A few nights ago, I had a late night conversation with a Black male reader, turned Facebook friend. As I scrolled through his profile, I noticed professional photos of him in the ring fighting.
“You are a fighter?” I asked enthusiastically, “I’ve always wanted to learn how to fight.”
As a 25 year-old African-American woman who has braved a few “bad” neighborhoods, been stalked, groped and even threatened by men, I have long wanted to learn to defend myself in case the scenario arose where I had to. And, ever since my childhood, I always felt an affinity towards martial arts, but my single-parent mother simply could not afford to pay for extracurricular activities.
“I can set you up with a trainer for free for a couple of months,” he responded, “I know a guy who owes me a favor.”
He sent a few messages and within moments got back to me with the name of a gym where I could start training.
His selfless gesture made me cry. For the first time in my life, so many kind men have reached out to me offering support, with so very little to gain in return. That support has been instrumental in helping me to make many of my dreams a reality.
“Why are you crying,” he questioned.
“Well, I’ve never really received any help or support from men before in my life,” I responded.
“Maybe you don’t seem vulnerable enough,” he said, ‘Unfortunately the “strong/independent black woman’ label scares people.”
His response gave me pause. It literally cut me to my core. Somehow, I once again became the culprit of my own dismissal by men; the scary strong Black woman, despite never labeling or viewing myself exclusively as such. The failure of the men in my life and surroundings to understand and acknowledge my vulnerability, to offer support was somehow my fault. And, sadly, he was not the first man to make that accusation. To excuse the men who were a part of my life of the responsibility of being that support system. To excuse them of the burden of redemption for never doing so. That burden was mine alone to bare as a Black woman.
I once dated a man who pressured me to reach out to my father who had not been a part of my life for over a decade. At the time, I was 19 years old. I explained to him that my father had been both emotionally and physically abusive in the past. That my mother left her homeland, driven out by his abuse and degradation– leaving her three children (I then barely a year old) in the care of her mother, my grandmother. He assured me that perhaps it was all just a misunderstanding. That I did not have the “whole story”. After all, it had been years since I had spoken to my father. And in my boyfriend’s opinion, perhaps provocation from my mother could’ve pushed him to be that frightening, uncaring man I vaguely remembered from my childhood.
“There’s always two sides to a story,” my then boyfriend assured me, “and most of the times, men don’t get to tell theirs.”
In the end, he concluded that I should have a relationship with my father. That it was healthy, necessary even. That our separation was probably my mother’s fault, because she was too strong and demanding. And I, desperate for answers and love, entertained his theory.
I reached out to my father and began talking to him on almost a daily basis. He answered each and every one of my calls, greeting me lovingly and with excitement, like a parent truly desperate to rekindle a relationship with a long-lost child. Our conversations, that sometimes lasted hours on end, left me with a renewed feeling of hope for the father I never had. They also made me second guess my mother’s role in their separation.
“I’m sure your mother never told you, but she had postpartum depression after she had you,” he revealed one day in a whisper, “she didn’t even want to hold you.”
I accepted his confession with a quiet, “umhuh”, a sting of resentment towards my mother that pierced my heart and left me hushed. All of a sudden, my then boyfriend’s theory became more plausible. Perhaps, I had not given my father a chance to tell his side. Perhaps we had been robbed of the opportunity to build a relationship together because of my mother. And finally, here was the opportunity to start anew.
I planned a trip to go visit him in Trinidad and Tobago, the country of my birth, one summer. He walked over to me outside of the airport pulled me tight into his embrace. It felt good to be there. Within a few days of our meeting, he pushed his finger into my face and screamed at me because of a minor disagreement. No one had ever raised their voice or their hand at me before in my life. I returned home from the trip in shock. We continued to speak, though with less frequency, even after that incident. My dream of having a loving, caring father in my life had began to crumble. But some part of me still refused to let go. Some part of me still expected he would find a way to redeem himself. For that reason, on my birthday, I found myself glued to my phone for the entire day. I was awaiting his call. One that he had never made during all the years of my existence that I could remember. The simple gesture of a father calling his child to say “happy birthday.” I waited in vain. The call never came and finally the anger erupted from within me that had been pent-up over the years. I called him the following day to inquire why he had not made the effort to wish me a happy birthday.
“That’s the thing about you women,” he responded, “always with the guilt trips.”
That was the last conversation we ever had.
I was forced to reconsider my reconsideration. My father was the self-absorbed, emotionally abusive man I always understood him to be. But why was it so easy for me to dismiss the hurtful experiences that forced me to come to those conclusions? The experiences of my mother that drove her from her birthplace, home and children? And why was it so easy for the man in my life, who was supposed to care for me, to enable me in doing so? In a society made to benefit and empower all things male, women are often blamed for their own victimization. I allowed myself to be entrapped by a powerful ideology that allows men to avoid culpability for their shortcomings and wrongdoings.
That same ideology labels young girls who are victims of rape, perpetrators of the crime of impropriety, while the actions of rapists remain unquestioned. That same ideology makes my vulnerability– and that of all women who walk this planet– invisible to the men who should see it the most. It gives the men who stood on street corners yelling sexual overtures and obscenities at me, as a girl and a young woman, a pass. It dismisses the stories women tell of their experiences, hurts and pains brought on by the men with whom their share their space, life, personhood or love.
The following year, I apologized to my mother. I too, had found a scapegoat: A Black woman. The woman who loved me more than life itself. And I felt ashamed. However, I do understand what made that line of reasoning and logic appealing. I wanted to have hope for my father and our relationship. I wanted to have hope for the goodness of men. Even if it meant dismissing my womanhood and my struggle.
In truth, hope alone is not enough. Hope alone does not bring about change. Change requires acceptance. Acceptance forces us to acknowledge and face the harshest realities and seek true solutions. For many women, the reality that the men who are supposed to love, cherish, protect and support them simply may choose not to is unavoidable. But, sadly, we simply do not know how to inspire change in those men.
That is because we do not have the power to. Dominance and oppression tells us to second guess our sound judgement and reason; to dismiss ourselves and our experiences. It also blames us for that which we have little to no control. Those oppressive factors are both external– friends, lovers and even friends–and so dutifully internalized.
However, it is the woman’s duty to her foremothers, and the future generations of young girls who must face such hurtful realities daily, to confront and be honest about them. To stand up to the men who enter her life and tell them that they are charged with the task of inspiring change amongst other men. They are charged with the task of succeeding where other men have failed. That women, alone, will not carry the burden of male society’s redemption. That we will not be blamed or scapegoated for being vulnerable victims. And if that vulnerability somehow is not evident to the men who are aware of our stories, hurts, past and histories, it is our duty to ourselves to never allow it to be denied.
Image Credits: Getty Images