Intersections of Trauma, Courage and Vulnerability: Living into the Legacy of MLK

Samara and Delma

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” Audre Lorde

Forward:

The Civil Rights Movement married the principles of social justice with the sensibilities of the Southern Baptist Church–which included, among other social norms, the idea that while “the Negro woman has done so much to bring the race so far…” but was “done at the expense of the psychological health of the Negro male” who is “frequently…forced by circumstances into the position of a drone.”  (C. Eric Lincoln, 1966). In remembering the legacy of King, we must not shy away from the ways in which various forms of social oppression remained part and parcel of the movement he helped bolster. In fact, even as King did the work, his colleague, the Rev Bernard Lee noted that King was “absolutely a male chauvinist. He believed that the wife should stay home and take care of the babies while he’d be out there in the streets.”

This spirit of patriarchy was not confined to the Civil Rights Movement, but carried on into the Black Power Movement as well.  Elaine Brown, the only woman to lead the Black Panther Party noted that, “A woman in the Black Panther Movement was considered, at best, irrelevant. A woman asserting herself was a pariah. If a black woman assumed a role of leadership, she was said to be eroding black manhood…”

In the spirit of justice, solidarity, King’s legacy, and contemporary conversations around the “voiceless” masses of girls/women during the age of #metoo, and renewed interest in the accusations against R. Kelly prompted by Dream Hampton’s work,  we present an ongoing “conversation” between two members of the CWC team. One–a survivor of violent sexual assault. The other–a contributor to the very rape culture that makes such assaults possible. While this conversation began three years ago, and continues to evolve, we humbly present this submission as a peek into the intersection of toxic masculinity and the resulting, collective, ongoing assault against half the earth’s population…  

-Delma Jackson III

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Delma:

I’d love to write a pedestaled, puff-piece pontificating about the moral failings and penile perversions of other men—implicitly extolling my own virtues for the world to see.  I’d love to write a piece that attributes the lack of sexualized controversy in my life to an inherently industrious; well-oiled moral compass. Truth-be-told, it took a huge village, with an “all-hands-on-deck” approach, to consistently turn this boy-child away from the more popular, hyper-patriarchal pitfalls and toward an adult who didn’t regularly harass half the planet’s population.  

Half.  

The herculean effort it takes to make one less harasser? Imagine a city-wide effort to guide a single, blindfolded person safely across town—every day—for decades.  Sexual assault and/or harassment is that pervasive and dangerous.  In fact, it’s the stuff of nightmares…


Samara:

It’s every woman’s worst nightmare.
We’ve been prepared for it since we were young.
Children barely bleeding rehearsing for the “what if“ that we all know too well.
As a girl child, I lived in the woods.
I was terrified to get the mail after dark, but I did it.
Each time, I imagined him behind a tree, in the shadows, waiting for me.
This man of my imagination.
This nightmare that we are always prepared for.


Delma:

Most of us become monsters to be feared proportionate to our fear of the monsters we’ve had to face….Many of us have only known the monstrous from a distance—a 3rd party…the tv, a side comment, a parade of locker-room lies because what actually happened just isn’t risqué enough…

However, some of us know the monster more intimately…we’ve been assaulted and seen those we love likewise attacked…known the helplessness and shame of our “masculinity” proving insufficient to protect ourselves and/or those we love…Some of us heal…the rest of us become the very monsters we feared and our nightmares survive as we impose them on others…


Samara:

I saw him in the lobby as I turned my key to the heavy door with already broken locks. He was pacing with a nervousness I didn’t trust. My intuition told me to turn around. My pride and kindness told me to shut up and go home. Don’t be silly. There are no monsters under your bed. No nightmares hiding in the shadows of the ancient oaks. I turned my key. I’m not a girl any longer. I smiled at him and said good evening. It was almost morning actually. That hour where night turns to day. Almost midnight. He averted his eyes. The elevator finally came, the smaller one I tended to avoid with the loud gate that slammed you in. And my gut screamed don’t get in there with him. But that would be rude.

As women we never want to be rude.


Delma:

As men, we never wanna be weak…

It’s why, at age 14, I carried a gun for a summer…the weight of it was comforting…everything I associated with manhood: control, strength, virility.  It was a promise that I could have what I wanted…because we never want to admit that the viscosity of our masculinity wasn’t enough to get us what we wanted —that thought is always accompanied by the idea that someone else’s brand is stronger—that they could’ve gotten the job done.  Giant boys, pining to be the Lord of the Rings—when most are not even Lord of the Flies…and we know it. Some of us deal…some of us lash out…


Samara:

My elevator came. The bigger one I’d always preferred. Pressed 5. Glanced up towards the streaky rusted mirror, the one I think that’s meant for safety, and saw the look in my own eyes. I looked different. Everything’s about to change, I said out loud. Surprised myself with the sound of my voice. The words that spilled out of my mouth in the midnight silence of my homecoming.

The elevator stopped on the 2nd floor. He pushed me against the back wall, coated with decades of yellow paint. “If you look at me, I’ll kill you”, he said over and over like a mantra. This was the day I didn’t die by the weight of his trembling finger on the trigger pressed against my temple.

My temple
Sacred

Despite his rage and grief and sickness

Desperate

Pressed against his suffering

The corner of the elevator

Piss stained and silent

On the second floor

Neck broken

Heart broken

Hovering above my own body

I watched as he robbed me

This stranger

of my safety

Sacred

A boy cloaked in the body of a man. Frightened. If you look at me, I’ll kill you.

I was one of four women. That we know of.


Delma:

I’ve masked my insecurity in sexual intercourse–telling women what I thought they wanted to hear in order to access their bodies and feed my ego. I’ve used sexist language to demean women whose comments made my flaws visible. I’ve allowed my homeboys to make jokes, passes, or unsolicited gropes at a woman’s expense. I’ve turned the other way when I knew a woman needed help, simply because I didn’t find her attractive enough.  When I was 17, I physically threatened a woman that dared to suggest I was “bad in bed.” I’ve made a lot of bad choices when it came to the girls/women in my life. From the time I was a little boy to well into my adulthood…#itwasme


Samara:

I tried not to cry.

Tried not to scream.

Tried not to die.

Whatever I had to do to survive –

To stay alive.

His lips were tight.

His face was cold.

His eyes were scared.

And I took care of him.

A figure clinging to manhood though his voice nearly cracked with his own trauma and shame. It was a full moon.  So bright. So knowing. I count moons now. It’s taken me a while to trust them again.

I wonder how many secrets live under those layers of paint.

I wonder if he has nightmares like I do.

Manchild locked in a cage as I grieve for both of us, for all of us.

His father was murdered on the same night he gripped that gun many moons before when he was only three. Shot to death on the very same night. He was only a boy.

I will never forget the weight of that gun against my head, my lower back, my waist. Perhaps it was that weight that comforted him.


Delma:

I was a boy carrying a gun…feeling like a man, because cold steel makes for hot summers replete with all kinds of false promises.  And at the end of the day…isn’t that what fragility is built on?


Samara:

It wasn’t supposed to go like this. Nightmares are supposed to stay under the mattress, in the shadows, unexpressed.


Delma:

I wonder why we so often straddle the fence–us heterosexual men…so many of us pretending like we could care less about the very people we often care the most about.  

I wonder what it really means to care–where is the line between care and narcissism–especially when that “care” comes in the form of coercion.  Nothing screams, “I’m overly invested in a patriarchal self,” quite like forcing others, if only for a moment, to bow down to those very messages…we are to be feared, dominate…enough.   

I wonder what price we all secretly pay for overly-investing in a sinking ship–over-polishing the furniture on the Titanic…even as we feel it sink?

I wonder what reoccuring nightmares go unacknowledged–playing out amongst our fraternity from California kings in penthouses to the comfortless cots in projects and prisons.

Samara:

I bet his cot is uncomfortable. I wonder if he stretches in the morning. If he prays at night. If the moonlight reaches his cheek as he sleeps. How many layers of paint coat the wall of his cell. If he’s been hurt like he hurt me.

How many secrets?

Delma:

From me, to Cosby, to Kelly…our secrets run deep…and our commitment to keep them runs even deeper. Peruse social media to see the fraternity that is masculinity in all it’s fragility…

So much healing needs to be done…so much. Unfortunately, for most of us, it’s not as simple as, “did I assault or did I not assault.” Unfortunately, there are degrees, and too many of us have graduated somewhere on the spectrum.

starting with me.  

If I’m being honest with myself, there is no pedestal for me to stand on…I’m right there with the next man.  I’m just as desperate for healing as the next man. And that healing is gonna have to come from…the next man…

Samara:

I hope he is healing. I am trying to heal.

May the little boy inside him find a place to cry.

May the little girl inside me find mine too.

May ancient oaks and full moons comfort us and remind us how small we really are.

A boy. A girl.

A man. A woman.

Healing.

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that  prisoner was you.” Lewis B. Smedes

Afterward:

Hurt people hurt people. This, we know. We also know that open people, open people. How, then, do we cultivate communities that are accountable to one another—engaging tension in courageous conversations as we work across our differences? At Center for Whole Communities, we acknowledge the limitations of language as we attempt to honor the many aspects of difference and intersectionality we embody.

Ann Pellegrini, Professor of Social & Cultural Analysis and Performance Studies at NYU, identifies the movement of the crisis—the outside event which shatters into the personhood of the ‘victim’—when she posits that, in trauma, what is outside has come inside, has been internalized. She acknowledges the importance of a witnessing community in regard to one’s telling of her story. To be witnessed is to move one’s story from the inside to the outside, where it may be held by more than just the teller. The witnessing community shares the responsibility of acknowledging and addressing the wound.

So as we find ourselves deeply entrenched in the epicenter of testimonies unearthed, may we consider that “telling trauma’s story (can) become the condition of coming to know it.” Cathy Caruth has configured trauma as that which lies beyond representation—that which was not experienced as it happened or when it occurred. Accordingly, “it is not available to consciousness until it exposes itself again.” Many of us experience feeling triggered as we are asked to hold the stories emerging at an escalating pace.

How do we both prioritize self care—tending to our own healing and honoring our own boundaries—while holding fast to Dr. King’s potent reminder that “(your) freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom”? As we bare witness to the stories among us and within us, perhaps we can lean into this opportunity to participate in our collective liberation.   

~Samara Gaev

Samara Gaev is a Brooklyn-based activist, educator, theatre director and performer who uses arts for anti-racist leadership, inclusive of youth development and restorative justice. Gaev uses performances as a tool for cross-cultural healing and social change. Her work examines and challenges constructions of race, class, the prison industrial complex, hetero-normative codes, and systems of oppression that not only excuse but enable cycles of violence.
Delma is a senior trainer and faculty member at CWC. He received his undergraduate degree in African-American Studies and Psychology, and his Masters in Liberal Arts with a concentration in American and African American Studies at the University of Michigan. Her regularly lectures on a variety of socio-political topics with a special emphasis on intersectional approaches to social justice.