physical abuse, remained in the relationship with a partner who was sexually abusing his daughter and even became the household’s sole provider because he suffered from Sickle Cell Anemia. Smith explained, “I felt betrayed by my mother’s choice to protect my father at my expense.”
This sentence speaks to a bigger trend in the Black community that must constantly be underscored. We cannot continue to propagate a male-centric agenda at the expense of little girls and women. Examples of this are far too widespread and prevalent. Black churches preach adherence to dogmas of male dominance. Much of the Black community cannot honestly address rape allegations against Bill Cosby, to protect his “legacy” from being tarnished. Black men diminished the abusive behavior of Ray Rice to protect his career. Planned Parenthood is under attack by many factions of the Black male community, which reproduces propaganda in attempts to dismantle the organization, despite the reality that most WOC can’t afford healthcare anywhere else.
These attacks on girlhood and womanhood are rampant. Addressing them means cutting to the core of patriarchy that reinforces the notion that men and boys are more valuable than their female counterparts. That means ending the pervasive culture of slut shaming that gives men a pass for disgraceful behavior while blaming victims of sexual harassment and abuse. It means addressing misogyny in hip-hop/rap culture. It also means acknowledging and ending the prevalence of domestic and sexual abuse in the Black community.
In short, it means valuing the well-being of women and girls just as much as men.
We cannot dismiss stories like Sharisse’s as a singular example of abuse in one family. The abuse and how both her family and the community at large treated, it represents something difficult but necessary to admit about the Black community: We must begin to address and eradicate patriarchy and misogyny. It is the only way to ensure the safety of Black women and girls. And the only way to hold men accountable for threatening that safety.