My Aunt Gracie is one of my mother’s 10 sisters, the one with the gentle half smile. She’s always been a favored sister and aunt, beloved in our family for her sweetness and generosity and her quiet, seemingly eternal good nature.
But sealed in my mind’s eye is an image of her from my childhood. In it, my very young Aunt Gracie rocks a 1970s Afro, but it’s the eyes that captivate. They are circles of black, both of them ringed dark holes as if someone has taken a marker and drawn them in. There’s a photo somewhere, still pressed perhaps into this long-forgotten old photo album or maybe long discarded, which bears witness to Aunt Gracie’s black eyes, the imprint of a violent lover.
I remember Mama’s rage over the abuse of her baby sis, but then she lived it, too, the threat of physical violence, once fleeing barefoot in the middle of the night with me to escape it. Several more aunts were victims of various forms of male violence, rape and more black eyes, from inside and outside the family. I recall puzzling over whispered snatches of the conversation between my mom and aunts after some such incident. It was a complicated mix of anger, fear and reconciliation to the reality—Uncle So-and-So was a good provider, a protective brother-in-law and generous uncle who gave out dollar bills to the kids, but he had a bad temper that manifested itself in the fists he burrowed into the face and body of my aunt.
This is the first time I’m writing about any of it publicly; I do so now as a way of trying to explain something that I failed miserably at explaining in class to my all male students at Morehouse College. The video of football superstar Ray Rice’s elevator beat-down of his then fiancée-now wife Janay became headline news in a flash; I seemed to be one of the last to know on campus until I walked unsuspectingly into class and was immediately bombarded with the question: Did you see it? I hadn’t seen it, though I was very familiar with the case. I got busy taking attendance and pulling up sites for the class lecture as they talked on.
Well there’s two sides to a story, you know … What did she do to him for him to act like that? Some women be acting up … He still didn’t have to go that far. He laid her out and he kicked her too… Well it wasn’t really a kick, it was more like he was seeing if she was out … This stuff happens everyday, all day, it’s not going to change, It’s not even shocking, it’s so common, I don’t even have a reaction anymore … I just want to know the other side of the story …. yeah, what she do, not that I’m saying he did right but women … some women like being treated like that …
I knew that variations of the same conversation were going on all across the country between too many men and women who were shaking their heads and saying “You gotta watch how you step with these men, I’m just saying.” In class, I was the only woman in the room, and I was the professor. I got in my students’ faces, challenged their “buts” and “two sides of the story,” their “some women like that”—I wanted them to critically interrogate and question their own desire to somehow negate, to render less brutal, Rice’s attack on his wife, even while they acknowledged it wasn’t right. Others merely sat quietly and let their peers say “but” without protest.
I was not as calm and as theoretically savvy as I can be, am trained to be, as I wanted to be. I was caught off guard, momentarily thrown back to Aunt Gracie with the black eyes, to fleeing barefoot with my mother down the street in the middle of a cold night to escape my father’s wrath. I was taken back to those scary moments when I, as a grownup, smart, capable woman who hated violence, recognized that I had barely escaped being Aunt Gracie or the one who was raped or my mother.
The Ray Rice case personifies the continuing acceptance and mishandling of domestic violence, and not just by the National Football League. The league is a microcosm of a deeply embedded culture of patriarchal violence. Boys are groomed to play ball hard and tough, to prove their manhood and self-worth on the field of fierce competition where they are rewarded at the top levels with fame, fortune and domination over women. But we have failed, and are still failing—as my smart, potentially brilliant, world-changing male students’ conversation highlights—to decolonize young men’s gendered worldview and groom a manhood, a sense of personhood more importantly, that is defined by valuing self-restraint, moral maturity, gentleness and an empathy that would not allow the commonplace-ness of domestic violence.
Janay Rice’s response to the outcry via Instagram is heartbreaking for a number of reasons, and her pain is palpable. Her husband is the currently famous bogeyman of domestic violence. We should hope that the couple is immersed in the necessary work of decolonization, both individually and together, and that redemption is possible because, let’s not get it twisted, this is a systemic problem. We all—the women and the men—need to be invested in the same work in order to shatter it. If we do not, my student’s bleak worldview that it won’t ever stop is correct, and violence against women will go on being a common dirty reality of our culture. Ray and Janay Rice are our mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters. They are us.