As I reflect on the Black lives matter movement, which has expanded to the Black women’s lives matter movement, I can’t help but to wonder how we can talk about Black women’s lives matter without allowing black women to tell their stories. I recently attended an event entitled #BlackMomsMatter, and it was a powerful event in which Black moms and community members in Ward 8 of Washington, DC came together to say that Black moms of Ward 8 matter. During that event, I stated that before we, as a society, can begin to create a new paradigm for Black women, one that is inclusive and authentic, we need to allow Black women to tell their stories in their fullness—authentically and unapologetically.
When I look at the intersection of Black moms and sexual violence what I know to be true is that Black women, more than any other racial/ethnic group, experience sexual assault at higher rates. Historically and culturally speaking, Black women have had had their bodies violated and reproductive choice taken away from them since the beginning of slavery. As such, what I have found in my line of work is that Black moms must first begin to reconcile the sexual violation and trauma of the Black body with womanhood itself. When reconciliation can happen on that level we can begin to see the healing Black of motherhood.
As a woman who works with sexual abuse survivors, the majority of clients are from marginalized communities, I find myself asking the question: What does it mean to be a Black mom who is a survivor of sexual violence? What we know about sexual violence particularly with Black women is that we see a lot of multigenerational sexual abuse. Specifically, it happened to mother, grandmother and great grandmother….
As such, a lot of Black women and Black moms who have been sexually abused grew up in a culture and household where their mothers, and other elder women in the family imparted what I like to call cultural mamaisms. Cultural mamissm include phrases such as: “It happened to me and I just dealt with it,” “We don’t air our dirty laundry outside this house,” “Pray about it talk to Jesus.”
A recent episode of “How to Get a Away with Murder” starring Viola Davis and Cicely Tyson depicted a powerful scene between mother (Tyson) and daughter (Davis), in which the daughter asked her mother if she knew what her uncle had done to her as a child? The mother replied “Men take things ain’t no use in sitting on someone’s couch talking about it.” The daughter went on to say “I am the way I am because we never talk about what happened.”
This power scene between Tyson and Davis shows the normalization of sexually abuse among black women. Davis’s last statement depicts a somewhat common tendency among Black mom’s who are also sexual abuse survivors—they often ponder “Am I a good enough mother?” Some Black women who don’t have children question “If my mom was not able to protect me how can I protect my child?” More often than not, these moms don’t talk about there experiences. The result is a normalization of sexual violence.
Additionally, in this episode the mother (Tyson) references a powerful taboo in the Black community—mental health. Again, we find historically and culturally speaking that Black women have not embraced mental health–specifically utilizing the services of a mental health provider. There is still such a stigma on mental health in the Black community. However, what I offer to my clients is that mental health treatment, specifically therapy, is a form of self-care. It is a way to reject the “normalization” of sexual abuse.
If you recall the earlier question that I proposed which was, what does it mean to be a Black mom who is a survivor of sexual violence? What we know about sexual violence is that it is a form of trauma. When trauma is held in the body and not released and or reconciled on some level it will manifest itself in other ways for instance in intimate relationships, friendships, and work relationships. Therapy can be a way of dealing with the trauma, and getting to the root of it all. This in turn can allow our Black moms to deal with the trauma that is weaved throughout multi-generational sexual abuse, and its interaction with systematic levels of oppression.
Healing also begins to break the generational cultural taboo, which can ultimately allow Black moms to change the narrative for their children. To have Black moms taking care of themselves and exhibiting a level of wellness to their children sets not only a powerful example of selfcare, but it sends a message that when mommy is well, she can invoke wellness in not only the caring of her children, but the children themselves.
In conclusion, what I know for sure is that Black moms matter! To tell a black women’s story is to speak truth to power. It is disrupt the national consciousness and status quo, while directly lifting the veil of secrecy and pain within the Black community on how sexual violence impacts Black women’s lives.
By Indira M. Henard
Director of Policy & Advocacy, DC Rape Crisis Center