Do We Believe Our Girls?: Teaching Black Girls that Their Bodies and Stories Matter

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by Chaka V. Reid

“Broken little girls become wounded women,” said Iyanla Vanzant on her hit show “Iyanla Fix My Life” on the OWN network. No truer statement can be said, and it can be applied to boys and men as well. I find Iyanla Vanzant’s show one of the most healing and real hours of television and thank God she’s back! In so many ways Iyanla is helping black women face some ugly truths in our community that we have stubbornly denied and ignored.

On a recent November 25th episode, two sisters destroyed by “betrayal” came on to try and fix their relationship. Their severely broken relationship was initially called a “Romantic Rivalry” but Iyanla soon unraveled a disturbing family pathology that was anything but romantic.

The women spoke of a history of sexual abuse and rape, some resulting in pregnancies. And in each case when they attempted to share what was going on with other women in their family, their cry for help was met with outright denial and even rage. Though each woman acknowledge being exploited as children and young women, each refused to acknowledge the experience in the other, in turn allowing the experience to weave its way into the following generation.

When Iyanla confronted the older sister about her younger sister’s memory of telling her older sister about the abuse inflicted by the live-in boyfriend (who would be left in the home when the older sister traveled for work) the eldest sister screamed, “She was a hoe when she came to me.”

Sexual abuse of girls is regularly blamed on the girl. Sexual abuse of boys is rarely even discussed. Furthermore, little attention is paid to why a child is being treated as a sexual object by men (or women), and what it is in abusers that allow them to sexualize innocence. We alternately blame girls for their own exploitation, while also celebrating videos of young children, even babies, twerking like grown women.

Take for instance R. Kelly ─ yes, I’m going there, ladies ─ the infamous R&B “sex symbol” has been making the rounds, appearing everywhere due to his flagrant “Do What You Want” duet with Lady Gaga.

Trapped in the closet Kelly is notorious for alleged exploitation of girls as young as 13-year-olds. I know very well that the exploitation of young girls by male performers - of all backgrounds – is sadly nothing new and exists today. A Welsh rock front man has recently made news for gruesome sexual violence against babies, which he spent a year denying until video tape was revealed. Sound familiar?

A few months ago I was surprised by the few comments left for Stephanie J. Gates’s article “R. Kelly vs. Anthony Weiner: A Tale of Two Sexual Deviants,” here on the For Harriet site. The silence was deafening and very sad. (I tweeted the article). Yet an article written about black men’s dating preferences receives comment after comment.

Men rarely have to discuss the male exploitation of children because women are the first to defend it. In a post on Perez Hilton’s blog entitled: Why Does R. Kelly Get A Free Pass???, some of the terse comments included Lady Amalthea stating that: “Pissing on underage yet consenting girls is actually nowhere near as bad as beating a girl to a bloody pulp.” Ignorant comment considering that we should now understand that verbal abuse is as devastating as physical, so how can one not imagine being “pissed on” as a child by a grown man you admire or love would not be equally as emotionally degrading and devastating?

Another commenter, Hottestnusa, went as far as comparing an alleged 30 something year-old R. Kelly having sex with a 13 year old child to the one year age difference between Salena Gomez and Justin Bieber. Are Hottestnusa and Amalthea black? I have no idea but it is often black women who most vehemently support and defend Kelly. But as Iyanla says, “Broken little girls become wounded women.” (To be fair one commenter also mentions his annulled marriage to a then 15 year old Aaliyah and the fact that if social media had been around in its current form that may have permanently damaged his career.)

Wendy Williams is one of the few black women that I've heard of who has unapologetically spoken out about his recent sightings all over the media. Regarding the Kelly/Gaga awkwardly raunchy SNL performance, Williams stated that she didn't watch it and as someone who saw the sex tape, she will never give him a pass.

The fact that we cannot agree that exploiting a 13-year-old child is wrong, reveals a lot about the world we live in.

The fact that three generations of women could endure rape and incest and still deny the others truth is a problem.

The fact that people will describe children who have been forced or coerced into a sexual relationship with adult as being “fast,” as if our parenting, our community and our world does not conspire to make them that way, is dead wrong.

The fact that we don’t recognize “grooming” the manner in which adults “seduce” children with gifts or attention, to get the child to keep the secret, is dangerous.

We need to nurture our girls (and boys) and we need to protect our sisterhood. Here’s how I suggest we start:

1: Call a spade a spade: The “weird uncle, Leroy” should not be brushed off with “That’s just how he is.” If that’s how he is, keep him away from children.

2: Let’s practice self-compassion: Sexual abuse and exploitation of our girls and boys is not ok. And if you went through it, it was not ok! It wasn't your fault, no matter how “fresh” or “needy” you were. We need adults to behave as adults so that children have a safe space to grow, explore and become who they’re meant to be.

3: Embrace your truth and let it blossom beyond yourself: I have noticed a tendency for victims of abuse on shows like, “Iyanla, Fix My Life,” to mourn their own victim-hood, yet remain pretty dry eyed when it comes to the victim-hood of others, even that of their own children. Once we heal ourselves, we need to help heal those that we couldn't love as fully as we would have if we were not broken.

4: We need to let go of the guilt of not protecting “our” men: There are many black men I love within my own family and beyond but I will never sacrifice the innocence and safety of a child in order to affirm, protect or keep a man.

I want us to stop invalidating other black women and girls in order to throw our support to men who exploit us. I recognize that I am using the word we far too liberally. I am blessed to have a mother who took all my concerns serious as a child, even as she struggled as a young woman to feed and shelter us. She listened and maybe that’s why I listen today.

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