On November 5, Oprah Winfrey aired the first of a two-part episode on male survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Two hundred men stood in the audience, each holding a photograph taken at the age their innocence was stolen by the priest, babysitter, or parent who molested them. Filmmaker Tyler Perry was among them, just two weeks after he had shared his childhood experiences with physical and sexual abuse for the first time with a television audience on Oprah.
Perry initially disclosed his abuse last year in a lengthy letter he addressed to his fans and posted on his website. In the letter, Perry revealed that viewing Lee Daniels’ Precious, a film based on Sapphire’s novel Push, triggered a series of traumatic memories from his childhood, including being brutally beaten numerous times by his father, raped by his friend’s mother and molested by a male church member. Like the character Precious, he said, he used his imagination to escape his body.
Perry’s appearances on Oprah coincide with the release of his film For Colored Girls, adapted from Ntozake Shange’s 1975 Obie award-winning play. Perry’s recent airing of his childhood sexual abuse also comes on the heels of several other black men publicly coming out of the closet about childhood sexual abuse.
In September, former church members Maurice Robinson, Anthony Flagg, Jamal Parris and Spencer LeGrande filed suits against the pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, an Atlanta-based megachurch that boasts 25,000 members. The lawsuits charge Long with using his spiritual authority and financial gifts to coerce the young men into sexual relationships when they were teenagers. Last week, Long formally denied the allegations of sexual misconduct and described himself to the Atlanta Journal Constitution as a “bold revolutionary spiritual leader” who emphasizes “outreach to men, reinforcing to men the importance of partnering with a ministry that will grow them spiritually.”
Even before Long publicly addressed the charges, many of his church members rallied to his defense. It was during an interview with three of those members that CNN anchor Don Lemon made an impromptu on-air disclosure that he too was a survivor of pedophilia. The “buzzwords” Long’s accusers used in their accounts resonated with Lemon’s experience, he said:
Those are the things that [abusers] do, the language, ‘This doesn’t make you gay, if you do this.’ So when someone starts to say that, you start to perk and say, ‘ho.’ Four people have said the same exact story and using the same language. How do people come up with those stories?
Lemon had never discussed his abuse on television and didn’t confide in his mother about it until he was 30. Lemon, like most men and particularly African American men, did not want to talk about his abuse at the hand of another man. He tweeted after the CNN interview, “I had no idea I’d say that on national TV. It just came out. Sadly, it’s the truth for so many young men.”
According to recent statistics, childhood sexual abuse is a truth for about 1 in 6 men. The courageous admissions of the former New Birth members, Lemon and Perry have the potential to comfort other male survivors and to let them know they’re not alone. Except for Finding Fish, Antwone Fisher’s stirring memoir that was brought to the big screen by Denzel Washington, there are few to no cultural representations of black male trauma and sexual abuse. It is not surprising, then, that black women’s stories of abuse strike an emotional chord with Lee Daniels and Tyler Perry. What is striking, however, is that rather than spearhead projects that illuminate young black men’s abuse, both Daniels and Perry have bolstered their power and influence in the industry through black women’s stories.
Black men directing films that highlight black women’s trauma is not necessarily a bad thing, but in the case of For Colored Girls, the bodies of black women become instruments to bolster Perry’s credibility as a serious film maker and to provide catharsis for his abused-child self, at the same time that his muscle in Hollywood makes it possible for him to greenlight his own version of For Colored Girls after writer and director Nzingha Stewart (now an executive producer of the film) had already drafted a script and brokered a deal with Lionsgate. In a post-film discussion with at least 40 women in attendance, journalist Esther Armah described Perry’s strong-arming tactics as “molesting on the big screen via his power.” Performance artist Daniel Alexander Jones intones similarly,
On some very deep and real level it continues the sort of assault on the work that greeted it at its beginning–coming ironically from someone who claims to have been inspired by it.
A number of critics and audience members lambasted Shange’s play for purportedly portraying black men in a negative light. Perry’s film has reignited these discussions and provoked cries for “somebody/anybody” to “sing a black [boy’s] song.”
While black women’s works have helped Perry to find his voice and speak his pain, he effectively silenced a black woman’s opportunity to represent our shared experiences. The unfortunate consequence of Perry “walking off wid alla our stuff” is that we are left with a film that makes moralistic judgments about black women’s sexuality and diminishes the messages of empowerment and healing that make Shange’s text an old friend we return to again and again–whenever we feel like the rainbow just isn’t enuf.