“The stories are endless, infinitely familiar, traded by the faithful like baseball cards, fondled until they fray around the edges and blur into the apocryphal.” – Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem
When they ask you to be quiet, speak louder. There is something in the sound of your voice that men in power and the women who love them cannot stand the weight of. It is conviction, or something like self-love in the midst of so much hatred for that thing which stirs within us and compels us to speak.
They will tell you he did not do it. I do not know. I trust him. I love him. He held me. He is my brother, my friend, my mentor. You have no evidence. Where is your proof?
Do not show them where you keep your wounds. Save that for your sisters. Keep a tally.
There was that time in Cutter you witnessed a man pin a woman half his size against the wall and kick her legs apart. You danced around them hoping someone would intervene. No one ever did and you did not feel safe enough to speak. That night you vomit into the sink of your bathroom. The next day, you do not go to class. That was not repentance enough for the sin of sacrificing another woman to the beast of black man love but you allow yourself forgiveness.
There was the boy you loved who remained silent as you defended yourself and your friend from a man bigger than the both of you. The boy could not betray his friend, so he betrayed you, and you loved him anyway.
The time you saw the freshman girl, drunk as she was, being persuaded to leave with the boy you know has a temper. The one who threatens to gangbang bitches when he’s drunk. You try to give her the eye, shake your head, say no as quietly as you know how and in the end, she does not go. You are relieved.
The time you were dancing with your girls and the DJ asked the men in the room to leave no woman dancing by herself. He picks you up from behind and places you squarely against the soft mound biggering beneath his sweats. For a moment you forget to breathe. When you turn around to face him he is already backing away.
There was the woman you loved who left school without finishing. She sat you down before she left, without telling you she was leaving, and told you where she kept the knives. You were on a balcony. You remember watching the night sky, the path that led into the forest, the windows glowing warmly in the house across the street and thinking: what would it look like to disappear from all this pain? After she left, the man who bled her dry would visit you at work and leer at you until you served him. You had panic attacks for months.
“He was drunk.”
“He was stone cold sober.”
“He threw his phone at me”
“He chokes out women.”
“Stay away from him!”
“There were more of them in the room.”
We, older women as we are, have stories we will not tell you out of shame. We fear we will not be believed. That the men will learn of these stories and threaten us with lawsuits, with bodily harm, with social alienation. That the women will call us petty, conniving, liars.
We do not have reports, but we have memories and the nightmares that keep us up at night. We have the lived experience of our bodies and the fear that grips them when certain men walk by. The knowing that you too could be sacrificed at the alter of black man love.
These days, the reality is setting in that no other woman need be sacrificed at the altar simply because every woman before me has. It is not enough, anymore, that we whisper these stories to each other, that we pull women aside and warn them discretely. We must be brave and force these men to contend with our rage. To witness the grief that comes out of gross neglect. Community is not community at the expense of survivors. It is not community without accountability, friendship, honesty, transparency, and the commitment to showing up for each other.
Thank you, young as you are, brave as you are, for refusing to consider silence when the shame became too much. For speaking out. For pushing us to choose between the men we love and the women they have broken. When you speak, there will be violence leveled against you because you threaten the very fabric of our community. The men you call out: they will be loved, they will be respected, they will have friends. And others will protect him. That is how they will continue to abuse.
But there are more of us who will listen and are ready to provide support. There are students, professors, staff members and alumni who stand in solidarity with survivors. In the new spaces we create together, you will never have to offer yourself up to the mouths of men to be worthy, to be valued, to be loved. In this new community, you will speak and we will listen.
Sadia Hassan is a guest columnist