From a young age, as far back as I can remember, I have seen, heard, thought and experienced things that no one, let alone a child, should ever have to experience.
I grew up in Harlem, and like many other black girls I was “adultified” at a very young age. Although my mother tried to protect us, being pretty girls in Harlem meant the women in our family were subjected to near-constant sexual harassment and disrespect from the men we encountered.
Despite the scowl my mother wore on her face to deter their attention, she could not hide her natural beauty. She was powerless, as was I, and we could do nothing to stop the harassment.
As I entered adolescence, I began to understand firsthand what she endured at the hands of black men, both young and old, from our own community. I would walk extra blocks to try and avoid men on street corners, including one particular man who harassed me every time I saw him. A man once threw an object at me when I ignored his catcalls.
After moving to South Carolina as a teenager, I was sexually harassed at church by popular men within our faith community. No one ever knew because I could not tell my grandmother or aunts. If I had, I’d be blamed or labeled as being “fast” or acting “too grown” for my age. I witnessed women in my family victim-blame and shame other girls and women who were known to receive such attention, regardless of whether these women sought it out.
I also witnessed men in my own family berate and abuse their wives physically, financially, emotionally and spiritually. But we stayed silent, never interfering in things that we were raised to see as none of our business, because when we did speak up, the women mostly sided with their perpetrators or returned home.
Recently, I learned that my grown daughter endured similar harassment as a teenager. She even resorted to taking taxis to and from school without our permission to avoid these predators. I was saddened and distraught at the fact that I’ve watched three generations of my family suffer harm at the hands of our community, and it seems as though nothing has changed.
Over the course of my life, the most significant thing I can tell you about these instances, and countless others, is that on almost every occasion people have stood by and watched the harassment, inappropriate language, nonconsensual touching and even assault of black women without saying a word.
There was no bystander accountability or intervention. In fact, catcallers were often cheered on by their friends. And while people might be upset to hear someone was beating his pregnant girlfriend, no one stepped in.
Based on my own experiences, it’s no wonder sexual violence disproportionately impacts black women. Statistics show that 35% of black women experience some form of contact sexual violence during their lifetimes, and 1 in 4 black girls will be sexually abused before the age of 18. These numbers are staggering, especially considering that sexual assault is underreported.
As we begin Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we must find a better way forward. We cannot continue to stay silent within the black community and watch our women and girls be harassed and abused. And we cannot change what we refuse to acknowledge.
We must recognize our past behaviors and harms so we can begin to heal from historical, intergenerational and community trauma. Black women and girls deserve the same outcry and protections as everyone else.
If we are ever going to rectify the social ills that have plagued the black community for centuries, we must move forward united for change. We must hold one another accountable, and we must begin today. We are generations past due.
Dr. Valerie Ekue is director of member support and community justice for the S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.