“At all times it has also been profitable to deny or suppress such knowledge…You already know that. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and draw conclusions.”
Sven Lindqvist, Exterminate All the Brutes
They have been trying to get me to forget for years ever since he called to warning me: “You better not tell anyone.” They were fellow academics at a predominantly white educational institution. He was an affirmative action officer. A Black man. There’s a history in the US of surrogates delivering the message of the slaveholder. Even women as mistresses served as surrogates.
And while the trauma of being interrogated and threatened for over two hours in this man’s office didn’t result in a sexual assault, the bullying was intended to force me to fall in line, to relinquish my right to resist, and to exhibit the power of the institution to prohibit my right to a livelihood there or anywhere else, if I refused to become complicit in continuing the practice of white supremacy.
It’s a tradition. Violence, verbal and physical—lethal—is a tradition, right along with the apple pie. I studied William Faulkner and examined Southern Chivalry for my doctorate. And the past, Faulkner once wrote, is never over. The past is not even the past. During my study of slavery, how much of what I read recalled the groping, fondling, the outright rape of Black women who could not escape the daily sexual assault of men for whom long ago narratives of “civilizing Africa” (along with the manufacturing of guns) grants them the right to be “lords and masters,” anywhere and everywhere. Abroad, in the darkness, and therefore at home. In the office. Backstage. In a hotel room. Of course. The legacy of what happened during the first rape of Africa and during the forceful separation of people from their lands throughout what is called America, and during the development of this nation in what was called the era of Southern Chivalry, is still our reality.
On this soil, where Black women labored for hundreds of years for no pay, knew intimately the authority and the power of tyranny. We’re not to recall the past and the good ole’ boys just having fun. For years, it was better to intimidate and blacklist, to outright lie with a smear campaign or a few phone calls here and there, than it is to apologize. But no half-baked apology can disappear what happened or erase the legacy of that violence. It’s still with us, and it hasn’t gone away—as so many women, coming forward and breaking their silence, are testifying, finally, about Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assaults against them.
It might have been historian Timothy Snyder using this term “managed inequality” to describe the work of those exercising tyranny while at the same time, proclaiming progress. Black Americans are free while racism has been crushed to death. Women don’t need to stay home; women can join the workforce. Work hard. Work for less pay. Expect sexual harassment, intimidation, bullying from male co-workers and supervisors as part of the privilege of being allowed in the door. Consider it, an admissions fee.
The same for Black or Latino/a Americans who are the first and/or only and who as the first and/or only better keep it all in, behind a closed but smiling mouth. White people don’t take kindly to hearing about how there’s still racism, in fact, still white supremacy in effect—in a work environment where there’s only a first and/or only or a few good “minority” workers.
In recent years, we’ve been asked to follow the pointing arrow and recognize that are Enemy isn’t within, but out there, among the criminals and terrorists—Black and Mexican men. Muslim men.
White American men are family. Protectorates. Good ole’ boys!
I can understand why these victims of sexual assault are speaking out now, years after the crime. There’s power in unity. If one voice speaks out, it may not be enough. Fear of being maligned, of being isolated—is real. On the other hand, there exists black and white photos of women among their menfolk cuddling their children at the panic site where the remains of a burnt Black man dangles from a tree. We can’t now see women rise up and speak out, only to be disappointed again when those most in fear of being discovered as depraved or, at best, heartless profiteers no less deserving of our respect than those who practiced tyranny in Africa or within the borders of the US.
When people of color, women, and white men, put self-interest ahead of social responsibility, then they must throw any claim of civility out the window. Shake off the yoke of hypocrisy! There’s an urgent necessity to end injustice in the same way there’s an urgent necessity to put out a spark. You don’t wait until the flames, sky high, threaten the entirety of your home. And it’s reprehensible to acknowledge a raging wildfire, only when it threatens the safety and well-being of your children. On the other hand, this is how inequality is managed and sustained. This is how the appearance of a racism-free society or a rainbow-coalition masks the sinister reality of a rampaging abuse of power.
Given the number of men forced to resign or fired the past few weeks and the number of women coming forward, we have to see this as a teaching moment. It’s obvious that not only boys and men lack an understanding of what is inappropriate behavior toward another human being—but even some women and people of color have become too adjusted to the “boys will be boys” culture of terror, abuse, violence. Hollywood is marketing images of women who are just as hawkish any “evil” doing male predator. We came; we saw; we conquered! All hail to us!
At least two hours! I was warned I shouldn’t leave. This was it! I was told I needed to go back where I came. I wasn’t “fit” to teach. Suddenly after 13 years, I wasn’t “fit” to teach!
Why, you don’t even have a car! You have to speak with a psychologist.
And he dials a number and hands me the phone and leaves the roo
It’s the summer of 2000, I have yet to sign the contract, but I’ve been hired. Just a month before the school year is to start, and this man has notified my building manager that I have a cat. The English department, in the meantime, has already seen to it that I am without an office among them. The only Black faculty in that department.
But I refused. I was crying, and I was shaking. This good-sized man stands between me and a livelihood. And I was in my late 40s. Had been a published writer since 1979, a college instructor since the late 1980s. I had my doctorate. But I was alone. Just the month or two before, I had come to the smaller town from a big city—alone.
And as a Black woman who had been an activist since the age of 14-years old and who refused to stay, as I had been told by the hiring chair, to “stay low key,” I was to exit. Two other Black women did the same. One left before the contract started and the other after. Warning: you don’t want to wait until after you sign the contract to quit!
I sat there alone. Where was I to go? Back where? My parents had been died. My siblings much younger. Friends, too, were struggling with adjunct positions while trying to advocate for social justice. This was a full-time position.
I told the white woman on the other end of the phone that I understood what was happening. It wasn’t me. I left that room. I didn’t know how things would end, but I left that room.
Two years later, when my contract was not renewed and when this man himself was leaving the campus, I received a call from him at my home. “You better not tell anyone.”
Even when I did tell a couple of women faculty, I learned that self-interest trumped a fellow woman’s experience of abuse of power. You have no children, Lenore! We do!
As for the chair—whatever happened was between you and Mr.______! Good day!
Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein. Mark Halperin, Terry Richardson, Knight Landesman, James Toback—all these men accused of abuse or sexual assault from various institutions. Industries. And let’s not forget Bill Cosby. Former President Bill Clinton and the current president, bragging about how women “let” the abusers—abuse. “They let you do it.”
These men aren’t alone as so many women (and men) know. It’s not as if we’ve ignorant of this knowledge. Tyrants manage inequality—because, at best, it’s our complicity that makes it function so well as to be almost invisible.
We have to ask ourselves, why should we expect change when each and everyone of us don’t dare to speak out?