Updated: Feb 12, 2020
Looking back, I would have imagined his hands around my neck to be cold. Icy fingertips, frozen palms. Sort of disconnected from his body as I was so often disconnected from mine. They weren’t cold though. They were hot, burning … the marks left behind symbolic of a time when branding with hot irons was common. Where bruises and scars were a symbol of ownership and power. I still have nightmares. My current partner knows if he is going to wake me from sleep he must never walk up on my side of the bed. I will wake with a startle at his mere presence, likely yelling, often times swinging.
According to a 2010 National Domestic Violence Survey, 1 in 4 women will experience severe intimate partner violence; and 1 in 3 have experienced some kind of physical violence. (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence). Upwards of 10,000 million people nationwide in any given year are involved in intimate partner violence. Yet the stigma surrounding domestic violence, remains rampant. Among Black women, where historical silencing and invisibility, combined with the myth of the Black Superwoman, create a perfect storm, nobody talks. We don’t share and we don’t snitch. We hide, we protect, we pretend. I hid. For years, I wore the mask. A successful business woman, and youth and community leader, dealing with verbal, emotional, and sometimes physical violence, as part of my norm. I have shared many aspects of my life with my young people and my colleagues. This area, not so much. I’ll share in passing that I was in an abusive relationship, but won’t offer details. Fearing they may try to do math, figure out who I was involved with at the time; figure out who could they blame. Of course, I have imagined this to be borderline snitching.
We don’t snitch.
We lost a young woman in our community this week to a domestic violence related homicide. She was 19. A former student I had been able to interact with on occasion. Over the last few days I have asked myself, if she had known my story would things have been different? If I had been more transparent would she have found help. I think I wish it was this simple. As a story curator and story teller, I wish I could weave magic with words and change the lives of everyone I interact with. Unfortunately, the circumstances surrounding baby girl’s death are much more complex. In the midst of this personal processing, the current national outrage about Robert Kelly, and the [long overdue] clemency for Cyntoia Brown are also all in the forefront of my mind. They may have something to do with the nightmares I have been having of late.
A Critical Post Traumatic Growth Framework may allow us to process this phenomenon and move forward as individuals and communities.
I knew a long time ago, that the trauma I had experienced made me stronger (not just in a violent relationship, but throughout my life’s history of abuse — a history that is common, but not essential among victims of Intimate Partner Violence). I just didn’t have the words to articulate it. In my research, I have explored Post Traumatic Growth (PTG), a positive psychological theory that explores the positive changes that may happen in a person’s life following significant trauma. I found that PTG resonated with my experience, and the experience of the young women I worked with, however, remained limited as much of the research assessed singular issues of trauma. Many Black women have had multiple experiences of trauma, and deal with not only Post Traumatic Stress, but Persistent Traumatic Stress Exposure.
Often times our stress is not only interpersonal (like domestic violence or sexual abuse) but also related to community trauma as well as racialized traumatic stress. Critical Post Traumatic Growth combines the foundational truths of Critical Race Theories and psychological principles of Post Traumatic Growth to provide a lens that recognizes our power, agency and growth, while also acknowledging the systems of oppression and exclusion we operate within, as well as the experiences of trauma we navigate. Critical Post Traumatic Growth offers eight tenets that can offer us not only a theory to examine phenomena like Domestic Violence, but offer us a practice framework that can potentially move us to growth. To read more, and learn the tenets of CPTG go to the original article in @medium.
In order to examine domestic violence in the Black community, we must start with the context. The toxic commodification, objectification, control and disposability of Black girls (and trans girls or gender queer persons) from a very early age is the thread that ties all this together. Whether institutional state sanctioned violence or interpersonal intimate partner/familial violence and abuse, … until we acknowledge the US was built on the objectification, control and disposability of Black Women, we will not even begin to scratch the service on these issues. Our bodies in the Americas have historically been used to produce wealth, reproduce human capital, provide sexual pleasure and succumb to power. On an innate level our men and boys have absorbed this, and thus continue the cycle.
We must share and collect stories in order to truly understand the suffering experienced by Black women and girls. Dumas (2014, p. 3) describes black suffering within an educational context as a kind of constant traveling between historical memory and current predicament, that there is a psychic link between the tragedy of antebellum African bondage and post-civil rights (indeed, ‘post-racial’) black suffering. This is the hard part. We have been taught to move on, get over it, suck it up. Focusing on suffering did not serve African’s in the diaspora well, as our energy was better used for survival. We must, however, push back on this historical narrative and name our pain, dissect it, diagnose it, understand it, share it. We must also not sensationalize suffering, and, as is sometimes hard for us as Black women, understand our own bias and privilege as we enter into conversation with other women about their suffering. When we don’t we run the risk of othering.
As identity is most often developed under the gaze of a master narrative that perpetuates cultural and identity politics it becomes important, especially for Black girls, to have spaces where identities can be developed that humanize, uplift and value Black womanhood (Haynes, Stewart & Allen, 2016). If Black girls don’t have space to develop positive self-identity they run the risk of developing what DeGruy (2005) calls “vacant esteem.” According to DeGruy in a post slavery context, vacant esteem is the “state of believing oneself to have little or no worth exacerbated by the group and societal pronouncement of inferiority” (p. 125). Thus, when Black girls are not given the tools to understand how their identity is shaped and developed, they internalize the racist and misogynistic ideology they have been conditioned with. Naturally this makes us more susceptible to relationships that validate this ideology.
We imagine community to be an important facet of safety among Black women. It is important to further explore the concept of social support, or community, through a critical lens. Core questions we can ask are:
How is community defined by Black women and girls?
What types of support are available to Black women and girls?
What types of support do Black women and girls say they need?
What types of community capital exist within Black women and girls’ circles?
How are communities developed and celebrated within and outside of institutional, or formal spaces?
I trusted my faith based community to be a source of strength and sisterhood, however, the often misogynistic nature of Black Christian faith taught me I should stand by my partner, even when he was being abusive. Their rationale: there are levels to abuse. Verbal and emotional abuse, or even choking isn’t real abuse … “he didn’t hit you did he?” We must hold our faith leaders accountable to do better. To teach better. We must also unpack the role of the Black community in shifting the narrative for boys and men. Are we challenging toxic masculinity on a daily basis, or merely expressing outrage when the outcome is as tragic as death?
Finally, how are we as a community holding perpetrators accountable. If we are of an abolition mindset, what does this accountability look like when it comes to violence against Black women and girls.
This tenet highlights the role of cognitive processing and coping mechanisms in the lives of Black women and girls, including: the ability to reflect; reduced incidences of self-blame; self-forgiveness; religious coping; sense of personal control; social support; and the development of a new narrative (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004; Kaye-Tzadok & Davidson-Arad, 2016). We must also stress the need for psychoeducation. Young people need to understand red-flags and the cycle of violence. They need to know who to call if they are in need, and how to create a safety plan. This alone, however, is not enough. We often emphasize this area in change efforts, but as we have seen, it is too narrow a focus to create real systemic change.
Suppressing the knowledge (or voice) of any oppressed group makes it easier for the dominant group to maintain rule and order, as the absence of disapproval suggests the oppressed willingly collaborate with their own victimization (Scott, 1985). We must, as we have seen happening during the last few weeks, openly critique gender based violence, whether it is perpetrated by a celebrity, or happens within our own families.
Post Traumatic Growth acknowledges the power of developing and sharing narratives. It is within this tenet we contemplate, how can community be created in a way that allows us to collect and share stories of suffering and resistance? How can we create community where girls share and tell? Where they can speak their truth and not be labeled a snitch? Where their voices are not silenced; where they are not invisible. When describing this phenomena, one of my young women said “nobody hears me until I go off … then I have a problem. I have an attitude and nobody listens.” We must listen and believe Black women.
Critical theories (Critical Race Theory, Black Feminist Crit, Social Justice Youth Development) push us to move beyond individual resilience to consider how people of color individually and collectively resist oppression and silencing, and fight back against a corrupt and inequitable system. Sometimes our acts of resistance are micro [small] acts that serve to empower and inspire. Other times our acts of resistance involve macro acts of organizing and collective action. More times than we are given credit for, we commit covert acts of resistance, by pushing back on our current lived experience and moving ourselves to places of safety. We must explore how this resistance around issues like violence against Black women can contribute to our growth after trauma.
Post Traumatic Growth theory highlights the openness of new possibilities as one of the results of PTG (Rendon, 2015). Our appreciation for life, and increased spirituality, are also inextricably tied to hope. It is this hope that keeps us moving, strengthens us to leave, and pushes us toward transformation. It is hope that forces us to contemplate a world without violence, and to re-imagine peace. It is not enough to fight abuse. We must use our radical Black imagination to envision a community where we are all valued. We must not forget the inner work. I must create a liberatory space inside my own mind and heart, where I value self. Where love lives.
We must unpack our own trauma and do the inner work.We must examine and rebuild the spaces in which young people are socialized. We must not forget the reteaching of young boys and men.We must learn new ways of being and interacting across genders. We must not forget these gender roles, and binaries, are socially constructed, therefore can be deconstructed as well.We must rebuild a community/world where all black women are valued; dismantle and rebuild the oppressive systems (education, child welfare, health care, financial, etc.) in a way that centers value and worth of all Black women;
Ultimately we must change the narrative about who we are and what we deserve, otherwise any efforts for change will likely be circular and but for a moment. We must fight and lead for liberation. And, we must love and protect and encourage each other. It is in this space the nightmares stop. It is here we return to our bodies. It is here we value, us.
Dr. Stacey Ault is Assistant Professor in the Division of Social Work at Sacramento State University. She is also Founder/CEO of The Race and Gender Equity (RAGE) Project … learn more about her work at www.rageproject.org
Ault, S.M. (2017). Queens Speak — A Youth Participatory Action Research Project: Exploring Critical Post-Traumatic Growth among Black Girls within the School to Prison Pipeline. Doctoral Dissertations. 348. Retrieved from https://repository.usfca.edu/diss/348/
Calhoun, L. G., & Tedeschi, R. G. (2004). The Foundations of Posttraumatic Growth: New Considerations. Psychological Inquiry, 15(1), 93–102. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1207/s15327965pli1501_03
DeGruy, J. (2005). Post traumatic slave syndrome: America’s legacy of enduring injury and healing. Portland, OR: Joy DeGruy Publications.
Dumas, M. J. (2014). “Losing an arm”: schooling as a site of black suffering. Race Ethnicity and Education, 17(1), 1–29. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2013.850412
Haynes, C., Stewart, S., & Allen, E. (2016). Three Paths, One Str