Burning Down the House: Why Black Women Who Save Themselves are Heroes

by Neisha Washington

“My mother built my father on her back. . . I know she may have saved my life, but I’d rather kill myself than repeat hers.” Tatyana’s words cut a hole so deep those in the room could not find words to fill it. I knew her story well. She hailed from one of those two parent families lauded by black respectability proponents as the saving grace of a wayward people.  Her father a well-respected man in the community, was an awful SOB behind doors. No matter. As long as the family contributed regularly to the offering, the daughters kept their legs shut, and mother kept lifting her hands in prayer on Sundays all was well.

Tatyanna’s life exemplifies the logic of glossing over abuse in the name of familial survival. As Dr. Boyce Watkins puts it, “For every woman who made the mistake of staying in a relationship with a perpetually abusive man, there is another woman who is glad she made the choice to keep her family together.” He asserts that while some may call them foolish, “With black families being torn apart by the pitfalls of extreme feminism, we should appreciate situations where someone isn’t seeking to throw the baby out with the bathwater and destroying their family at the drop of a hat.” In Dr. Watkins view the family must be kept together at all costs, even at the expense of the physical and mental security  of the mother. A family in these terms represents a cohesive unit, almost sacred, and essential to the survival of a society. Watkin’s trivializes perpetual abuse----which is widely acknowledged as the breakdown of another’s psyche, body, or emotional stability---- as a minor inconvenience in the strive for the larger common good of the family.

Within the framework of a respectability rationale  a woman who decides to stick out the emotional, mental, sexual, or physical abuse is in essence performing the ultimate sacrifice for society. As she literally lays down her body, soul, and mind as the punching bag for the community, she acts as the outlet for all of the rage of oppression. All of the inherited trauma of living in a black body in America is meted out on her skin. In essence, fists that cannot hit the white man knock her to the ground. And as a reward, she protects the illusion of progress under the cape of respectability. If she bled out in a church pew, one could not have written a more appropriate ending for her blessed martyrdom.

The reasons a woman decides to stay are myriad, and she should not be judged for her decision. However, few ever speak of the children as equal members of this “family”. Whatever happens to them? Tatyana, a college educated and driven young professional, is the harvest of the seeds sown by her mother’s endurance. Long after leaving home she stills pays the invisible costs with her mental health. Tatyana, now a grown woman, wakes up most mornings wanting to die.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that children in abusive homes can exhibit maladaptive, antisocial, depressed or anxious behavior. The effects of such an environment continue into adulthood as men who were abused typically repeat the cycle, and women often enter into abusive relations. Those who break the curse of familial abuse still may pay in depression and PTSD. In light of the clear evidence that no one benefits from an abusive household, coupled with the knowledge that such an upbringing primes children for severe future pain, for whom is this unholy house being held together?

To understand a lie one must know for who for whom it is told. Championing the idea of “family” over the health of the living breathing bodies of black women and their children reinforces the idea of our disposability to the whims of intimate partners and society as a whole. By praising women who endure inhumane treatment as heroes, Watkins reiterates the notion of black women’s subhumanity. Under the guise of praise, the family (and by extension community) perpetuate the exploitation of the black woman by giving her a pedestal on which to bleed. Not only is she the victim, but she must also be the savior. Metaphorically she is both the one who is beaten, and the one mopping up the blood.  All in all, his argument prevents a community from acknowledging the perpetrators of domestic abuse as well as the systemic factors that contribute to it.

Underneath stands the myth of the salience of family ties in the presence of abuse. In order shift the conditioned acceptance of abuse, we must depart from the idea that blood or marital vows give other people unprecedented access to our bodies and souls. There is no family in the presence of violence, because there is no safe place for all of it’s members. Within a family unit each member must retain the integrity of their own parts in order for the whole to thrive.  Blood ends the moment it is corrupted, as a person has no obligation to respect marital or familial ties once trust has been broken. Essentially, the presence of abuse releases the parties from their roles.

If walls could talk, some homes would merely scream. Tatyana knows the trade-off of leaving a toxic environment all to well. If she could leave the trauma inflicted by members of her bloodline behind she would as well. For now, she has found a community that does not ask the same illicit requests of “family”. To those domestic abuse apologists who laud distorted interpretations of family that only perpetuate trauma: The children of abuse are the blood on your respectable hands. Painting “HOME” on a haunted house never saved anyone. Those who escape the cycle, do so because they are willing to burn the house down to be free.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

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