The following essay originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of EBONY magazine in the aftermath of the Chris Brown-Rihanna saga. Beyond that incident the issue of domestic violence is a major epidemic in America, on this planet, and men and boys have got to play a role in ending it.
Given the hype around Chris Brown’s alleged beating of Rihanna, now is the time to launch a conversation on ending violence against females in our communities. If it can happen to these young rising stars, it can happen to anyone. Yet so many men just pretend it doesn’t exist, while others are incredibly defensive about it.
Noted author bell hooks once told me that “violence against women and girls, at the hands of men and boys, will not end until you males make it end.” My 1992 essay, “The Sexist in Me,” launched a lifelong journey to “make it end” by addressing the ignorance, hatred and pain at the root of violence, transforming myself and educating others in the process. That piece described my pushing a then-girlfriend into a door in 1991. In later writings, I discussed my childhood of abuse, my adult violence against both males and females, my years of counseling and my conscious decision to change. I laid bare my healing process and took responsibility for my redemption. Though I stumbled on a few occasions into anger-driven beefs with other men in the years since that public confession, I never assaulted a woman again. Nor will I ever. Today I am an activist for women’s issues, nonviolent conflict resolution, education and community empowerment.
My journey results from the remarkable education I received from women in response to that 1992 essay, one that every male on this planet should experience. I listened and finally heard women’s concerns. At times I was guilt-stricken. Often the only male speaking to a group of women, I bore indictment for all male sins. Yes, I cringed and sometimes deeply regretted outing myself. And yes, some women and men told me that nothing I could do would ever grant their forgiveness. In fact, I was called “a woman beater” just last year while running for Congress in New York City.
But I’ve pushed on with this work, collaborating with the United Nations and Amnesty International, hosting monthly men’s workshops, using my writing to educate and uplift, organizing documentary film screenings, town hall meetings, and speaking at institutions across the country. I do this because whether or not it’s personally convenient, as an activist I must oppose this injustice. If racism disappeared tomorrow, this would still be a world where women and girls are cursed, grabbed, beaten, stabbed, raped and murdered daily. Serving the global community of women is the only way I can do justice to the constant stream of heart wrenching testimonies I receive. The women I violated many years ago have long since accepted my apologies. Year after year, I continue to act on the gift of their forgiveness by dedicating my work to the safety of women and girls.
I use my life as an example of how we men can uplift ourselves and each other to honor and respect women. During every speech I include this message: Even if you would never curse a female, hit a female, or, God forbid, kill a female, if you have men or boys around you who would or do, you are also guilty. Even if you don’t know any men or boys like that, you must still raise your voice to end gender violence in our communities. Silence is agreement and participation.
And to women: If your man is consistently angry, depressed, verbally abusive, has violent tendencies or has put his hands on you in some way, leave the relationship whether he gets help or not. You are not his therapist. If he is serious about changing, he will do it on his own. Your life is more precious than that relationship. Your self-worth cannot be tied to whether or not you have a partner.
The future of our communities is on the line. Nothing should be more precious to us than the women who give us life. Just as we talk about AIDS, poverty, drugs and other ailments afflicting America, men and women have got to make ending violence against women and girls a priority. If not, our children and grandchildren will be living their own versions of the Rihanna-Chris Brown saga.