It must had been in third grade that my daughter Ella was assigned a project for Black History Month. She was assigned Maya Angelou.
I was unaware of how this selection would impact my view of being a feminist mom.
We eagerly trekked to the public library to check out children’s books on Angelou. I expected the usual broad view on Angelou’s life illustrated by cute watercolors — not so much a whitewash of Angelou’s life, but one that would be generally acceptable for elementary children to read. As with any revolutionary figure, the book would have to deal with racism and discrimination. What I had not planned on was the book, if not both, to deal head on with Angelou’s rape at the age of eight by her mother’s boyfriend.
I remember Ella and I were reading the books together when we got the page about Angelou’s rape, her rapist’s killing (he was found beaten to death, possibly by Angelou’s uncles) and her subsequent vow of silence. I swallowed hard and thought, Oh, shit. Luckily, this was not our first discussion about sex, body integrity, or people who violate personal space. For that I am grateful. But quite honestly, I had skirted around the issue of rape.
Even though I knew that according to the Rape And Incest National Network 15 percent of children under 12 have reported a sexual assault, I hadn’t previously addressed the issue head on. Rather I kept our conversations focused on “unwanted touching” and teaching her that no one had the right to make her feel uncomfortable about her body. Those conversations did pay off when a boy in her class touched her bottom during a dance lesson. She immediately pushed back, said no, and then reported the touching to her teacher. The situation was dealt with swiftly and to our satisfaction.
But rape? That was left unsaid until a children’s book and a class assignment made me have to define it.
I have no idea what I was waiting for. Perhaps more time and space between the start of “the talk” about sex — and rape, which is not sex, but so often confused with it? Perhaps I did not want to go from talking about sex as a method of making babies and expressing love to an act that can be the ultimate violation.
As others reminisce about how Angelou’s memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings helped them process their own trauma, I think of a woman who was not only brave enough to tell her story, but did it in such a way that even a children’s book could not hide the fact she was raped. As a child. I am sure I am not the only parent to be shocked to find this fact in a children’s book. I am also not naive enough to think every parent addressed the issue head on. But I am grateful for that children’s book about an amazing woman because it pushed my own feminist parenting to another level.
[Image via Getty]