Sexual Abuse And The Code Of Silence In The Black Community

Black women have been conditioned to be their brother’s keepers—and have allowed themselves to be perpetual victims by doing so.

Sixty percent of black girls have experienced sexual abuse at the hands of black men before reaching the age of 18, according to an ongoing study conducted by Black Women’s Blueprint.


1 in 4 black girls will be sexually abused before the age of 18. (Stone, R.D., No Secrets, No Lies: How Black Families Can Heal from Sexual Abuse, 2004)

Thirty percent of black women with documented histories of childhood sexual abuse were sexually assaulted in adulthood. (Siegel & Williams, Risk Factors for Sexual Victimization of Women, Violence Against Women 9, 2003)

For every black woman who reports a rape, at least 15 do not report (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2009)

Beyond these facts are our personal narratives on the issues of pedophilia and sexual violence (which also go hand-in-hand) in the black community. If you gather 10 black women in a room, it is likely that at least nine have been victims of pedophilia, street harassment, and/or sexual assault; or they have a friend, cousin, sister, aunt, mother, or grandmother who has been victimized.

Yes, just about all of us, and for me, both cases are true.

Even before I began to approach this topic from the perspective of an activist, scholar, and writer, I was well aware of the prevalence and sadly the accompanying silence surrounding pedophilia in the black community. I am currently editing an anthology, and there are a number of testimonies submitted that recall stories of sexual abuse and pedophilia. I have also presented and participated in a number of workshops, where these stories again surface.

Such stories are tied to, and are often the cause of poor health for black girls and women. This includes drug use, teen pregnancy, increased rates of HIV/AIDs infections, juvenile delinquency, and other behavioral issues that have contributed to black girls being the fastest growing demographic in the juvenile detention system.

In other words: Suffering abuse and constant harassment from a young age has many ramifications and negative consequences on the health (particularly mental health) and well-being of black girls and young women.

During the 1980s, the book and later the movie The Color Purple, written by Alice Walker, received much criticism, particularly from black men. Guided by what seemed misdirected anger, denial, and an inability to display empathy, they accused Walker of bashing black men and making them look bad under the public’s gaze.

These men had the greatest problem with the novel’s central character, Celie, later portrayed on the silver screen by Oscar-winning actress Whoopi Goldberg. From a young age Celie was raped by her stepfather, and eventually had two children from that sexual abuse.

Previous to this work, in 1970, Toni Morrison published The Bluest Eyes, which also centered on this issue of pedophilia and child molestation—and, of course, her work was not received favorably.

Barbara Christian, a groundbreaking black feminist and literary critic, actually dedicated much of her life to championing the voices and work of black women writers like Walker and Morrison. She pointed out the importance of their work from a literary perspective, and for providing a platform for discussing these various issues that impact the lives of black girls and women. Sharing these stories was just another way of saying that our experiences count and they are valid.

But the backlash and expectation that black girls and women remain silent—not daring to air out the community’s dirty laundry—continues, and so does pedophilia and sexual abuse/violence.

As a 6th-grader, I had a classmate who had a peculiar relationship with her “guardian,” and when she ended up pregnant, school officials finally got involved. We never heard from her again.

Then there are the stories of pedophilia and sexual abuse shared by high-profile black women, like Oprah Winfrey and Tisha Campbell-Martin.

There is the matter of the biopic on Aaliyah, which has garnered plenty of public attention. Much of the discussion centers around the casting for the movie, and little on her relationship with fellow singer R. Kelly, or whether it will even be portrayed in the film. R. Kelly had a romantic relationship with Aaliyah, and even married her when she was 15. Her family later had the marriage annulled.

This is the same R. Kelly who was seen on video carrying out sexual acts on a minor. Other young black girls came forward to talk about their own sexual experiences with him, but weren’t taken seriously. Why? Because black girls and women are rarely seen as victims. They are stereotypically viewed as the seductress, the aggressor.

Nonetheless, despite these realities of pedophilia and sexual abuse—which for me included being trailed during my walk home from school at the age of 9 by a man who began this harassment by asking me “do you know what sex is?”—so many black girls and women continue to remain silent.

But why do we keep quiet?

Why do we turn a blind eye when we see young girls dating and physically involved with adult men?

Why are we not calling out these adult men who seek out and purchase sexual services from child prostitutes?

Why do we just say “don’t leave the children alone with this uncle or that cousin” instead of ostracizing that individual?

Why are we expected to collectively hush up when the mere topic is breached?

Do we not realize that our silence means that we condone and enable this behavior?

There are plenty of reasons why we don’t speak up, but we’re sacrificing the health and well-being of generations of black girls and women primarily to protect their assailants, who are most often black men.

This abuse is not committed by strangers, but by men with whom these women are quite familiar.

Due to a history of racism, and the desire to protect black men from white supremacy and imprisonment, black women have been conditioned to be their brother’s keepers—and have allowed themselves to be perpetual victims by doing so.

While acting as human shields for black men, we have left our daughters vulnerable.

We are continuing to allow ourselves to be “Mules of the Earth,” as once eloquently stated by Zora Neale Hurston. It is time to lay down our burdens, and that includes the burden of this code of silence and the resultant guilt, hurt, and shame.

If you are ready to join other black women survivors of sexual violence, consider sharing your story with the Black Women’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission.

Cherise Charleswell is a Biocultural Anthropologist, Womanist, author/writer, Public health Researcher/practitioner, and host & producer of the Womanist Views radio show, as well a Segment Producer and CoHost of Feminist Magazine on KPFK 90.7/Pacifica Radio, and the Women’s Issues Chair of The Hampton Institute. Her current book projects focus on women and marginalized populations: “The Link Between Food, Culture, & Health Inequities in the African Diaspora” and Walking in the Feminine: A Stepping into Our Shoes Anthology.

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