"When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak." —Audre Lorde
Amara* showed up at the Jackson Free Press office unexpectedly one Thursday afternoon. Her rose-colored blouse was soaking wet from a sudden thunderstorm. Her big dark eyes scanned the room as she talked, and her hands, like her eyes, were in constant motion, fidgeting with her hair and plucking at her damp clothing. Her voice was soft and unaffected. When our eyes met, she would quickly look away, like a watchful doe on the lookout for danger.
Her mother was 16 when she gave birth to Amara. Her parents did not marry, and her stepfather controlled and verbally abused her mother. "He didn't respect her," she said. Home wasn't a happy place. While her stepdad never abused Amara, her mom frequently took out her pain and frustration on her oldest child.
When she was 14, Amara's family began attending a new church. One afternoon at youth choir practice, Amara was sitting in the pews crying. It was a typical teenage moment, she said. She can't remember exactly why she was crying; perhaps someone had picked on her, probably calling her ugly or stupid.
Her pastor put his arm around the teen to console her and offered her the love Amara yearned for. "He said if I wanted, he would be my father figure," she said. "I didn't ask for it."
For the next 18 months or so, the pastor gave Amara a refuge from her turbulent home life. She spent many days and nights at his family's home. Looking back, she said was never alone with him. His wife and children were always around.
Other church members noticed the special interest the pastor showed to his young charge, and some weren't pleased. Even Amara's grandmother felt it wasn't quite right, though she didn't know why. Amara didn't care. The pastor was caring and nurturing. Anything was better than life with her mother and stepfather.
One evening in 1999, when the pastor offered her a ride home from church, Amara didn't want to go. Instead, the two of them went back to his house. His wife and kids were out; they were alone together for the first time.
As Amara stood at the kitchen sink doing dishes, he came up behind her and kissed her on the neck. She didn't like it. "My feelings were really hurt," she said. "I was really like in shock. Like, 'I can't believe this.'"
The pastor was sexually excited, though, and despite her misgivings, Amara became excited as well. The sex was oral, she said. They ended up on the floor. She's certain they would have had intercourse that night, but the pastor's wife returned home. They had just enough time to pull themselves together.
Amara was 16, the pastor 39.
The experience left Amara confused and ashamed. She wanted the special attention he gave her, but she knew it was wrong. She didn't tell her mama about it until years later. The older man drew the young woman in; his interest was something no one had ever shown her before. She felt wanted and loved for the first time.
That night wasn't the only time the two had sex, she said later, but they never had intercourse.
Males in Jails
Amara's story points to numerous issues swirling around dysfunctional sexual relationships, including the cyclical nature of domestic violence and how it can put young people in the path of sexual predators. She is also African American, and while she never presumed to speak for a mythical monolith of "black people in America," both the history of blacks in this country and the current reality of the culture inform her narrative.
Sex with a 16-year-old girl in Mississippi—as in the majority of states—is not illegal. However, the power differential between a 39-year-old man and a 16-year-old woman is obvious. He had the control and the upper hand. He knew that, and admitted to her years later that he was wrong to take advantage of her. It wasn't much of an apology, Amara said.
The pastor told her she had to forgive him; not to do so was a sin. He also told her that he had noticed her from the start, even remembering the blue dress she wore her first day in the church when she was 14. He thanked her for not telling anyone. "I really had a lot of depression and emotional problems since then," she said. "I look at that father-figure thing closer now."
Up to 95 percent of rape victims know their assailants, so it's not a stretch to say that most sexual assault and rape occurs on the continuum of intimate partner or domestic violence, all of which centers around the perpetrator's need for power and control. Short of intimate partner homicide, rape is the ultimate expression of that need, said Sandy Middleton, executive director of the Center for Violence Prevention in Pearl. "What could be more controlling than rape?" She asked, or the threat of rape.
When it comes to domestic violence, the range includes everything from psychological and verbal abuse to stalking to physical assault, including rape.
For black women, though, rape is also fraught with historical baggage and its own set of rules.
"Historically, we have learned the system, which in our minds is white folks, is not to be trusted," CeCe Norwood, a rape-crises counselor in Toledo, Ohio told The Los Angeles Times during a National Sexual Violence Prevention Conference in 2004. UCLA professor Gail Wyatt first documented the phenomenon of black women protecting black men with silence in 1980. Black women, Norwood indicated, are supposed to protect the black community, not expose it.
Some of that attitude is a holdover from Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras in the South, when a black men could be lynched for "attacking" a white women.
It's an attitude that leaves many black rape victims making a Hobson's choice between sexism and racism. If she reports an assault, could it result in putting another black man in prison? African Americans make up almost 40 percent of people in prison and jail, though they make up only about 13 percent of the U.S. population.
Further complicating the issue are pervasive myths including that black women can't be raped. It is a falsehood with roots in American law. In 1859, for example, a Mississippi judge ruled that an older black slave could not have raped a 10-year-old black girl. "[T]he crime of rape does not exist in this State between African slaves," he concluded. "... Their intercourse is promiscuous."
In her poem "that's proof she wanted it," poet Honoree Fannone Jeffers wrote: "Why do you think there are so few reports of rape in the black community / Because rape doesn't happen in the black community."
Jeffers performed the poem in the 2006 film "No! The Rape Documentary." The movie, produced, written and directed by Aishah Shahidah Simmons, confronts all aspects of sexual violence, focusing on the experiences of African Americans.
In "The Role of Religion in Violence Against Women," an essay in the film's accompanying study guide, Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons wrote about the imbalance of men and women in black churches. The theme resonates in Amara's story of her relationship with her pastor.
Citing Delores Williams' book, "Sisters in the Wilderness," Simmons wrote: "Black women have 'accounted their perseverance on the basis of their faith in God who helped them make a way out of no way.' Yet as Williams notes, black women's faith has been used against them by men in their churches and in their mosques. She calls it 'a colonization of the female's mind and culture.' ... Engrained notions have covertly justified male violence against women as men's right as heads of their households to rule with an iron fist (literally and figuratively) and to chastise 'head strong and disobedient wives and girlfriends,' often depicted as loud-mouthed 'Sapphires' and 'ball-busters.'"
Those notions are as old as Genesis, Simmons wrote. Long-held depictions of Eve being created as an afterthought and being responsible for bringing evil into the world have many leaders, black and white, castigating rape victims while holding ministers and male parishioners as blameless targets of a woman's sexual wiles and inherent dishonesty.
"One's gender role is learned as it is transmitted to a child almost from birth," she wrote. "The child observes early the allotment of privileges such as the right to speak and be heard, to make decisions, and who wields the power in the home, in the political realm and in the religious institutions."
'He Really Liked Me'
After she graduated from high school, Amara began college in New Orleans. She hoped leaving Jackson would give her some relief from the untenable situations she couldn't seem to get away from here in town. She had begun a relationship with Damitri, who seemed to care about her. But he was abusive.
"He had anger problems," she said. She blamed his behavior on herself, thinking, "Why do bad things happen to me."
"He started choking me and really verbally abusing me." He would call her names, like "ugly b*tch." He kicked her in the back and sprained her thumb once. "But he really liked me. I really felt like I needed to stay with him. Finally, somebody really likes me." He would get angry and bang his head on the wall. Amara took it as a sign that he cared.
One late summer day in 2004, Amara showed up at Damitri's grandmother's house, ready to help the woman sort clothing for Goodwill. "Come anytime," his grandmother had told her, so she hadn't called ahead. The woman wasn't home, but the front door was unlocked. Amara went in—she knew where the clothes were—and started picking through the pile and folding the clothes. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw someone pass by the door of the room where she was working.
"I heard the front door lock," she said, "and I thought, uh oh."
A few seconds later, Fat Boy, Damitri's cousin, stood in the doorway, wrapped in sheets as if he'd just gotten up. "Where you going?" He asked her when she tried to push past him. Fat Boy was naked under the sheets, except for the condom on his already erect penis.
Amara tried to fight him, but the man easily overpowered her and pushed her to the floor. "She had these little labels on the dresser," Amara said. "I just remember 'Socks.'"
She was screaming, but the house was in the country, isolated. She remembered thinking, "Nobody knows where I am." He had some sort of a bat, she said, and threatened to hit her. Reaching up under her turquoise dress, Fat Boy ripped at her panties and discovered Amara was having her period. Enraged, he swore at her.
"Get the fck outta here, nasty btch," he yelled.
She got away, taking the nearest exit from the trailer. She went out a window backward, cutting her leg, and ran across the street for help—to her attacker's mother. Amara reported the attack to the police.
The detective was nice enough, she said, but he didn't offer her much hope or support. He kept wanting more information.
"I did sign up for counseling," she said, but it was too far from New Orleans, and she stopped going after a couple of sessions. The incident left her traumatized. She remembers feeling paranoid for months, afraid that any man she met would try to rape her. Amara soon moved back to Jackson.
Pressured by Fat Boy's mother to drop the charges, Amara found out that she couldn't. The deputy had filed the assault charges for her. Still, she said, it was her word against his. She never met with a prosecutor, and a grand jury failed to indict Fat Boy. Police never arrested him, and he never did time. Some experts believe as few as six in 1,000 sexual perpetrators will ever spend a day behind bars; fewer than 85 percent of victims ever report rapes or sexual assaults.
Amara found herself mired in a morass of family drama: The entire family rallied around Fat Boy, she said, trying to protect him from the woman he had tried to rape. She stopped going to Damitri's family functions, afraid of running into her attacker, further straining her tenuous relationship with Damitri. "I don't know if they believed me," she said. But later, Fat Boy sent a message to Amara through Damitri: "Tell her I'm sorry."
'Abuse, Misuse and Exploitation'
Rape is a public health issue. Among the myriad of victim reactions to sexual assault are nightmares, depression, fear and distrust, anxiety, phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The trauma that begins with the victim spreads outward to her family, friends and society. "Schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, campuses and cultural or religious communities may feel fear, anger or disbelief when a sexual assault happens," states the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in its information sheet "What is Sexual Violence?"
Rape costs taxpayers money, too, including medical services, criminal justice expenses, crises and mental-health fees, and lost productivity. Individually, the financial cost of each rape is $151,423 reported the Journal of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology in 2010. The annual tally is higher than any other crime: $127 billion according to the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice.
"Sexual violence is a social justice issue that occurs because of abuse, misuse and exploitation of vulnerabilities," the NSVRC states. "It is a violation of human rights and can impact a person's trust and feeling of safety. Acts of sexual violence are not only about control and/or sex, but the rape culture exists, in part, because of disparities of power that are often rooted in oppression."
The way we raise boys is the start of much oppression—including the oppression of women—says social-justice activist and author Paul Kivel in "Men's Work—To Stop Male Violence."
"We tell them to act like a man, to be tough, aggressive, in control, not to express their feelings, not to cry and never to ask for help," he writes. "... We've been set up by the sense of superiority and entitlement, and the small benefits we gain to collude with and perpetuate sexism and male supremacy."
Kivel continues: "[I]t is particularly powerful when men challenge other men on issues of male violence, contradicting the myth that it is natural, inevitable or inconsequential for men to abuse women. ... This is truly men's work—to reclaim our own humanity and stop all forms of male violence and exploitation."
While women are not innocent of violent or abusive behavior, men are the perpetrators and women their victims in more than 85 percent of violent sexual crimes, and often, when men rape, their victims are also male. One in five women and one in 71 men will be rape victims at some point in their lives, concluded the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, published last year.
'My Library Card Saved Me'
Two things happened to Amara after Fat Boy's attempted rape that opened her eyes. First, she found out she was pregnant by Damitri. Then, she attended a lecture about domestic violence at Jackson State University. As the speaker told the audience about the warning signs, Amara recognized her life,.
"I didn't want to have a baby in this situation," she said. Awake to the danger, she made an escape plan, just like she learned in the lecture. She reached out to a friend, Raymond, and asked him to help. On the night that she couldn't take any more of Damitri's abuse, Amara called Raymond and got out.
Amara saw Raymond as a man she could finally trust, and they soon fell into a relationship. But Raymond turned out to be less than she thought. He didn't have a high-school diploma, and he found it difficult to find anything but temporary jobs. Amara supported and tried to help him, correcting his spelling and grammar on job applications and offering her support in getting his GED. When it became clear to her that Raymond was not what she needed for herself and her son, she left him. What happened next left her with a scar that arcs through and over her right eyebrow.
When Amara went back to their apartment to collect some things she'd left behind, Raymond insisted that she pay the light bill that he couldn't. "When I said I wasn't going to pay it, he head butted me," she said. "We had some issues in our relationship, too." The cut required about 10 stitches.
Like many women who have survived intimate partner violence, Amara has drawn on reserves of strength she hardly recognizes, although she struggles with depression.
She supported herself and her son with home-based businesses, first as a "mystery shopper," and she began a cleaning service. Relationships with men, she said, were going to be simpler, with no attachments. Even when she found herself pregnant with her second child, she didn't ask for the father's support, but they maintain a relationship. The minute she saw her baby, she fell helplessly in love, as nearly all mothers do.
"I think what saved me was my library card," she said. She tried to get counseling, but didn't have the money to continue. Instead, between her classes at JSU, Amara began to scan the stacks, where she discovered self-help books. She credits one author in particular, Iyanla Vanzant, for helping her to straighten herself out. Amara took what she learned and put it into practice.
Today, Amara, 28, continues to work from home while she works toward her master's degree at JSU. Her baby is almost 2 years old, and she home-schooled her firstborn, last year. Now 7 years old, he'll probably go to public school next year.
"He's very outgoing," she said.
Amara is in what may be the first fairly stable relationship of her life. It's not perfect, she said, but she's stopped looking for a man to save her. Instead, she's looking forward to being a successful business woman, and she is stronger for the lessons she continues to learn.
"I'm in a better place, now," she said. "Me and my library card. ... I have a new-found feminism."
"I do think I am my own hero."
Comment and contact Ronni Mott at firstname.lastname@example.org