My rape story makes me feel guilty. I will tell it as simply as I can.
I was an eighth grader, a “senior” at a magnet middle school for “gifted” children. In the way that children who display academic aptitude are plucked from their neighborhood schools, I was separated from mine, and my school-aged neighbors, and bussed less than three miles away from an increasingly rough neighborhood. I was born on Mack and Helen, on Detroit’s “Black Bottom,” a notorious and working poor neighborhood that had become synonymous with urban blight by the mid 20th century. My mother and stepfather moved a few inches further east, to the lower half of a two family flat on Eastlawn and Charlevoix, where as a kindergartner I was once pummeled by much older boys with snowballs stuffed with rocks.
There were 70’s gangs in my neighborhoods whose 50s style monikers belied their menace; The Bubble Gum Gang and the city-wide famous Errol Flynns. By six I preferred to read than go outside. “Outside” there was confrontation masked as “playing” mean talk meant to carry on the tradition of signifying, but these dozens had become a bit meaner, more misogynistic. As a post-toddler, I didn’t have the language to describe this misogyny, I knew only that being called a “yellow heifer” when all I wanted to do was learn to Double Dutch hurt my feelings. Then there was the uneasy way sexual attention from grown men made me feel.
There was a group in particular, who posted up on the Vatican-style wall meant to protect the Polish Catholic church that served summer free lunches. When groups of tiny girls walked by they’d comment on a pair of nipples that wanted to sprout or what would a decade later be a round ass. If you weren’t lucky enough to be in a group larger than three, these twenty-something men would reach right out and “smooch” our booties, smooching being a euphemism for sexual harassment by pedophiles. The boys our age would watch and learn and chase us down on the playground and try and smooch our booties. Or drag us out of sight and dry hump us, or worse, tear our panties down and show their friends. I’d like to say this wasn’t most of the boys, but it was. It was the few boys who didn’t play that way, like my friend Junior who the other boys called a fag, and who I remember most.
Junior heroically got socked in the eye, dragging a much older girl (she was a second grader, we were still in Kindergarten) away from a group of boys. When he told the teacher, and then the principal, what happened, he was threatened so badly by the boys and men in our neighborhood he and his mom left our block. I was so sad the day his grandmother came and put eleven stuffed black garbage bags, containing all of their belongings, into her wood paneled station wagon. I avoided the playground from then on. Became a teacher’s pet. Spent lunch hour organizing and cleaning the room.
Then my mother and stepfather moved me and my brother a mile North, past Chandler Park Drive, to a neighborhood that was made affordable to my waitress mom and mechanic stepdad because of sudden white flight. My parents bought a gray brick three bedroom house with a pool from a white family running to Adrian, Michigan (which would in a decade become all Mexican–I imagine they ran again). Having an above ground pool that was 6 feet deep in the center was a huge deal. My brother and I leveraged our access to chlorinated water to make friends in our new neighborhood, which to us felt damn near upper middle class. I was a better swimmer than my brother and most of the boys he befriended, but it didn’t stop me from nearly drowning the time three boys held me underwater trying to remove my bikini top. At the time I remember being humiliated. When my top was finally removed, there wasn’t much to see. I was seven. Still, I internalized the attack and sat in our kitchen nook, watching the boys bully my brother in our own backyard, taking over our pool almost ten at a time. At night, I’d sneak into the pool and float on my back and count stars. I’d dream I was queen of my pool, but more importantly, that I alone had dominion over my body. I’d stare at the moon til my fingers pruned, but always, after the attack on my halter bikini, in a one-piece racer-style swimsuit. Or sometimes shorts and a long tee.
As in my old neighborhood, my fear of “outside” was widely understood as me being “stuck up” and “lightskinned”. When I did come out to play, few of my friends found my interests interesting. I liked to tag and describe rocks and soil, read science fiction and drum the theme song to the Six Million Dollar Man on empty chlorine pails. I was never great at Double Dutch, or backwards skating. I did excel at jacks, and would always have a set and a ball handy in my pocket should one of the girls on my block be interested. Sometimes they wanted to play, most times they ignored me. And so it went. I wasn’t the loneliest girl in my city but I probably believed I was. By third grade I began to understand my mother to be an alcoholic. In the Pisces way, this was mostly an act of self-harm. Having drunk a bottle of vodka, she’d be passed out on the couch by the time we got home from school. My brother saw it as an opportunity to steal money from her purse to go to the arcade. I saw it as an opportunity to clean.
It wasn’t until the summer before fourth grade that I discovered I was fearless. My “real” father, who was always present, had gifted me and my brother a matching pair of green and yellow Schwins. The boys on the block knocked my brother, who is 363 days younger than me, off his bike and called it their own. My brother came home bloodied, muddied and crying. I put down my book (I distinctly remember I was reading Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time), went to the backyard where my own bike was chained to the fence, unlocked my bike, put the chain around my neck and rode around the corner to get my brother’s bike. When I got around the corner three boys were arguing about who was going to ride my brother’s bike next. I hopped off my own, and it fell to the ground on my friend Marqueila’s grass. I told them to give me the damn bike.
It was my first time cursing to anyone but my mirror. The boys laughed at me. I took the bike chain from around my neck and swung it at the legs of the boy trying to mount my brother’s bike. He fell to the ground in pain and the group’s leader, Marvel, an older, 5th grade boy who’d already grown taller than my mother, pushed the bike my way, holding the other two boys back from revenge as I walked our twin Schwinns home around the corner. I remember being surprised at my lack of adrenaline rush (I’d learned about such things watching the Bionic Man). My heart wasn’t beating fast at all, and what I remember most is how deeply annoyed I was that my book was interrupted. My diary entry from that night says as much.
By fifth grade I learned I loved to drive. I’d steal my mother’s car as she was passed out on the couch, stack some books on the driver’s seat and circle my neighborhood with one arm out the window like I’d seen my father do. In my mind, my neighbors were duly impressed. By middle school my writing skills had become public knowledge and boys at my neighborhood junior high, Alexander Hamilton, would pay me their lunch money to write their essays. Some of these boys were as old as fourteen and had mopeds. My friend Darius had a red moped and a chin length jheri curl and had been held back once. He really wanted to make it to high school so I began doing all his homework, and when he ran out of money I’d barter rides on the back of his moped. He’d take me back to my old neighborhood, which had only become
worse in the three or four years since we moved, and I would watch kids and young men who’d dress alike battle dance each other doing elaborate pop and lock routines. Darius was the big brother I never had. He’d remind lecherous high school drop-outs that I was only eleven (“she ain’t even got not titties man!”), backing them off me when they’d try to talk to and touch me. I was losing my fear of “outside.”
My seventh grade English teacher nominated me for the highly selective magnet school, Bates Academy, where I’d graduate from eighth grade. And it was the spring of my second semester at my new school that Marvel and two boys broke into my house to rape me. It was storming that night. A movie kind of storm. My mom was waitressing nights and my stepdad often stopped at a bar near his job before coming home. I’d cooked dinner for my brother and his friend Bo. Or rather, I’d shook some drumsticks in a Shake n Bake bag and roasted them in the oven, then chopped some carrots and poured Italian dressing over them and fed my brother and Bo, who was from the block where the boys who’d stolen my brother’s bike lived.
I was in my bedroom on the second floor when the doorbell rang. Bo was in the bedroom attached to my room, a room that had once belonged to my parents, but since they’d moved to the basement for privacy, was called “the playroom” where they left a bed, a tv and a chair. Bo was sitting on the chair watching tv. The bell rang more than once, and I went downstairs to see if my stepdad had lost his house key. He had not. Marvel and two other tall boys were yelling through our heavy wooden, locked door, through the thunder and the rain, for my brother to open the door. I told my brother he better not even think of it. My brother looked at me, on the stairs, and then again through the window, where Marvel was threatening his life should he not open the door and my brother did something that still makes my heart sink. He opened the door and let the outside in.
The three boys, who were all older than 16 (I’d learn this later, from Friend of the Court documents) pushed my brother aside the moment he cracked the door and chased me upstairs, where I was hoping to lock myself in my room and use the fire escape ladder my dad bought me to run to my neighbor Ms Erma’s, across the street. I remember having that plan in my head. But they ran faster than me. And were stronger. And they threw me on the bed in the playroom, where Bo sat frozen, and pulled off my panties. There was an attempt, many attempts, to pin me down, to keep my legs from kicking, but I would not stop kicking. I kicked and I punched and I screamed and I spat and I squirmed.
One of the teenagers pulled his penis out; it was my first time seeing a real one since I’d bathed with my brother as a pre-schooler. I kicked the boy in his groin and he doubled over, just like in the movies. One of the other boys slapped me, and for a moment I didn’t fight. Then Marvel pulled out his penis and I regained my fight. I wanted to will myself into the Tasmanian devil, to be un-pin-downable, impenetrable. And I succeeded. After what was more than 15 minutes, what felt like much longer than the second half of the Brady Bunch, which, once the police came, was how I measured the time, the three boys finally gave up. And left. One of them said “She don’t wanna fuck.” And they left. My brother never came upstairs to help. Bo never left the chair where he sat in the same room the entire time.
I’ve told this story three times. To my two best friends and to a lover I trust. In the sister circle where I sit, or the many friendships where my girlfriends have asked me to witness the telling of their own rape stories, I’ve stayed silent. I always felt my not being raped because I refused to stop fighting would seem an indictment of their stories. And I don’t feel that way. I don’t believe they weren’t strong enough or should have fought if they didn’t or that their rapes were in any way their faults. But I never tell my own because of a kind of survivor’s guilt. That, and the deep contempt I hold for Bo and my brother. But now, here, I see it all differently. Now I know I tapped into something bigger than me.
My audacity is my fight, to be bigger than my fear. I’ve never been able to summon fearlessness by anger, even when it’s been a reaction to deep injustice, social or personal, instead it’s functioned in my life as a kind of walking meditation, one that has driven me around the world and back. That stormy night on the east side of Detroit was terrifying, but it was also the night I learned there’s nothing I fear too much to fight.
Excerpted from Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, edited by Rebecca Walker (Soft Scull Press, 2012)