By Ahmad Greene
“By and by, when the morning comes
When the saints of God are gathered home
We’ll tell the story how we’ve overcome
For we’ll understand it by and by”
I come from a family of Black women survivors who have endured more than I’ll ever know. My own biological father was a drug addicted, womanizing domestic abuser. While my mother was pregnant, he verbally and physically assaulted her, and I’m convinced that it was only by the grace of a higher power that my mother survived and I could be born.
My grandmother was married to a polygamous Black male preacher who traveled across the United States impregnating Black women and leaving babies behind for those same women to raise by themselves. I am told that my great–grandmother left the South during the 1950s to head up north. I often wonder why she left, what had she experienced, and how those things were connected to racial and gendered violence. My great-great grandmother died very young from physical complications associated with the traumas of living in rural Americus, Georgia in the height of lynching and white-on-Black rape.
My mother, grandmother, great grandmother and great-great grandmother were heirs to issues of racial-sexual violence outside of their control. Raised by these Black women, I feel indebted to their HerStories. I have seen them overcome so many traumatic experiences, but I have also seen them hurt by a racist, patriarchal society where violence against Black women is enshrined.
Almost three weeks ago, I watched Mississippi Damned (2009) on Netflix and couldn’t help but think about how closely the family on screen resembled my own. Scenes of Black people dancing and singing to the blues and soul of our suffering coupled with painful images of Black women facing abuse at the hands of Black men hit my core. Black women hurt so greatly by misogyny and patriarchy that they succumbed to addiction, ended up in prison or were overcome by suicide ideation. Shots of Black children playing outside, desiring to eat what little crumbs were left on their kitchen tables, and crying loudly—yet, somehow, silently too—as sexual predators mercilessly violated their bodies, pierced the deepest parts of my soul.
I saw my family on screen, but I also saw myself. Though my narrative isn’t identical to the ones presented in Mississippi Damned, I saw undeniable semblances to the very real ways gendered and sexualized violence had undulated my own family and personal life.
Sammy raped Kari, and Mrs. Jenkins’* granddaughter molested me. I was about four or five years old when it happened at my childhood babysitter’s house. Mrs. Jenkins watched me just about every day when my mom or grandma had to work. Her granddaughter would help her watch all of us kids, playing with us while Mrs. Jenkins did crossword puzzles or watched some game show on television, or helping us fall asleep during nap time.
One day while she was supposed to be putting me to bed, Mrs. Jenkins’ granddaughter grabbed my genitals and rubbed them. She then made me touch her vaginal area. I was told—at four or five years old—to rub her clitoris and to keep rubbing until she said stop. At one point, I asked why she was so wet down there and she just moaned. I knew that none of this was right. It felt perverse. It made me feel guilty, nasty and sinful. My hands were sticky and my mind forever changed.
These things would happen repeatedly—day after day, after day, after day.
I’m now in my twenties. A few months ago, my mom asked why I felt so strongly about organizing against intimate partner and sexual violence in our communities and I told her that I was fighting so that she or any other woman would not have to experience what she did while I was an infant. My mom says she’s forgiven my biological father, though I don’t think I have.
In fact, it’s ‘unforgiveness’ that pushes me—a Christian minister—to mobilize against gendered and sexual violence. Unforgiveness. I’m not sure why exactly it’s so hard to forgive, but it is, and I cannot lie about my struggle in this area. Perhaps it’s those flashbacks to being in my mother’s womb as he called her everything but her name. Perhaps it’s those moments when she expressed utter fear at the thought of dropping me off at his house on those weekends when he’d beg to see me. Or maybe it’s because I can’t stop thinking about the time she let me go all the way to Maryland from New Jersey to visit him over a weekend, only for him to leave me with his mother as he did God-knows-what.
I have not forgiven, and maybe, just maybe, someday I will. I’m in no rush. I am my father’s seed, yet I do not want to grow into the man that my father was, because I am my mother’s son.
After I told my mom why I organize against sexual and gendered violence, I paused, allowing her the space to process what I had just said. I knew this conversation was too heavy for the pancakes, turkey sausages and eggs before us. I could tell she was re-remembering what she had been through as she almost broke into tears.
Something in me knew that this moment was not complete. I needed to get something off of my chest. I finally told her that I had been molested as a child. I felt that intimate (partner) violence in all its forms must be spoken and eradicated. At first, she began to blame herself for not noticing or even being able to protect me, and I quickly reassured her it was not her fault. I also told her that I wondered if my molester had been sexually abused herself. At some point, I became so concerned about my abuser that I had forgotten all about myself.
What are we to do when our families experience cycles of violence? Not just anti-Black racial animus at the hands of police and vigilantes, but sadistic, sexual violence that rears its ugly head in the places we think most safe—our homes, our churches, and our families? I struggle to press forward when images, sounds, and memories replay constantly. I see visions of my own abuse, but I hear over and over the stories of my dear friends who are also survivors of child sexual abuse. I hear my homies talk about the day when their “innocence” was stolen. I hear fellow youth ministers talk about being sexually assaulted in church. I hear the cries of children who were abused and told to hush. I hear “forgive, forgive, forgive,” when the violence is so blaringly in our faces. I hear my sisters in the struggle for racial justice speaking about intimate partner violence, rape, sexual abuse and sexual harassment while they yell, “Black Lives Matter.”
I see little Ahmad, crying himself to sleep, with no one to answer. I hear the little boy inside of me begging for the abuse to stop. I see Ahmad in my mother’s womb pleading “Mercy” to the man who would be my father. I see so much, yet hear so little outcry about the sexual and intimate partner violence in our racially unjust communities.
Two weekends ago, I listened to a sermon by the Rev. Dr. Leslie Callahan, pastor of the St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Philadelphia, in which she addressed intimate partner violence head-on. She asked, “Why is violence routine and why are we comfortable with violence?” (paraphrased), and ended by saying, “We spend our entire lives ignoring the voice inside—the child inside—saying this ain’t right, this ain’t just.” I will no longer ignore that voice. It is my guiding light and it is holy even as I stand against that which is unholy.
*Mrs. Jenkins is a pseudonym.
Ahmad Greene is a Black writer who loves the freedom he finds in words, a griot who can’t stop dreaming, and a minister indebted to rich ancestral stories and kinfolk tales.