photo by Alex Lear
when a man loves a woman
i don’t know why i was immobile, just standing, caught between moving forward and backing away from some horror that was not my nightmare. i mean, why wasn’t i doing something, why couldn’t i think of anything to do besides be a voyeur, an onlooker, saying inside my head: this is none of my business, yet, steady gawking at the timeless tableau?
i didn’t see him wind up, but i saw the fist smash. they were half a block away. she cringed, or crumpled, or slumped, or something, against the brick wall of the white-painted old warehouse. too far away, i could not hear anything. but from the way she staggered, the hit must have been hard. no love tap. no heated argument slap. but a fist. to the head, or maybe the heart, the middle of her chest, between her breasts. i don’t know. from where i was, i could not really tell.
a moment before, i had been at my desk. and someone, i forget who, someone had rushed in and said a man was beating a woman, outside. i remember there were at least three of us, standing at the corner, just beside the front door entrance to the black collegian and edwards printing company. it was butch and me, and i forget who the third person was, probably bill, but i’m not sure. and by the time we got there, what may have started as an argument on the street, and probably included some cursing and even perhaps a shove, or maybe he grabbed her and she tried to jerk away, or could be she swung her purse at him trying to back him back, or something. i don’t know.
i don’t remember exactly how old i was, but since i left the magazine in 1983, i had to be in my early to mid-thirties, old enough to know better. i had not yet been to nicaragua, but by then had been to cuba the first time, and haiti, and jamaica, and tanzania, and china, and japan, and korea. i had been a lot of places. seen a lot of things. stood with progressive forces, even ventured into a few situations where to be caught was possibly to be imprisoned, if not straight up killed. some would say i had been fearless. some might say bold. going gladly where most folk feared to tread.
so why was i not moving forward this time. why was i just standing and looking. i told myself i did nothing because it all happened so fast. like liston going down in the first behind an ali punch most people didn’t even see, the fight was over before i could re-act. but i saw her body take the blow. and i did nothing.
immediately afterwards he looked like he said something to her. and they walked away. together. away from us. down the street. and the three of us went back inside. well. the old street adage: don’t get in the middle of lovers fighting cause you could end up getting jumped by the both of them. or, the other old saw: he might have a gun, she might have a razor (which was reinforced by the fact that most of the men in our office were gun owners, and lorraine, our first secretary, carried a straight razor). and the projects where those kind of people congregated was one block down the street in the direction the couple was headed. but i knew better, and besides, i have faced down police and soldiers—a pistol or a knife was nothing, comparatively speaking. no, the truth was, i wasn’t afraid for my own safety, the truth is, or was: i had been socially shaped not to respond to violence against women, and i was simply doing what i was trained to do: nothing!
trained by movies and television that are not only forever showing a woman being slapped, or smacked, battered or bruised, but the media has made violence into an acceptable form of entertainment, something we watch and enjoy, watch and laugh, watch and take pleasure in someone else’s pain.
seasoned by the callous lassez-faire of street life that essentially said: i don’t tell you what to do with yours, you don’t tell me what to do with mine.
encouraged by the army, especially in terms of all the shady dealings that went down with the women we sexually and economically abused with impunity—a lot of people don’t know that the word hooker came from the name given to the prostitutes employed by general hooker during the civil war; oh, yes, i’m aware general hooker didn’t directly pay the prostitutes or even officially condone the sexual laisions, but that’s the american way. the leaders always have maximum deniability even as the status quo works its nefarious show.
conditioned by a culture that said a fight between lovers was nobody’s business but theirs.
assaulted by the literature—i never forgot native son bigger bashing bessie with a brick.
not to mention pornography, the all-time top grosser among americans, even in the state of utah which is supposed to be so righteous. the violent sexual exploitation of women and children, our number one form of entertainment.
violence against women was reinforced by damn near everything i could think of. and the reinforcement was incremental, no one thing guiding it all, but the preponderance, the cumulative effect, like one rain drop does not a storm make, but a multitude steady falling will flood us out, wash us away, cast us adrift, like i was, hesitant, unsure on that sidewalk. where was mr. bold black man that day?
even though violence was never practiced in the home where i grew up, and even though it was unthinkable that i would personally hit a woman, nevertheless, in ways, until that day, i was not totally clear about, i now realize that yes, i passively condoned such violence, and if not condoned it at least tacitly accepted men beating woman as the way it was with some people, a sort of twisted status quo. and, perhaps my passivity was birthed by an even more sinister moral equivocation: it’s ok to be my brother’s keeper, but that doesn’t include stopping my brother from giving my sister a beating—oh, sure, in the family, somebody you know, your mother, sister, daughter, lover, auntee, oh sure then jump in and break that shit up, but some sister on the street we never seen before, i don’t know, you never know what the deal be and ain’t no sense in getting caught up in some edge of night drama.
protecting an unknown sister‑no matter what i said in the abstract, when my face was pushed up in it in the real world, her back against the wall, some huge dude all up in her grill‑i hesitated.
there had to be some reason, some reasonable explanation for why i simply stood there. it took me a while to realize the main reason was that i live in a patriarchal society, a society within which violence against women is not only deeply embedded, but also a society within which violence in general, and violence against women in particular, is so broadly accepted that it becomes invisible even though it is ubiquitous. how can something so obvious be so ignored?
the weight of acculturation does not easily budge and can keep us from moving forward even as we believe that it is backwards to stand still.
afterwards, not minutes, but in the days that followed, i said i would never be silent again. that moment of stillness turned me around. i would never be uninvolved again. and truth be told, i haven’t, but on the other hand, i have never been tested like that again. never been within shouting distance of a man beating on a woman.
yes, i have stopped young people who got into inevitable fights and tussles with each other. it really, really saddens me that so much play-fighting is accepted as a form of affection among many of our young people. their seemingly harmless mock violence is ameliorated by genuine affection or, more likely, rather than by affection, by pubescent desire; whatever, the result remains the same: in more cases than not, what began as a seemingly harmless activity actually ends up being a predictable preparation for them accepting violence as part of the package deal of personal relationships, thus violence is fatally intertwined with what too often passes for true love.
i can not imagine any of my daughters or sons either accepting or perpetrating abusive violence.
i have marched. i have campaigned. i have written essays, plays, poems, made movies. but ever since that day, i have never been caught standing around simply looking when a man beat on a woman. nor will i ever again revert to letting aggressive violence go down without at the very least shouting out against such abuse, without doing something to stop the violence, and if not bring that violence to a “squeeching halt” (to quote my father), at least intervening or in some other effective way opposing and lessening the negative effects of such violence.
cause when you get right down to it, a true love of one has to also be, to one degree or another, a love for all—and if we can not love others, especially those whom we see as the “other,” whether that be a gender other, an ethnic other, a racial other, a sexual-orientation other, whatever other, if we can not love an other and yet claim to love a particular individual then we are cutting off part of our own selves—the part of our selves that is also a part of the other. we are restricting our lives, constraining our souls, diminishing our spirit, and this is especially true when we are dealing with the questions of violence against women.
when a man loves a woman, truly loves a woman, he will not silently condone nor, through his own inaction, allow any man to do any woman wrong. because, while there are those fortunate enough never to be victimized by violence, in general there are no exemptions: each woman in a society shares some of the essence of every woman in that society. when a man truly loves a woman, he must love all women or not really love any woman at all.
—kalamu ya salaam