Given all the hype and controversy around Chris Brown’s alleged beating of Rihanna, I feel compelled to post this essay I originally wrote in late 2007, so that some of us can have an honest jump off point to discuss male violence against females, to discuss the need for ownership of past pains and traumas, to discuss the critical importance of therapy and healing. Let us pray for Rihanna, first and foremost, because no one deserves to be beaten, or beaten up. No one. And let us also pray that Chris Brown gets the help he needs by way of long-term counseling and alternative definitions of manhood rooted in nonviolence, real love, and, alas, real peace. And let us not forget that Rihanna and Chris Brown happen to be major pop stars, hence all the media coverage, blogs, etc. Violence against women and girls happen every single day on this planet without any notice from most of us. Until we begin to address that hard fact, until we all, males and females alike, make a commitment to ending the conditions that create that destructive behavior in the first place, it will not end any time soon. There will be more Rihannas and more Chris Browns.
In my recent travels and political and community work and speeches around the country, it became so very obvious that many American males are unaware of the monumental problems of domestic violence and sexual assault, against women and girls, in our nation. This seems as good a time as any to address this urgent and overlooked issue. Why is it that so few of us actually think about violence against women and girls, or think that it’s our problem? Why do we go on believing it’s all good, even as our sisters, our mothers, and our daughters suffer and a growing number of us participate in the brutality of berating, beating, or killing our female counterparts?
All you have to do is scan the local newspapers or ask the right questions of your circle of friends, neighbors, or co-workers on a regular basis, and you’ll see and hear similar stories coming up again and again. There’s the horribly tragic case of Megan Williams, a 20-year-old West Virginia woman, who was kidnapped for several days. The woman’s captors forced her to eat rat droppings, choked her with a cable cord and stabbed her in the leg while calling her, a Black female, a racial slur, according to criminal complaints. They also poured hot water over her, made her drink from a toilet, and beat and sexually assaulted her during a span of about a week, the documents say. There’s the woman I knew, in Atlanta, Georgia, whose enraged husband pummeled her at home, stalked her at work and, finally, in a fit of fury, stabbed her to death as her six-year-old son watched in horror. There’s the woman from Minnesota, who showed up at a national male conference I organized a few months back with her two sons. She had heard about the conference through the media, and was essentially using the conference as a safe space away from her husband of fifteen years who, she said, savagely assaulted her throughout the entire marriage. The beatings were so bad, she said, both in front of her two boys and when she was alone with her husband that she had come to believe it was just a matter of time before her husband would end her life. She came to the conference out of desperation, because she felt all her pleas for help had fallen on deaf ears. There’s my friend from Brooklyn, New York who knew, even as a little boy, that his father was hurting his mother, but the grim reality of the situation did not hit home for him until, while playing in a courtyard beneath his housing development, he saw his mother thrown from their apartment window by his father. There’s my other friend from Indiana who grew up watching his father viciously kick his mother with his work boots, time and again, all the while angrily proclaiming that he was the man of the house, and that she needed to obey his orders.
Perhaps the most traumatic tale for me these past few years was the vile murder of Shani Baraka and her partner Rayshon Holmes in the summer of 2003. Shani, the daughter of eminent Newark, New Jersey poets and activists Amiri and Amina Baraka, had been living with her oldest sister, Wanda, part-time. Wanda was married to a man who was mad abusive—he was foul, vicious, dangerous. And it should be added that this man was “a community organizer.” Wanda tried, on a number of occasions, to get away from this man. She called the police several times, sought protection and a restraining order. But even after Wanda’s estranged husband had finally moved out, and after a restraining order was in place, he came back to terrorize his wife—twice. One time he threatened to kill her. Another time he tried to demolish the pool in the backyard, and Wanda’s car. The Baraka parents were understandably worried. Their oldest daughter was living as a victim of perpetual domestic violence, and their youngest daughter, a teacher, a girls’ basketball coach, and a role model for scores of inner city youth, was living under the same roof. Shani was warned, several times, to pack up her belongings and get away from that situation. Finally, Shani and Rayshon went, one sweltering August day, to retrieve the remainder of Shani’s possessions. Shani’s oldest sister was out of town, and it remains unclear, even now, if the estranged husband had already been there at his former home, forcibly, or if he had arrived after Shani and Rayshon. No matter. This much is true: he hated his wife Wanda and he hated Shani for being Wanda’s sister, and he hated Shani and Rayshon for being two women in love, for being lesbians. His revolver blew Shani away immediately. Dead. Next, there was an apparent struggle between Rayshon and this man. She was battered and bruised, then blown away as well. Gone. Just like that. Because I have known the Baraka family for years, this double murder was especially difficult to handle. It was the saddest funeral I have ever attended in my life. Two tiny women in two tiny caskets. I howled so hard and long that I doubled over in pain in the church pew and nearly fell to the floor beneath the pew in front of me.
Violence against women and girls knows no race, no color, no class background, no religion. It may be the husband or the fiancé, the grandfather or the father, the boyfriend or the lover, the son or the nephew, the neighbor or the co-worker. I cannot begin to tell you how many women—from preteens to senior citizens and multiple ages in between—have told me of their battering at the hands of a male, usually someone they knew very well, or what is commonly referred to as an intimate partner. Why have these women and girls shared these experiences with me, a man? I feel it is because, through the years, I have been brutally honest, in my writings and speeches and workshops, in admitting that the sort of abusive male they are describing, the type of man they are fleeing, the kind of man they’ve been getting those restraining orders against—was once me. Between the years 1987 and 1991 I was a very different kind of person, a very different kind of male. During that time frame I assaulted and or threatened four different young women.
I was one of those typical American males: hyper-masculine, overly competitive, and drenched in the belief system that I could talk to women any way I felt, treat women any way I felt, with no repercussions whatsoever.
As I sought therapy during and especially after that period, I came to realize that I and other males in this country treated women and girls in this dehumanizing way because somewhere along our journey we were told we could. It may have been in our households; it may have been on our block or in our neighborhoods; it may have been the numerous times these actions were reinforced for us in our favorite music, our favorite television programs, or our favorite films.
All these years later I feel, very strongly, that violence against women and girls is not going to end until we men and boys become active participants in the fight against such behavior. I recall those early years of feeling clueless when confronted—by both women and men—about my actions. This past life was brought back to me very recently when I met with a political associate who reminded me that he was, then and now, close friends with the last woman I assaulted. We, this political associate and I, had a very long and emotionally charged conversation about my past, about what I had done to his friend. We both had watery eyes by the time we were finished talking. It hurt me that this woman remains wounded by what I did in 1991, in spite of the fact that she accepted an apology from me around the year 2000. I left that meeting with pangs of guilt, and a deep sadness about the woman with whom I had lived for about a year.
Later that day, a few very close female friends reminded me of the work that some of us men had done, to begin to reconfigure how we define manhood, how some of us have been helping in the fight to end violence against women and girls. And those conversations led me to put on paper The Seven Steps For Ending Violence Against Women and Girls. These are the rules that I have followed for myself, and that I have shared with men and boys throughout America since the early 1990s:
Kevin Powell is a writer, activist, and author/editor of nine books. A native of Jersey City, NJ, Kevin is a long-time resident of Brooklyn, NY, where he ran for Congress in 2008. He can be reached at [email protected]