Alice Walker, Spelman Women, Janese & The Suffering of Black Women For The Protection Of Black Men
Like many of you, I’ve spent hours reading Alice Walker’s work. And as much time as I spent consuming and internalizing her pieces of her mind, I hadn’t really looked at her face. If I had, I would have noticed that one of her eyes is different from the other. Not drastically different, but different. And in a recent sit down with The New York Times, I learned why.
With fellow author Colm Toibin, Walker talked about The Color Purple being loosely inspired by her own family history, particularly most of the terrible things she’d heard about her grandfathers. She said, “They’d been so mean when they were young. They were fine by the time I knew them, decades later. It was an enormous puzzle: What happens to people?”
And then later the interviewer, Philip Galanes, mentioned the family story of Walker’s grandfather shooting a rifle at her grandmother. She finished, adding the details.
“And only missing because he was dead drunk. They told that as a funny story. Can you believe it? I’m sure that’s why my brother shot me in the eye when I was 8.”
PG: How old was he?
AW: Ten. Poor thing. But everything that happens to us teaches us, if we are open to it. And eventually life will open you. What I learned from that moment in refusing to tell on him. …
AW: No, no, no. I was loyal. He would have been beaten by my parents if I’d told. So, my other brother and I conferred and came up with another story. And what I learned from that moment has served me so much better than what happened to my brother. I don’t think he ever cared, and his life was like that. He died, later, of cocaine and anger and frustration. He never apologized, so I’ve had to work with it forever. But I try not to cling to the things that are devastating.
Upon further research I learned that Walker was shot with a BB gun. And the appearance of her eye today, is a result of scar tissue forming over the wound.
It’s terrible what ultimately happened to her brother. But what struck me the most from that anecdote was the way she chose to protect him. He had physically injured her, causing permanent damage and yet she didn’t speak up because she knew he’d be beaten. She has to live with the effects of his decision to shoot her forever but she didn’t want him to be held accountable for his actions. And even though she suffered and saved him a beating, he still never managed to apologize.
It’s so interesting because, in my quest to analyze and compartmentalize, I don’t know if this is love or the affects of patriarchy. It’s probably both. But it also reminds me of the very problematic ways in which Black women are conditioned, throughout our lives, to protect Black men at all costs. Alice Walker talked about the violence her grandfathers perpetuated against her grandmothers as an acceptance, a continuation of the behavior that had become normalized during slavery.
Walker’s ancestors, like many of ours, had lived under abusive overseers, had their power stripped. And the one person in their lives the men could control were their wives and children. And not having healthy examples of how to interact with these people, they resorted to what they knew and had been taught for generations.
But what’s so interesting is not the men’s response. But the women’s. In many cases, instead of rebelling against the man, their man who was no better than the master or overseer, the women defended him, made excuses for his heinous behavior, found the humor in it or, in the case of Alice Walker, pretended like it didn’t happen to spare his reputation, feelings or shield him from punishment.
Alice Walker is not alone in her quest to protect. We saw it a few years ago when we watched Janay Rice take a hit to the face, be dragged from an elevator like trash and then marry her abuser, months later, all while making excuses. She told the world that they were both drinking, that it was the first time he’d done that. She shed tears at people calling her husband exactly what he was in that moment, an abuser.
We see it in the way Monique Pressley is being celebrated for defending the penultimate Black father figure, Bill Cosby. Even those who believe Cosby is guilty applaud her for abandoning morality and “doing her job” in the name of protecting the patriarch. It’s something.
It doesn’t just happen in America. Patriarchy is a worldwide epidemic. Last year, our editorial assistant wrote about women who were being condemned for standing up against the “child bride” system in Kenya, where girls as young as nine are betrothed to men in their late seventies. She also detailed a practice called “beading” where a girl is given to a male relative for “sex.” But if she gets pregnant with his child, she must have an abortion. And if she doesn’t, she will be disowned by the community. Again, a man gets to behave immorally. But when there is evidence of his actions, it is the woman’s responsibility to “clean it up,” “make it disappear” so he won’t be held accountable.
This theme came to mind again as I was reading the recent BuzzFeed article that profiled rape and sexual assault survivors from Spelman who had been the victims of Morehouse students. Not only did these women endure the tragedy of being assaulted by men they knew and trusted, their experiences became more traumatic as their stories were dismissed in favor of maintaining the pristine image of what a Morehouse Man is supposed to be.
The article went beyond the women of Spelman and spoke about the ways in which Black women across all college campuses were more likely to report sexual assaults if the perpetrator was a stranger or did not share their same race.
The article mentioned that in environments like HBCUs, whose very existence was founded on the premise of dismantling stereotypes about Black people aka respectability politics, women who find themselves victims of sexual assault at the hands of another HBCU student have to grapple with the burden of turning in or turning on one of their brothers, adding to the trope of Black men as inherent rapists.
I get it. Black men have caught hell. But so have we. And I even get defending and wanting to protect Black men. Many of them deserve just that. But what I can’t cosign is knowing someone, a brother, has done wrong and defending him anyway. I really can’t understand it when Black women don’t have to do anything wrong, illegal or morally reprehensible to be thrown under the bus or by Black men.
There are far too many times when Black men publicly, on social media, at the barbershop, in our families, condemn Black women, women they are supposed to regard as their mothers, sisters, daughters, and friends, for something as simple as the way she dresses, wears her hair, the type of men she dates, the amount of sex she has, or hell, even speaking her mind.
We read in horror at what happened to Janese Talton-Jackson last week when she simply told a man she wasn’t interested in him.
Some might argue that was one woman and one crazy man. But Janese is not the only woman who lost her life because a man’s ego was bruised. In 2014, there was Mary Spears. Last year there was the Black guy who was going around attacking Asian women because they didn’t find him attractive.There’s a whole Tumblr page dedicated to sharing the stories about the violence women endure when they refuse to protect a man’s ego.
There are consequences to not protecting men, and for the purposes of our specific discussion, Black men.
My question is what do Black women get out of the deal? What is the reward for protecting, rationalizing, suppressing and ignoring for our men? People will argue that it keeps the family together or that it prevents the White man from destroying us. But what it really does is ensure that we become complacent in and perpetuators of our own suffering.