Monday, September 21, 2015

Black Healing Matters: A Series on Internal Trauma

This article was originally posted on It appears here as a reprint with permission.

In every struggle for justice, our focus on the external work of resistance, must always be equally matched by an awareness of how the battle is impacting us internally. It means that we realize that in fighting against oppression, some of its violence may have gotten on us, and seeped inside to become an unconscious part of how we see ourselves and treat our loved ones.

This week I introduce a series featuring the voices of women and men who raise questions about the internal state of African America as we do the work of resisting racism. In this series we’re talking about what happens when we get tired (and in this state of emergency), if being tired is even allowed? We write about accessing the spiritual and communal power that is in our hands, and we break the silence over hurts that have been forced underground for far too long. The essence of our work in the words we share is to offer something that helps us do the ongoing work of healing…even as we fight.


There are some forms of violence that are really good at teaching lessons. They’re so egregious that you don’t even have to be the one in trouble, for you to learn the lesson. The amount of force demonstrated against Black bodies reminds me of this.

Every time a new video shows up detailing a police related incident in which a Black person is blatantly disrespected, severely harmed or killed; it reminds me of the spectacular ways that disfigured, lynched Black bodies taught the lesson.

Whenever we hear of another Black person losing their life as a consequence of an encounter with the police, the news is made real by the release of a cell phone, dash or vestcam video capturing their last moments alive.

These violent and traumatic deaths are immortalized and held up for all to see in public space, in much the same way that lynched bodies were held up in public gatherings for all to observe that this is what happens when you step out of line, resist, or dare to assume your right to simply ‘be.’

The interweaving of race and police force is nothing new, but social media’s capacity to broadcast it widely adds another dimension to its ability to traumatize communities.

We are responding to this trauma (for better or worse) through marches, vigils, riots, prayer, strategizing, organized advocacy, counter-cultural social media campaigns and education reform.

Even still there’s one front (perhaps the most important one) that I notice going unattended: home.

What are we doing to take care of the minds and souls that step up to the challenge every time we activate resistance day in and day out?

Where do we hurt and how is that hurt manifesting itself in-house in the African American community?

Ain’t nobody got time to think about that…


But, if we win the battle what do we really have to celebrate when we return home to find our relationships, families and institutions empty and devoid of love?

Have we asked if close contact with the evils of racism has affected our ability to provide safe spaces with one another? In the fight to resist, have we taken on the tactics of those who oppress us?

We cannot afford to allow this moment in history to only be about the changes we demand of others. In a time when we have to speak up about police brutality, we have to be equally vigilant about intimate partner violence, family violence, sexism, homo/transphobia, child abuse, neglect, good/bad hair, light and dark skin, (temporary) haves and (disproportionate) have nots.

In the middle of #BlackLivesMatter, #SayHerName is a powerful reminder that traumas like what we’ve been facing for generations blur the line between our inside selves and the outside tactics we practice for survival.

We have to re-establish the threshold that separates our here, from the world out there.

Re-drawing that line allows us to remember that love does not make us weak, nor does it make us naïve. It keeps us accountable, during times like now when the impact of racialized oppression threatens to divide and deplete us. Love is resistance.

If we don’t learn this lesson, we will allow racism to distract us from the very thing that we fight against it so hard for – the right to live in a way that reflects our self-worth, dignity and God’s positive regard for all of humanity (including Black humanity).
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Black Healing Matters: Breaking the Silence on Male Sexual Assault

This article was originally posted on It appears here as a reprint with permission.

“With Badge In Hand”

There is a part of the movement for Black lives that is clearly focused on the survival of Black males. We are indeed concerned with what our brothers, fathers, sons, friends, lovers are experiencing as a result of racism. But, if we’re really going to do the work of helping the males in our communities heal, we have to not only battle against racism, we also have to break the silences in-house about some very painful places where our boys and men are hurting.

Patriarchy insists that to be male (to be a man), is to be invincible. Racism suggests that to be black and male is to be both threatening and invincible at the same time. These are the kinds of myths that prevent us from seeing the vulnerability of boys and men who have experienced sexual assault, and whose healing is even further complicated by racist ideals about the threatening nature of Black male embodiment.

This week Detective Kevin D. McNeil dismantles the stigma that prevents us from seeing and caring about the pain that males who have experienced sexual assault have been forced to hide for far too long.

Kevin D. McNeil
When it comes to violence toward women and children we need an extreme case or a celebrity offender before we have a conversation about abuse. And most of the time, we don’t believe it unless there’s some kind of picture or video proof because we don’t want to admit that abuse is happening every day. The majority of abuse cases have no videos. There are no press conferences. For the majority of victims there are people like me, a Special Victims Detective.

As a Special Victims Detective, abuse is a subject matter I know all too well. I interview abuse victims. I spend hours listening to little children recount how they were sexually molested by someone they trusted. I have walked into hospital rooms and examined the dead bodies of children who were killed by parents. I spend relentless hours putting together court cases that place suspects in jail. I take pride in getting justice for abuse victims. However, there is one victim I still have not been able to vindicate. That victim is me.

When I was just fourteen years old something happened to me that would change me forever. While walking home from a friend’s house I was kidnapped and sexually assaulted by an unknown adult male. After sexually assaulting me, the man straddled my bruised body, placed his hands around my neck, and began choking the life out of me. As I grasped for air all I could think about was my family.

I quickly thought about the concern and worry they would have for me if I came up missing. I knew I did not want to die this way so I fought back with all the strength my little frail body and bruised ego could muster up. I finally broke the man’s grasp, jumped up, and ran as fast as I could toward the open highway. The only thing that stood between me and death was a barbed wire fence.

I leapt over the fence and almost ran into the busy highway. Cars slowed down thinking I was some crazed person trying to commit suicide. Once the man noticed cars slowing down he decided to run in the opposite direction.

Grateful to be alive, I began my long walk home. My mind raced, “How would I explain to my mother coming home hours past my curfew wearing only a pair of muddy pants?” I thought about the embarrassment I would feel telling my family that my first sexual experience came from a man who forced me to do unimaginable things.

As a fourteen year old boy who already had self-esteem issues this would be the hardest thing I ever did in my life. I was so worried about what people would think about me, that I never pondered the severity of what had just happened.

The fact that I was almost killed or that I was sexually assaulted never crossed my mind. All that mattered to me was how I would look to my family and people who would hear my story. So when I finally got home I told my mother a lie. I told her that some boys in the neighborhood attempted to rob me but I got away. Since we lived in one of the roughest neighborhoods this was not difficult to believe. My mom offered to call the police but I told her it was not necessary.

The next day I went to school like nothing ever happened. In fact I spent the next three years playing high school football in the same stadium where my assault took place. Very few people know what happened to me that night, including my mother.

Every story of sexual assault is different, but the feeling of having to “move on” while hiding what happened is common. Kevin’s process of “moving on” has been a long one, in which he found a way to work through (rather than deny or avoid) the pain by taking a strong stand to help others.

The man who raped and tried to kill Kevin was never found, so his 14 year old self never saw the kind of accountability that he has dedicated his life and career to seeking for others in his work.

Every day that he shows up, speaks up, and does the intense work of tracking down people who use violence to harm others is another day added to his own healing, faith, resilience and strength.

When he’s not on the clock, Detective McNeil is hard at work as a motivational speaker, author, and consultant who focuses on empowering “individuals to recover their true, authentic selves and live out their life purpose.” Find him on Facebook at KevinMcneilBElieve.
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Monday, February 18, 2013

40 Days and Nights: Rolling in the Deep for Lent

This article was originally posted on It is reposted with permission.

Photo Credit: Petula Dvorak, Washington Post

I saw a woman with two small children walking the streets yesterday. The babies were energetic and seemingly oblivious to their mother’s fatigue as she did her best to make it down a chilly Atlanta street with two children in tow. It wasn’t just the temperature, and it wasn’t just how slow she was moving. What I saw was the heavy weight of worry that seemed to settle around her shoulders. Were they living in homelessness, roving from pillar to post? I thought of this family when I read the headline of a Washington Post article, 600 homeless children in DC and No One Seems to Care.

The faces of this Atlanta woman, her children, and the unnamed faces of DC’s 600 homeless children (not whether or not I would give up some food, or cutback on watching TV) are on my mind as I launch into this five week Lent series with the Urban Cusp family.

The babies are on my mind for Lent. The women, men and children who have been cut down and kept down by violence, illness, and lack have my attention.

I’m asking myself, how can I spend the next 40 days and nights trying to change my consciousness, spirit and habits to impact change beyond myself?

For the next 40 days and nights I invite you to think, pray and dialogue with me about the Lenten journey. For some folks, this will be a time to give up something that is related to an area of challenge. Others will spend the time stretching themselves to add something. Keep in mind, what you add or give up doesn’t always have to be material. What about changing your ways and your thinking?

Instead of cussing every day you wake up to go to your job, acknowledge this job as a stepping stone, check the funky attitude at the door, speak positive words of forward motion, and ask God for the clarity to develop a solid exit plan.

If you’re like me and have a tendency to be overwhelmed by society’s big problems (HIV/AIDS, intimate partner violence, homelessness,) break it down into tasks you can manage for the next 40 days. For example, we’re in the throes of winter. Think about washing and donating old blankets, coats and any other clothes your children have outgrown. Offer your interest and/or expertise as a volunteer to an agency that focuses on public policies that impact systemic transformation. At the very least, commit 40 days to looking people in the face when they ask you for assistance. How would you change a person’s day (and your own self), if even when you have nothing to give them, you offer the deeper respect of eye contact that acknowledges their humanity?

Then, there are relationships (the one you have with your own self, as well as with God and others). Is there a part of yourself that you just can’t muster the strength to accept, let alone, love? Are you unable to let yourself, someone else, or maybe even God (I speak of what I know on this one) off the hook? What would it be like to spend the next 40 days and nights slowly opening your most vulnerable truths up for deep healing, restoration and affirmation?

Recently, we saw lots of folks walking the streets with crosses smudged across their foreheads for Ash Wednesday. They’ve participated in the ritual of ashes that marks the beginning of the Lent journey. Every ritual has an outward expression, but it also has a hidden deeper meaning that speaks of God’s inner transforming activity. Don’t stop with the outward expression. Hope you got your ashes, and now let’s go rolling in the deep on all things spiritual, personal and social.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Bought and Sold: The Exploitation of Female Sexuality in a Market Driven Society

This article was originally posted on the YWCA USA blog. It is reposted with permission

Recently I’ve watched the sexual assault case against an extremely affluent international businessman unravel due to efforts to render the victim in-credible. The case kept coming up in the back of my mind (interrupting me really) when I sat down to work on this blog about image, beauty and women’s power. Then I turned to wonder… What if there’s a connection between the two? What if the beauty and image debate is part of a much larger (more significant) conversation about the use and abuse of women as currency in social and political games of power?

Let’s walk this one through…
In a market driven economy, enhancing female sex appeal has become a prime ingredient in sales campaigns targeting females from age six to sixty. The alarming part of it all is that children are being targeted for the same products directed at grown women.

 The same Skechers shapeup sneakers that sexy siren Kim Kardashian endorses as the key to keeping her “assets” in shape now come in size 2 for seven year old girls (to shape up what?!)

A few months back, ABC reported that a mother was injecting her daughter with botox to prevent the signs of aging (at age eight?) to keep her in tip-top shape for the next round of kiddy pageants.

 Abercrombie and Fitch’s 2011 spring line of swimwear targeting girls as young as seven years old featured a padded, womanly shaped “push-up triangle,” bikini top (really?).

What’s the problem with this? These consumer-driven marketing tactics exploit an important developmental stage of play and wonderment by over-stimulating girls with products that prematurely direct attention to their sexuality.

In a Good Morning America interview about marketing and the psychology of children, Dr. Logan Levkoff, explained the problem well. She said, "We have a society where we sexualize little girls, almost from birth on... The fact is all these 'Toddlers and Tiaras' shows, the products, whether it's push-up bras for tween girls or shapeups for girls to firm their butts, all of this sends the message that our girls aren't good enough."

The net effect: Girls learn very early that in a market driven society, their power lay in their ability to buy products and sell themselves. In essence, their bodies and sexuality are used as currency in the very adult game of market place consumerism.

When we underestimate the significance of this sexual socialization, we do so to the detriment of being able to recognize the role it plays in the ongoing social phenomenon of objectification and violence that begins early and continues through out women’s lives.

I raise this issue against the backdrop of the rape allegations against Dominique Strauss-Khan because of how in this case too, female sexuality has become a pawn in larger social and political games of power. Only the accuser and alleged perpetrator know exactly what happened. But what we know for sure is that the case has gained its notoriety in some ways because of the stark contrasts in power and resources between the accused and the accuser.

It raises core issues about the collision of gender and power that occurs when a woman claims her right to pursue justice in the face of overwhelming social pressure. At various points there have been comments alluding to the rape allegation as a ploy to disposition Strauss-Khan as a candidate for the French presidency. The possibility of the Guinean immigrant and maid being raped has been overshadowed by the political forces that reposition her rape claim as a minor part in a larger plot to sabotage him politically.

In spite of the fact that the physical evidence collected for the investigation has not come into dispute, the main story has become the discrediting of an alleged rape victim as the now predator whose real aim is to make money and topple a presidential bid.

Here we see female sexuality, this time an alleged rape turned on its side to project the victim as the attacker, used as currency in a larger battle for social and political power.

In the case of marketing that targets little girls for products that are really meant for grown women, as well as with the Guinean housekeeper whose sexual assault allegations are being obscured by politics and violations of power, both young and old find their sexuality objectified and thus violated.

Taken together the situations represent an arc from adolescence through adulthood that points to social processes at play in culture that dis-empower women through their sexuality.

So, where does this leave us?

It leaves me more and more aware of how what I say and do around little girls matters. In a society that would commodify their curiosities about womanhood, one of the most important things we can supply them with is encounters that do not encourage them to buy and sell themselves. Our girls are watching how we walk through the world for cues on how to be. That’s why it’s equally important to point out to them the ways that society unjustly exploits women for selfish social and political motives.

It’s never too early, and (woman to woman) it’s never too late to defy disempowering processes in society.’re worth it!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Deep Impact: What’s at Stake for Our Girls in the Underlying Ism’s of Popular Culture

We live in a media culture that is so filled with disempowering depictions of women and narrow standards of beauty that we rarely question the content of these images that we absorb on a daily basis. This Monday (June 20, 2011, 3-4EST) I will join Susan L. Taylor (Essence Magazine), Deborah Rhode (Author of the Beauty Bias) and Gloria Lau (Executive Director, YWCA National Office) to seriously engage the influence of these images for the YWCA Webcast, “Beauty and the Beholder: The Politics of Beauty.”

But first, I had to do some thinking on my own.

When I stepped back to take a long look at the landscape of female imagery in popular culture, I realized these images functioned as primary vehicles for transmitting norms that undergird appearance discrimination in the lives of women. That’s when the real issue came into focus: the ism’s that popular depictions of women promote and the psychological harm they do to many – especially our girls.

Race-Ism…Promoting the False Association Between Beauty, Intelligence and Skin Color
Just the other day a video caught my attention. The little girl couldn’t have even been five years old (maybe in kindergarten). Her adult interviewer asks her to choose from a lineup of cartoons depicting African American girls whose skin tones range in color from lighter skinned to darker skinned. The interviewer asks the child to pick the girl from the lineup who is smart and beautiful. The girl repeatedly points to the lighter skinned cartoons. When asked why this one is smart and beautiful, she responds, “because she’s light.” The interviewer asks similar questions, this time asking the girl to point to the child who is dumb or ugly. Repeatedly, the brown skinned African American girl points to the darker images. When asked why, she tells the interviewer, “because she’s black.” Not even dark, but “black.”

I shook my head…that is deep.

The scene I described is from Bill Duke’s “Dark Skinned Girls,” a documentary detailing the pain that many darker skinned African American girls and women experience about the color of their skin.

By kindergarten the girl had taken in, and was wearing as truth, the racist images and messages from her social environment that taught her to appreciate lighter skin and to reject darker skin (skin like her own.)

It got me to thinking…

Other than magazines that specifically target the African American market, how often do we see ads featuring darker skinned Black women in positions of power? How common is the image of a darker skinned female executive in an ad targeting the finance and business sectors? It’s easier to notice the absence of darker skinned imagery when it comes to the beauty sector, but what about the outlets that focus squarely on intelligence, business and power.

How does this lack of positive association and imagery impact our girls’ race-consciousness?

Sex-Ism…Setting Standards and Manufacturing Womanhood
The second image that came to mind is of a little red-headed girl. She is smiling into a camera. Behind her you hear a voice singing (warning), “here it comes…here it comes…here it comes!” The camera zooms in on her face and the screen explodes with a barrage of visuals: scantily clad, pencil thin models in compromising sexual positions and ads promoting products that will “fix” the thing about your body that makes you unbeautiful.

And then come the practices…the actions to take when the products don’t cut it: graphic shots of plastic surgery to increase this or shrink that, women starving themselves (anorexia), forcing themselves to vomit (bulimia), diet pills, appearance driven obsessive exercising.

Yet again I shake my head…this too is deep.

The clip is from Onslaught, a Dove ad that explicitly focuses on the role that the media plays in setting and maintaining beauty stands in our culture. What I noticed is that the ads aren’t just selling a product to make you beautiful…they’re packaging and selling womanhood.

More often than not girls and women internalize these standards because we’ve been taught that attaining these physical qualities will make us sexually appealing and socially acceptable (mostly for the sake of attracting men). To meet these standards, is to be desireable, which is of course the essence of what it means to be a woman. Really?

There are several problems with this: 1) Beauty by this standard allows someone who isn’t a woman to set standards by which women gauge not only their physical attributes, but their value as a human being; 2) Womanhood defined in terms of appearance fails to give so much as a nod to character and common sense (the twin powers that give beauty its shine); 3) Beauty defined in this way is incredibly heteronormative (what about the woman whose goals for attracting a mate don’t include the approval and desire of men – how then does she measure her identity as a woman?)

What impact do these loaded images have on girls’ perceptions of what it means to be a woman?

Bill Duke’s “Dark Skinned Girls” and Dove’s Campaign for True Beauty remind me of what’s at stake in these images: the hearts and minds of our girls.

Our girls deserve the right to imagine themselves without the fetters of the ism’s embedded in popular depictions of women. But, It’s going to take some work on our part. We’ve got to put as much energy into creating opportunities for them to see themselves as they can be, rather than in the narrow places that isms’ carve out for them.

How are you doing it?

Rather than invite more opportunities to analyze what’s not right about what we see, I’d like to switch it up a bit. Drop me a line to let me know about the ways you create space for the girls in your life to see themselves fully, in spite of the isms.

How do you encourage the girls in your life to move in the freedom that comes with self definition?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

"Man Down" - Rihanna Uncovers the Anguish of Rape Victims and Calls the Community to Accountability

My initial reaction to Rihanna’s “Man Down” video was to ask if there was some kind of connection between it and her personal experiences with violence that we were all made aware of in the 2009 coverage of her assault by a man she was dating (Chris Brown). It seems that since that experience, issues of dominance and relationship violence have become more common in her lyrics and visual representations. Consider her work on Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie,” a song depicting a volatile cycle of passion and pain in a violent relationship between a man and a woman who batter each other but won’t separate.

When I watched “Man Down” and then read some of the posts, especially the negative press, I wondered about whether or not some of her personal experiences AND what she observes in the lives of other women has impacted how seriously she takes her work as an artist.
I may not be far off on this one... Just days after the video was released, Rihanna called in to BET’s 106th and Park show to talk about the video.

The 23 year old artist said, “Rape is, unfortunately, happening all over the world and in our own homes, and we continue to cover it up and pretend it doesn't happen...”
She explained, “Boys and girls feel compelled to be embarrassed about it and hide it from everyone, including their teachers, their parents and their friends. That only continues to empower the abusers."

In several cultures, the work of the artist serves as the moral barometer of the community. In this sense, the work isn't as much about their personal experience as it is about what's happening on a spiritual level that shows up in our dealings with one another in the wider communal and cultural context.

I must admit that I was indeed shocked when I saw the video (the blood spilling from the back of the man's head).

That shock was matched by sorrow and sadness over the amount of people (girls, boys, women and men) who are sexually assaulted and who spend days of their lives in anguish because there is no justice really when it comes to the trauma and pain of rape and assault - especially in a culture where people blame the victim when the concern really should be the perpetrators’ use of force.

I thought of the women who are in jail right now because they killed people they were involved with in an act of self defense after years of having been abused. Is there justice in being put in jail because you were defending your life? Do we need to take a serious look at what we mean when we use that word, “justice?”

I also thought of the story in Texas about the eleven year old who was gang raped in a trailer by 18 boys and men. When the news hit, this was the response from a woman in her community, “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.” The “this” she was likely referring to are the criminal charges (and perhaps the guilt?) of their alleged offense.

I shook my head...

What about what the girl will have to live with for the rest of her life - the mental anguish and physical scars of gang rape. How is it that the perpetrators’ needs came to outweigh the suffering of an eleven year old victim? Furthermore, what happens when girls can't even count on adult women to side with them as they face the aftermath of gender-based violence?

So, all of this prompted me to consider Rihanna's “Man Down” from the perspective of people who need to know that there are women who use their art to raise awareness about the reality of women’s anguish over rape, but who will also use their art and public platform to call the community to accountability over rape as a communal offense that impacts EVERYONE.

I think that's just what Rihanna is doing, using her artistry to: 1) Unsettle the conscious and unconscious ways that society has largely accepted violence against women as a norm; 2) Flat footedly reject the idea that responsible, mature women handle their pain and rage quietly and privately. It's as if society wants the victim to handle their pain in secret, just to protect the community from being embarrassed by what's happening. Shame on that!

Rihanna isn’t alone. Actress Gabrielle Union took the opportunity to engage rape as a public concern, and the rage she felt when she tried to kill her rapist.

To be clear, I do not suggest that those of us who have been hurt take to the streets to shoot everyone who has hurt us. But, what I do recognize is that her video shows us what can (and does) happen when people weigh their pain against society's acceptance of violent acts that enforce dominance: They feel the overwhelming weight of the community's non-commitment to justice, and take matters into hands that pull triggers.

I appreciate Rihanna's willingness to use her media presence as a medium for consciousness raising. I’m interested in her next step as an artist: I would like to see her participate in the opportunity for dialogue about rape’s rage and change in our communities that her video creates.