While subconsciously reconciling my compartmentalized thwarted and grief stricken emotions regarding the legend Bill Cosby and the convicted rapist Bill Cosby, I noticed something occurring inside of me. I had completely become disoriented in my media-inspired, vicarious attempt to keep track of the detailed salacious, gritty and heart-wrenching stories of sexual assault and harassment women (and some men) have endured while working behind and in front of Tinseltown cameras. I was essentially burned out.
The need to be constantly aware of the latest sexual assault or harassment claim brought on media inspired emotional drowning as my brain swallowed too much (literally) man-made sadness. For too many of us, it is inescapable. We are forced to see the damage and consequential pain brought on by numerous local (almost always male) government officials, state representatives, senators and even president of “this here” United States. There have been so many gloomy stories of abuse and violence finally being brought to the light.
As of late, the confirmation of now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh has brought a new level of debauchery. His actions alongside the Republican party’s slimy maneuver of trying to not offend registered-Republican white women voters while at the same time standing behind “their man,” have taken the oxygen out of the room of sanity and caused much confusion and euphoria. Silicon Valley, higher education, and even the evangelical church are not immune to these acts of sexist injustice as well.
Sexual violence and harassment allegations have captured the US psyche. They draw one to believe the occurrence of sexual assault and harassment within Hollywood, branches of government, higher education, Silicon Valley, and God knows where else are simple examples of a society founded in white male privilege. It includes patriarchal privilege historically wielded widely by white males, but practiced to some degree by men in every racial-ethnic group. This gendered privilege has placed women at the whim of male physical, economic, academic, legislative and psychological dominance.
Today, the energy and power derived from the anger and frustration over sexual assault and harassment has generated a long overdue spotlight on a sexist system that creates and supports the injustice women have long endured, on the people who support and protect it, on and the darkness that was created to force the silence of the victims. Entrenched threats to the bodies, careers, minds and souls of anybody who publicly acknowledges the acts as highly unjust are easing as survivors seek public and monetary retribution.
Now I know way before the dam was broken with the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., President Donald Trump, comedian Andy Dick, former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court Roy Moore, actor Ben Affleck, Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., casino magnate Stephen Wynn, director Brett Ratner, news anchor Matt Lauer, Rep. Eric Massa, D-N.Y., filmmaker Paul Haggis, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and countless others (too many to mention without becoming physically ill), there was President Bill Clinton. Two decades earlier, there was Rep. John Young, D-Texas. And the repressive misogynistic beat goes on and on.
Women from the beginning of time have been subjugated by predominantly privileged white men who have operated as if their possession of a penis allotted them a right –– an unbridled freedom to ogle, sexually harass, grab, assault and rape without counteraction. Men from the birth of our nation have attempted to control every aspect of a woman’s life and body functions. Yet women have risen to be prospering survivors in a male-subjugated landscape. I have witnessed this along the intersectionality of gender and race. As a Black child, I became familiar with the illustrations of Black females in America anointed by non-Blacks with a degree of invisibility and debasement many women who are not of color could not fathom.
Therefore, my pride was understandable as I surfed through the cable news channels on January 20 and watched millions of women around the world energetically march to protest sexual harassment and assault. I began to even chant “Me Too! Me Too!” as my 1- and 4-year-old boys played in the living room.
But after each speech a mounting sense of recollection laced with fear began to creep into my mind. Within the emotional testimonies and speeches performed by the elite in music, television, politics and movies, I heard a theme that spoke of “believing all women.” In the weeks that followed, I observed male commentators and reporters on the more liberal channels pledge their alliance to the Me Too movement without hesitation in the context of high-profile accusations associated with Trump, Moore and comedian Louis C.K. The same feeling emerged when television networks showed video of congressmen and senators such as even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saying, “I believe the women.”
As a self-proclaimed “woke” Black man, the phrase reverberates abruptly off the pages of Black U.S. history, which creates angst in my soul. So much so that when new allegations surface, I cringe, cross my fingers and toes and pray the accused is not a Black man. Ridiculous? Maybe to those of a lighter hue. But I cannot help but fear the social and psychological repercussions of stories related to Bill Cosby and Russell Simmons to the American psyche. I am NOT saying they are innocent. I am saying I have certain fears.
Evidence of my fear is illustrated on the crying face of the 9-year-old Black boy in a Brooklyn store last week who was accused of sexual assault by a white female patron, now being called online as “Cornerstone Caroline.” She called for police assistance and accused the child of grabbing her backside. The store security’s videotape (thank God there was a tape) proved that her allegations were completely false. When I consider her actions, which I feel are based on black male racial stereotyping, and her sick undertaking to sexualize a 9-year-old little boy, I am reminded of what hangs from the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
The newly constructed museum was brought to life by the nonprofit Equal Justice Institute. The museum opened April 26, 2018 in Montgomery, Ala. to becoming the country’s first memorial to the legacy of enslaved Black people who were victims of white terroristic behavior — lynching. The names of Blacks symbolically hang from the rafters as evidence of a presumption of guilt and consequential violence. The museum gives voice to “strange fruit” hung from southern trees. The 4,000 Black men, women and children were not simply tortured, but savagely lynched, burned and castrated alive, and at times dragged on display for others to be reminded of their place within the white constructed racial hierarchy. White men, women and children who treated the cruelty as attending a circus or county fair, gleefully observed many of these ungodly incidents. If one has the stomach, evidence can be found in historical photos, postcards and newspaper clippings.
Many of the 805 etched steel markers suspended from the rafters of the museum illustrate limitless examples of “believe the [white] women.” Before the Civil War, many statutes were passed by white male politicians to provide a penalty of death or castration for Black men suspected or convicted of raping white women. Many whites believed lynching was necessary to protect the prized possession of a white man — the white female –– from the “human beast” of white-racist imagination, the Black man. Our country’s whites accepted this form of natural law as an appropriate measure to secure not only the sanctity of the white woman, but also the larger system of white racial oppression. The spark that gave fire to the Tulsa (Oklahoma) white race riots of 1921 and the 1923 white massacre of black citizens in Rosewood (Florida) were fueled by white allegations of rape. It has been noted that in 1900, on the floor of the U.S. Senate, the powerful Senator Benjamin Tillman (D-S.C.) stated:
We have never believed him [the Black man] to be equal to the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.
But for white men, the rules were and continue to be quite different. Historically, white rapists who victimized their female counterparts were likely to receive less severe punishment. For Black men, pure allegations were enough to invoke white mobs to capture the alleged rapists or forcefully break them out of prison or court. The sentiment and ideological perspectives regarding Black male sexuality that prompted these acts continued beyond the days of slavery. Movies such as “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), “Super Fly” (1972), and name your pick of a Tyler Perry movie, all personify and perpetuate fear of Black male sexuality. Regardless, the system that allowed Black men to be accused, tortured and murdered due to “believing the [white] woman,” by way of white mobs or an illegitimate justice system continues.
The infamous wrongful conviction of the Central Park Five in 1990 stands out. Black and Latino teenagers from Harlem were not only accused of raping a white woman in New York City’s Central Park, but also publicly “hung” by the media. The events that occurred after the rape revealed a city and nation’s horrid and sinful side –– a side filled with not only the white fear and false stereotypes of Black males, but a white disdain for those seen as “other.” A call to bring back the death penalty, overzealous police harassment and public attacks of Black men were rampant in the city. In fact, the media, and white people such as then simply millionaire Donald Trump, fed the city the raw meat that often nourishes the white psyche and reaction to Black men. Even after evidence proved the teens innocent, whites like President Trump continue to this day affirming their guilt.
Bob Allen, once a senior Republican, anti-gay legislator in Florida, was convicted in 2007 for attempting to solicit oral sex in a men’s bathroom from an undercover police officer. What was his defense? He said the undercover officer was a large and daunting Black man, therefore he felt he had no choice but to perform any act necessary to survive the encounter. In 1994, Susan Smith of Union, S.C., drowned her two children by rolling her car into a lake because a man she was dating in an extramarital affair did not want kids. She told police her children were carjacked by a Black man, only to confess nine days later. As Time magazine put it:
Susan Smith knew what a kidnapper should look like. He should be a remorseless stranger with a gun. But the essential part of the picture — the touch she must have counted on to arouse the primal sympathies of her neighbors and to cut short any doubt — was his race. The suspect had to be a black man. Better still, a black man in a knit cap, a bit of hip-hop wardrobe that can be as menacing in some minds as a buccaneer’s eye patch. Wasn’t that everyone’s most familiar image of the murderous criminal?
In 2008, Thomas McGowan, a Black man, was released after spending nearly 23 years in Texas prison for rape and burglary. With help from the Innocence Project, some DNA indicated he was wrongly convicted. In March 2017, the white Texas native Breana Harmon, 18, reported she was abducted by three Black men and raped. Two weeks later, she confessed to lying to authorities and was offered a sentence of probation and ordered to pay $10,000. In 2007, the white female Carolyn Bryant Donham recanted parts of her 1955 accusations of sexual harassment that led to the abduction and ghastly murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy visiting family in Mississippi.
Currently on many college campuses, sexual assault and harassment issues are finally being taken seriously. However, Harvard law professors Jeannie Suk and Janet Halley have criticized new university policies related to sexual assault, arguing against an ideological and legal perspective that always and undiplomatically believes all accusers. They have found the majority of sexual assault complaints at Harvard were brought against students of color, which feeds into the unjust over criminalization of male students of color.
During the horrific murder of nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, the young white shooter Dylann Storm Roof allegedly told churchgoers:
You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go.
He meant Black men. I could provide much more, but you could lose your way navigating the historical and contemporary injustice pertaining to Black men and the concept, “believe all the women.”
I know those women survivors and the empathetic allied parties to the Me Too movement will probably receive my feelings badly. And I get it. These survivors have been forced into darkness and silence for far too long and the newly created space to tell one’s hard truths is roaring like a necessary tidal wave. However, after the proverbial dust settles, and the fiery speeches of condemnation begin to wither, maybe our country will begin to make space for honest conversations from all sides of the issue where we can begin to apply specific contextual and situational parameters to realities of sexual abuse and harassment. I hope that we will be able to apply a clear racialized lens to allow those of color to be fully seen and heard. Just maybe we can all one day be on a new page of #MeToo.
Signed, Dr. Terence Fitzgerald