“Keeping your mouth shut is a great virtue. As in don’t tell anyone else about it—Silence is golden.”-American proverb (1848)
“Silence is of great value? Not to the victims who suffer in silence.”
-Dr. Micheal Kane Clinical Traumatologist & Forensic Evaluator
“All great truths begin as blasphemies.”- George Bernard Shaw
Dear Dr. Kane:
I find it distressing that you are personally attacking the institution of the church within the black community. If you are going to write about us, I would appreciate that you focus on the good things we do and not publicly air our dirty laundry.
There is a saying: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”
Unmoved Churchgoer, Seattle, WA
My Dear Readers:
George Bernard Shaw once said: “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”
There are those within the African-American community who, due to their unwillingness to transform, will view my writings as attacks on the institutions that they are seeking to protect. For some, silence can be a beautiful thing, for others, an ongoing nightmare.
Historically, church elders and others in leadership positions within the African-American community have been willing to silence the voices of those among us who have been sexually victimized out of the fear that the impact of such disclosure will injure the reputation of the community and institution the assailant may have been associated with.
The recent church scandal in Seattle, where a local pastor sought to cover up acts of sexual assaults by the church’s youth minister, is an example of this. The youth minister was ultimately sentenced to 22 years in prison, and the church and its pastor agreed to a financial settlement out of court with several of the victims, but to this day, the pastor and the church leadership continue to maintain their silence on the subject, both in terms of their own experience, and on the issue in general.
There was no community discussion of this sordid incident. The only information that was available to the public came from local and national media sources. Meanwhile, the ten male victims were relegated to invisibility by the community’s silence, and remain there today.
Judy Jones, associate director for a survivor network for those abused by members of the clergy, acknowledges the importance of discussion and sharing for victim recovery:
“Your silence only hurts, and by speaking up, there is a chance for healing, exposing the truth, and therefore protecting others.”
And yet, many of these victims, now young adults or just beginning to enter adulthood, remain silent. Why? In understanding the impact of complex psychological trauma, there are several reasons they would refrain from talking about what happened to them:
- The lack of community validation or the possible loss of their social support system
- Feelings of shame, guilt and humiliation that are not processed due to the silence
- Being held partially or entirely responsible for the harm that befell them.
Consequently, these children grow up feeling alone and isolated. As adults, they may experience a degree of medical and psychological problems including
- Substance abuse
- Eating disorders
- Suicidal ideation
When will the African-American community cease ignoring the pain of these victims?
Now. Social media has arrived, and times are changing. Young people are now empowering themselves by taking action and forcing the issue of sexual assault into the light.
One recent incident involves two students from well-known and elite black colleges in Atlanta, Georgia: Morehouse College and Spelman College. Both are single-gender colleges—Spelman is female-only, and Morehouse is male-only—and they are known for the development of leaders in the corporate and political settings.
Media reports indicate that a Spelman freshman was raped by four Morehouse students.
- The student reported the incident to the Spelman’s Public Safety Department and was sent to the hospital for a rape kit.
- However, it took the college a month to respond and when they did, the victim was asked whether she was drunk and what had she been wearing during the attack.
- The victim states that she was encouraged to “let the action go,” due to the relationship between the two schools. As a result, she left the college.
The action (or, in this case, inaction) by both schools created a firestorm of controversy that the school administrators could not control. There have been ongoing student protests and commentary in social media, under the hash tags #RapedByMorehouse and #RapedAtSpelman.
The students are seeking to achieve the following:
- An acknowledgment of the nature of rape on college campuses
- Push college administrators to do more to address sexual violence on campus
- Foster discussion of the unique dynamics that make it difficult to report sexual assault by black men
Both Spelman and Morehouse have responded to the firestorm controversy.
The colleges have stated they are conducting ongoing investigations, but the Atlanta Police Department, which has jurisdiction over both campuses, states that it is not investigating any incident of rape at either college.
Will there ever be a criminal investigation of this incident? Hopefully the students will keep the pressure on both college administrations. The relationship between the two elite schools must play a backseat role when it comes to the protection and welfare of its students.
What will it take for the black community to acknowledge and openly address the impact of sexual abuse in our midst?
Transformation. Dramatic movement is beginning now with our younger generations. The Spelman freshman left school because of being pressured by administrators and the lack of support. Students at both colleges, using social media, forced the issue into the open, keeping it alive and not allowing the school administrators to blame the victim. Instead, they are seeking answers around the safety and security of their campuses, and the respect of the school in managing and investigating those times when they fall short. Most importantly, they are seeking an open dialogue regarding the unique and changing relationships between women and men.
The rape victim at Spelman will not become invisible. Rather than close their ears to the suffering, the students at the two colleges embraced the victim, keeping the incident alive via social media and seeking change within their community.
The history of slavery, segregation and domestic terrorism are key factors in the behavior of both the church leadership in the first case, and the school administration in the second. Shame, humiliation, and learned powerlessness are historical factors, which are well known within the African-American community. For many, the focus was to survive their circumstances, and in order to do that, they had to keep their heads down, and do nothing about the harm to others that occurred around them. This behavior has been passed down from generation to generation.
However, today we can empower the psychological self. We can speak out when we see wrong is being done. We can embrace those who are suffering and create options that will impact their recovery and the recovery of our own communities. We can and must want to do more and stop settling for less.
I see the beginning of this transformation with the words of Mary Schmidt Campbell, President of Spelman College:
“We are a family and we will not tolerate any episode of sexual violence. No person should ever have to suffer and endure the experience she or he has recounted on social media.”
“In the end,
We will remember not the words
Of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
-Martin Luther King Jr.
Until the next crossroads…. the journey continues…