Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Wrong Answers and then The Right Actions

Last evening I had the pleasure of attending a Black History MOnth Keynote Address featuring Author and Activist, Pearl Cleage. She is widely known for her groundbreaking novel, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, that brought the issue of black female HIV/AIDS to the forefront. She was at the cutting edge of talking about the silent shame when her book was published back in 1997. All these years later, the same still exists. The reason the black women are dying of HIV/AIDS at higher rates has a lot to do with the topic of her talk last night.

She wrote her most elegant performance prose and talked about the crime of domestic violence. The backdrop of her oral essay was the Rihanna and Chris Brown incident in four parts. She talked about the scene or what may have happened. The then gave some knowledge about other public figures who were involved in domestic violence including Miles Davis and Cecily Tyson, Tammy Terrill and David Ruffin, and Alan Iverson and his wife Tawanna. In each incident, the women were not the singers, actresses, or supportive wives, they were victims, fearing for their lives from the men who professed to love them.

After her almost hour-long, mesmerizing, sing-song one-woman-act, she opened up the floor for questions. One of the first ones was why the black community tended to hush up the reality of domestic abuse - of any form - for the sake of protecting the black man. This opened up the other attendees to talk and Pearl Cleage aptly pointed out that domestic violence knows no race, no color, no ethnicity, no educational level, no neighborhood, no economic level, no sexual orientation - it is indiscriminate in who it attacks.

The discussion also lead to the reality of the many judgments these women face. They are told or asked everything from "well, what did you do? you had to have don't something to deserve this." or "girl, I would just leave." "You need to get on your knees and just pray some more, hey have you read The Praying Wife?" All these admonishments all hold to excuse the abuser, whether he (or she for same-sex relationships) is a physical, verbal, financial, or sexual abuser, all the questions, comments, or statements aimed at the woman seeking answers is that somehow his mistreatment is her fault.

There are some very real realities these women face. Statistics show that pregnant women are at a higher incidence of being abused by the father of their child, women who have been killed (take the couple in California with him knocking off his wife, and child and a final act of controlling abuse was to blame his wife before he killed himself) have been victims. Even our prisons that have women murders are there because they finally put an end to the daily nightmare that was his fists. She gets a much harsher sentence than a male offender of domestic violence. And acknowledging that husband's rape wives is still taboo and hardly prosecuted.

The cozy group of college students listened intently, many of them offering up stories of their friends who were in abusive relationships, all of them seeking answers about how to help. Pearl Cleage reminded the audience there were words not to say and that listening is the greatest gift to an abused woman, listening without judgement, offering real help. The homeless shelters do not often take women with children, women with special needs or chronically ill children are even further cut out from a quick get-away. She reminded the audience that often these women do a dance to avoid his wrath - make sure the house is spotless, his meal is perfect, and she is receptive in bed - anything to keep the pummeling by words or fists from happening, anything to avoid the assault of her character, her virtue, her personhood all to make him feel better. All throughout, I kept thinking of the recurring themes in the Tyler Perry movie and how many women would love to re-enact the scene where the abused fiancee finally played "grit ball" with the abuser and subsequently gained her life back.

The churches, the families, the black community, the larger community all have a role to play in this epidemic against women that says because they are the weaker physical gender, they are the chattel, the housekeeper, the maid, the servant, the one to follow behind and only have identify through the man. This is whether he hits her with fists or with his words, scorn, or disdain.

The audience wanted to know what to do. It ultimately came down to how to turn the usual wrong answers into right answers and real help. There are as many reasons as to why abused women stay as to why they leave. There are many who leave or are in the process of leaving so they can have life. They are trying to survive the impossible and just need their family and friends to have the door open or hand extended if they come calling.

A few important tools though, especially since the fast majority of abused women have deep relationships with their spiritual base, especially black women, to know that God does not intend for any woman to be abused in any manner. He made her as a gift, a special someone, a precious jewel for man, not as someone for him to manipulate with his mind games, threaten with his wallet, or abuse with his men's parts (whether that is through raping her or withholding marital affection from her).

According to the website "The Black Church and Domestic Violence Institute," which teaches clergy to be more sensitive to this very real topic so that "battered women will not be forced to choose between their faith and their safety." As part of their training, they have yearly workshops and events to equip pastors and religious lay people with tools more than telling her to go home and pray or cook his meals or iron his shirts just so he won't get mad.

The website and Pearl Cleage pointed out this is an epidemic that affects women of every class, race, sexual orientation, and religions. 90-95% of battered victims are women and they are active in their local churches, churches that should be archs of safety but are often halls of scorn. The many shelters or homeless programs, as previously noted, are not equipped for women or not women with many children, or women with both gender children, or women with ill children.

A helpful definition can be used to stop asking the wrong answers. "Domestic violence is any coercive behavior that is used by one adult over another in an intimate relationship. Such abuse can be physical (beatings), verbal (threats), sexual (rape or withholding of affection), economic (taking or threatening to take her money), and psychological (mind games).

There are some places that can start to change the dialogue and outcome. These include the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the National Council of Churches, and Men Stopping Violence. The last one is really important as 90-95% of abusers are men, it will take men to stop this from continuing. There shouldn't be any more funerals for women killed at the hands of their mate, or any more crying in the shower because her husband brutally raped her, or no more of her wondering where her livelihood would be since he controlled the money or took her money, especially if the wife stays-at-home. Men are the ones that can have the supportive dialogue to bring these women back to worth and stand with them in holding the men in their lives accountable for how they treat their wives and significant others.

Girlfriends can listen,open the door and provide a bed when needed. Male and female friends can help the battered woman escape immediately if she is in mortal danger or can help her plan to be on her feet again. Ministers can counsel and train men to avoid controlling and abusing behaviors. Women can stop judging other women. Shelters can be set up for just women and children, jobs can be a part of this shelter so financial necessity won't drive her back into the home of the one violating her. There are many things that can be done to help.

Pearl Cleage noted that she is speaking out because it is necessary. While this is the ending of Black History Month, she was bringing the importance of this issue to the black community. She also clearly pointed out this is a nationwide issue, but cultural barriers, such as church and spirituality, customs, and norms, have all added to make women of color particularly vulnerable.

The petite, vanilla complexioned,close hair cropped women with the preacher's daughter cadence brought a message of purpose, hope, and opportunity to Saint Louis University. We must not be silent.

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