It is Friday afternoon, a crisp October day. I’m sitting at my desk looking at the clutter and thumbing through the message slips that have piled up through the week. I’m trying to determine which calls to return now and which can wait until Monday.
I go through the messages again, deciding to make a game of it, see who left the most messages and call that person back first. I sort through the pink slips, laying them in rows on top of the paper that clutters my desk.
There is a tie between three people who left three messages each. I sort once more, to find out which of the three called first. It is Maura Sanderson. She wins. I pick up the phone to call Maura, but before I can push the button to open a line, my phone rings.
“Hi, Mom.” It is my thirteen-year-old daughter, Ebony. There’s no school today. Usually I’ve heard from her three or four times by now on a school-out day, but this is the first time she’s called today.
“Well, hi, how ya doin’?” I ask, brightening up.
“Fine,” she says.
“Wuzzup?” I ask.
“Nuthin’,” she replies after a pause. She is a naturally soft-spoken child, but her voice is even softer now.
“Well, whatcha doin’?”
“Nuthin’,” she repeats.
“Is your road buddy still there?” Maybe Kyra, her best friend, who spent the night last night, has gone home and she’s bored.
“Yeah, she’s here.”
I listen a little longer but she’s still silent. “Is something wrong?”
“Yeah.” I recognize fear in her voice and in her breathing.
“Do you want me to come home?”
She doesn’t answer.
“What’s the matter?”
Finally she says, “You know that boy Robert?”
“What boy Robert?”
“You know the boys that me and Elena and Kyra were talking to when you came home from work that day?”
“You mean the ones who took off on their bikes when they saw me drive up?”
I’m sure she’s going to tell me that Robert’s been killed. I don’t remember those boys all that well, and I certainly don’t know which one was Robert. But I don’t want to hear that another young Black man has been murdered.
“He came over,” she says finally.
“Is he still there?”
“He didn’t come over today.”
“Well, okay. When did he come over?”
“A couple of weeks after school started.”
I look down at my hand, aware that I’m still holding Maura’s message. I put the pink slip down, place the receiver between my ear and my shoulder, and move my headwrap away from my ear so that I can hear her better.
“Where was I when he came over?”
“At work. It was right after school.”
“Did he do something to you?”
I picture her curled up in her favorite corner of the sofa staring at the TV screen, her thick black eyebrows knit together in a slight frown, her worried look.
“Please tell me what happened!” I wipe my sweaty palms on my jeans and notice rings of perspiration forming under my armpits.
“Well . . . he . . .”
“Did he touch you?”
“Did he . . . rape you?”
“Not exactly . . . well . . . kind of.”
Suddenly, as though a light bulb has exploded in my head, I know exactly when it happened. I remember that day last month when I called her after school, when the phone rang and rang but she didn’t answer. Nor did the answering machine pick up my call. I called back several times and was about to ask my neighbor to go over and check on her when she finally answered. She was in the bathroom, she said, and didn’t hear the phone ring. I remember asking if something was wrong because her voice sounded like it does now. I woke her up, she said; she was taking a nap, she was tired.
I remember feeling a little suspicious because she never takes naps. But she had a busy summer, and now that she is in junior high she has to get up at 5:30 to catch the school bus on time. Besides, Tania, who always got home first, has gone away to college, and for the first time in her life Ebony is home alone after school every day.
“Why didn’t you tell me about this sooner?” My voice is shaking along with my cold hands.
“You would be mad at me.” A pang of sadness washes over me as I realize she didn’t think she could trust me.
“What changed your mind?”
“We saw a movie in school, and my friend Peter asked me why I looked so sad. I told him about Robert and he said that if I didn’t tell my parents he was going to tell them.”
“What was it about the movie that made you feel so sad?”
“Well, it was about . . .”
“Was it one of those movies about date rape?”
Her silence is my answer. I tell her I’ll be right home, and I hang up, thinking about how ironic it is that the person she has chosen to confide in is a boy. I am happy that she is aware that they’re not all out to harm her.
I am preparing to leave when the phone rings again. It is an angry client who’s been trying to reach me all week. I try to deal with her in a professional manner but am unable to pull it off. Finally, I tell her I have to go, I have an emergency at home. I promise to call her first thing next week, but I don’t think she believes me.
I feel like I’m going crazy, but I manage to dial Ebony’s father and reach his voice mail. His message seems to go on forever. “Some little motherfucker forced himself on our baby,” I say to his answering machine.
I run out to the parking lot and am almost to my car before I remember that I forgot to tell anyone I was leaving. I rush back in to tell my supervisor.
“You’ve been taking too much time off lately,” she said. “If you leave now it won’t be good: I’ll have to take measures.”
I try to recall the last time I have taken any time off, but all I can think of are a few hours here and there for doctor’s appointments, time easily made up by the frequent late nights and weekends that are part of my job.
“My daughter was raped, I have to go.”
“Well, just remember this conversation,” she says to my back as I make my way out the door and rush to my car.
Oh, I’ll remember that conversation, all right. I’ll remember being stunned that those words could be spoken by someone who was once a rape counselor.
The traffic moves slowly. Maybe that’s good, I think. It will give me time to collect myself.
I breathe deeply, inhaling peace and exhaling love, trying to center myself, as I learned in meditation class. But a picture soon forms in my mind, a discarded memory.
It is 1957. I am thirteen and in junior high school. I’m about to leave the school building when Jesse walks up and puts his arm around my shoulder. He invites me to walk to the far side of the building with him. I’ve got a crush on Jesse and am flattered that he has finally noticed me. But when we get to the far side of the school building, four other boys are waiting . . .
A horn honks behind me, jerking me back to the present.
As I put the car into first gear and step on the gas, the smell of blood mixed with semen engulfs me. I will have nightmares for many nights and the odor will stay with me for months.
Home now, I take my daughter by the hand and lead her up the stairs to my bedroom, my sanctuary. Her friend, Kyra, follows close behind.
I take her in my arms, rocking her like I did when she was a baby, even though she will soon be taller than I am. I control the tears that lie trapped behind my eyelids and try to coax the story out of her. She pulls away and buries her soft, cinnamon-brown face in a pillow. I want her to know that I understand everything she is feeling: the shame, the guilt, the fear, the humiliation. So I tell her about the boys who raped me when I was thirteen. This is the first time I’ve talked about it since I told my mother and the doctor, who said I was lying. I am amazed now that Mom chose to believe that white man in the white coat, that she never questioned the truth told by the bloodstains in my panties. I had put it out of my mind until this moment, when I am forced to recall it as Ebony haltingly tells me her story.
She sees Robert and his friend walking by when she gets off the school bus. Robert says he’s thirsty, wants to come home with her for a drink of water. “Oh, sure,” she replied. Her mother has told her not to have boys over when no one is home, but what could be the harm in giving a thirsty friend a drink, for Christ’s sake? Robert knows her sister has gone off to college and that her mother is at work. Nevertheless, he asks if anyone is home. She gives him a glass of water and now he wants to watch TV. She turns on the Black Entertainment Channel, goes upstairs to check the answering machine, then comes back and sits beside him to watch videos. She is thrilled when he places his arm around her shoulder; she’s had a crush on him since early in the summer. She thinks his kiss is a friendly indication that he is about to leave, but she couldn’t be more wrong. Before she knows what is happening, he throws her down on the floor and is unzipping her jeans. Fighting and screaming, she begins to cry and he lets her go. She runs upstairs and locks herself in the bathroom and tries to wash off his smell, trying to feel clean again.
The front door is open when she finally goes back downstairs. Robert stands in the doorway, seemingly contrite. He offers a weak apology, then adds, “But you know you wanted it.” The next time she sees him she will not look at him and will refuse to speak to him. He will call her a ho and will place his arm around the white girl he is with and will walk away, saying over his shoulder, “A Black bitch ain’t shit!”
MY DAUGHTER is lying on my bed and I am stroking her hair, which she hasn’t bothered to comb today. I feel my eyes narrow and the nerve endings in my fingers become raw. I recall our phone conversation, hear her telling me she wasn’t sure that Robert raped her. A rage builds up in me as I begin to realize that things haven’t changed in the thirty-some years since I was raped.
There wasn’t much back then to boost a colored girl’s confidence and self-esteem, no matter how encouraging her family may have been. Commercials for toothpaste and Clearasil featured fresh-faced blondes, and Annette Funicello was the star of the Mickey Mouse Club. If a girl who looked like me showed up on TV at all, she was a background singer for some dude who acted like she wasn’t there.
My children have seen the After School Specials and TV movies about date and acquaintance rape, but my daughter can’t relate those movies to her situation. The fresh-faced white actresses who portray the victims are nothing like her.
And then there are those music videos, like the one I heard in the background when she called me at work today, where some young brother is rapping about a sister’s big butt, or where young sisters with goofy expressions on their faces dance, sing, and shake their scantily clad little booties behind some dude who refers to them as bitches and whores. The message is as clear today as it was in the ’50s. Rape don’t be happening to no Black girls, uh-uh. We’s bitches. We’s ho’s. We ask for it, we want it, we just be beggin’ for it. We expect it!
Thirty-some years ago I was one of a small number of colored girls in my South Minneapolis high school class, passed over for dance line, flag line, the cheerleading squad, and the class play and was ignored as a possible candidate for student council. The thought of being homecoming queen was laughable at best. White boys flirted with us in private but turned their heads when they passed us in the hall. Colored boys sang, “Every time it rains, it rains pretty little white girls.”
Later, when Malcolm, Angela, Stokely, Nikki, and their contemporaries called out for Black Pride, the brothers asked us to wait until they got their act together. We sisters, believing they would struggle beside us, waited patiently. Instead, the struggle gave the brothers license to reject us more openly, flaunting white women and leaving us to raise their children alone. To this day, some powerful Black men who embrace Blackness in every other way comment that having a Black woman by their side is akin to remaining in slavery. This attitude gives our sons and daughters, perhaps the whole country, the message that, as Robert told my girl, “A Black bitch ain’t shit!” Is it any wonder that our young women have such serious self-esteem issues?
Her friend stands in the doorway to my room with a sad expression on her face. The phone rings and I ask Kyra to answer it. “It’s your dad,” she reports. I tell her about the message I left on her father’s voice mail.
“Why did you tell my dad?” she demands, her dark eyes glaring at me angrily.
“I just thought he should know.” He has been back in our lives for almost a year now, and I want to share everything with him.
“Aren’t you going to talk to him?”
She shakes her head and lies back down.
“What happened to my baby girl?” There is pain in her father’s voice as he wonders aloud why she won’t talk to him. It was just a couple of weeks ago that he told me how happy he is that they had overcome his lengthy absence from her life.
WE ARE SITTING around the kitchen table like three statues. My daughter holds her head in her hands, her eyes cast downward. Her father is rooted in his chair, his 6'3" height and 230 pounds are so still that he doesn’t appear to be breathing. He is an incredibly handsome man whose looks have improved with age. His skin is the color of freshly polished, fine-grained oak, and his intense eyes seem to peer right into your soul. His face bears the deceptively calm expression that was once a prelude to a night of violence and bloodshed in the streets. I know that later he will drive around for the better part of the night to avoid sleep and the inevitable nightmares about Vietnam that always recur during times of crisis. A week has passed since I got that call at work. We dealt with the police and the gynecologist, who assured us that our daughter is not pregnant and has not contracted the AIDS virus. We’ve also had a session with a therapist, who will work with both my daughter and me to try to help us sort this stuff out.
I have a feeling this story is just beginning.