For African American rape victims, a culture of silence

Times Staff Writer

There’s an old saying in the African American community: Black women raise their daughters and love their sons. A legacy of the atrocities of slavery, it signifies a communal protectiveness of black men, from the coddling of toddling boys to a reluctance to report rape and incest.

It’s not like a get-out-of-jail-free card. It’s born of a wariness of authority, especially white authority, learned from those stories about how your light-skinned sister got those gray eyes and your dark-skinned cousin got that keen nose, from those photographs of white lynch mobs and the beaten body of Emmett Till, a black teenager killed because of a wolf whistle.

“Remember, in this country black women have had to come to the aid of black men who were falsely being accused of sexual assault. Remember the movie ‘Rosewood’? That’s what it was all about,” says Sharon Shelton, the senior program manager of the YWCA Greater Los Angeles Sexual Assault Crisis Program in Compton. It wasn’t just a movie, it was history: In 1923, in Florida, the black town of Rosewood was obliterated by a white mob after a white woman claimed she’d been attacked by a black man.


” ... So it’s very difficult now to disclose that your perpetrator was indeed of your own same race,” Shelton says. And part of the reluctance, she explains, is the difficulty some black women have in finding “people who look like you” when they seek help.

Rape is one of the most underreported violent crimes, according to the Department of Justice, regardless of the victim’s sex, age, race, ethnicity, religion or class.

But as a group, African American women are the least likely to break the silence.

This phenomenon, first documented in 1981 by Gail Wyatt, a sexual behavior researcher at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, is now being addressed in self-help books and at rape crisis centers created specifically to serve minorities, such as the Rosa Parks Sexual Assault Crisis Center in South Los Angeles. It was also the focus of half a dozen workshops at the National Sexual Violence Prevention Conference held here in May.

At her workshop, CeCe Norwood, a counselor from Toledo, Ohio, gets right to the point. “With white audiences,” she says, “there are usually very basic questions they want to know: How is it different -- why are we black people less likely to report when these things happen? Why don’t more black people seek help? Why do we keep it to ourselves? ...

“Black culture makes it different,” she says. “Our culture makes us less likely to report.” She bases this explanation on her own experiences as a sexual abuse survivor “three times over,” years of counseling and surveying others, and federal statistics.

The black culture she refers to is a storytelling culture, rooted in the South before the decline of American apartheid. It comes with its own set of rules. “Blackisms,” Norwood calls them during her presentation. She cites a few, as many black workshop participants chant along with her, such as: “What goes on in this house, stays in this house.”


Protect, don’t expose

“Historically, we have learned the system, which in our minds is white folks, is not to be trusted,” she says. Historically, she adds, black people like herself are expected to protect, not expose, the black community.

Norwood says that when she finally told her family about being abused by her stepfather, they refused to believe her. Seeking information about incest and black women, she went to a public library.

“When I started in ’89 with my own recovery, there was only one book I could find, ‘Crossing the Boundary’ by Melba Wilson. I found nothing else specifically about the African American experience,” Norwood says. Charlotte Pierce-Baker’s “Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape,” the first book on that topic, came out in 1998.

At the conference, sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Norwood displays two current books: “No Secrets, No Lies: How Black Families Can Heal From Sexual Abuse” by Robin D. Stone, and “I Will Survive: The African-American Guide to Healing from Sexual Assault and Abuse” by Lori S. Robinson.

“It’s really clear that African Americans are having a particular problem,” says Robinson, here from upstate New York to lead a workshop on confronting sexual violence in black and Latino communities. She asks for “culturally specific” reasons that black women remain silent.

“The sisters don’t want to report the brothers because we know what’s going on in penal institutions,” says Terry L. Stevens, who works with the Family Service League in Waterloo, Iowa.


Robinson herself grew up in a family protective of black men -- especially of her older brother, who while away at college was falsely accused of mugging a white woman. This protectiveness runs deep in many black families.

“My parents are older, and they were from the Deep South. My father’s from Louisiana, and my mother’s from Arkansas,” Robinson says, recalling how they reacted to a news story about a black man who was accused of sexually abusing a white woman not far from their suburban Maryland home.

“I’m pretty sure my mom’s response was, ‘This is just racism.’ And my response was, ‘Are you kidding? If a white woman is not safe from him sexually abusing someone, you think a black woman’s safe?’ Part of it, depending on a person’s age, comes out of history and feeling the need to protect black men because of lynching and whatever it is that you have seen in your history.”

Another culturally specific reason revealed at Robinson’s workshop: black ministers untrained in rape counseling.

Remember when then heavyweight champion Mike Tyson was convicted of raping a beauty pageant contestant, Desiree Washington? The nation’s largest black religious denomination supported him with a rally and petition drive to keep him out of jail. “Our brother needs us,” the Rev. T.J. Jemison, then president of the 8.5-million-member National Baptist Convention, said at the event, which was also sponsored by the Nation of Islam, whose leader, Louis Farrakhan, had plenty to say:

“You bring a hawk into the chicken yard and wonder why the chicken got eaten up. You bring Mike to a beauty contest and all these fine foxes just parading in front of Mike. Mike’s eyes begin to dance like a hungry man looking at a Wendy’s beef burger or something. She said, ‘No, Mike, no.’ I mean how many times, sisters, have you said ‘No’ and you mean ‘Yes’?”


Little help at church

“Sometimes going to your pastor can be the worst thing you can do,” Robinson says, quoting a minister she interviewed for her book. In “I Will Survive,” the Rev. Linda H. Hollies, a United Methodist clergywoman who lives in Grand Rapids, Mich., makes this comment: “Can I say something that will be extremely controversial? Pastors and church folk are often the worst folk in the world to go to for confession and absolution. The average pastor does not have a clue about counseling. And what pastors need to do when they find somebody in a situation like ours is to refer them to a counselor, refer them to a spiritual director, refer them to a chaplain, refer them to somebody who knows what they’re doing with somebody’s emotions.”

Hollies, like Robinson, is also a rape survivor.

During her workshop, the author remembers: “May 15th, 1995, was a Monday.... I drove home around 10 or 11 that night.... I was a little startled because I noticed two men on the sidewalk.... But I said, ‘Why am I going to be scared of two brothers minding their own business?’ ”

She called the police the night she was raped. Within 24 hours she was on her way to counseling, accompanied by her mother, her sister and the new boyfriend who is now her husband.

“I didn’t get the victim-blaming comments that many people get, I think because what happened to me is people’s stereotypical idea of rape: strangers with a weapon. But only 7% of rapes involve a weapon. And the majority of people who are raped are raped by someone they know.”

Robinson’s co-presenter, Marta Sanchez, was at her grandmother’s house. Her attacker was a family member. Like CeCe Norwood’s, and Robin Stone’s.

Stone is not at the conference, but many participants carry copies of her book, “No Secrets, No Lies.”


“I don’t know if it is harder for children to tell,” Stone says by phone from New York, “but there are some factors that keep children from telling. We talk a lot about fear and shame.”

Black children have another burden. “Culturally, there’s this fear of betraying the family by turning someone in to the system,” Stone says. Families try to cope, “and meanwhile the offender is left to continue to offend. They really do operate in silence. It’s the silence and secrecy that enables them to thrive.”

An uncle molested her when she was a child, she says. Two decades later, she told her parents. “I had the opportunity presented to me to tell what happened. It was at my going-away party. The party was to be at this uncle’s house. I said, ‘I don’t want to go,’ and my parents asked why.”

Stone’s parents believed her. Aishah Shadidah Simmons, a Philadelphia filmmaker, says her parents did not.

Simmons’ documentary-in-progress, “NO!,” is premised on African American women breaking silences. In the film, many women -- including her mother -- reveal how they were discouraged from reporting a rape or an attempted sexual assault because the attacker was the highest-ranking black faculty member at the university, or a hero in the civil rights movement, or a black student on a campus where police officers were harassing black men.

Using the film to educate, Simmons wants black women who have the courage to tell to be trusted, not labeled as traitors. At screenings, she talks freely about being raped while a college student studying Spanish in the Yucatan. (“He didn’t take my ‘no’ for an answer.”) She is also out as a child incest survivor -- though she identifies her assailant only as a male relative and has never reported him.


“Why am I protecting a family member? Because I haven’t confronted him, that’s why. I feel like if I had confronted him, then I would feel OK,” Simmons says during a recent trip to Los Angeles. “To put it out there without even talking with him....”

Why coddle a black man who hurt her?

That’s a question for many African American women.