TW: detailed descriptions of childhood abuse (physical, sexual, emotional), death, self-injury, silencing, ageism, domestic violence, trauma.
In our latest post, an anonymous writer opens the door for much needed conversation about the domestic violence and sexual abuse that happens in some African and Caribbean communities. It is a taboo topic – difficult, uncomfortable, and toxic and vicims and survivors of such abuses are often left to deal with their scars alone, and suffer in silence. The No Fly on the WALL team had the privilege of meeting award-winning writer and Feminist, Feminista Jones at Women of the World Festival at Southbank yesterday and during her captivating and inspiring talk the subject of inappropriate behaviour by older men in black communities was raised. For women and men who have been victims, the trauma can have long term effects. Under the guise of ‘respect your elders’ and ‘do not question people who are older than you’, horrors are ignored by family members and friends. Well, we say it’s finally time to open the floor and demand that we talk about our elders.
We need to talk about the concept of ‘elders’.
More specifically: listening to your elders, respecting your elders, being silenced by your elders, being silent for your elders —regardless of whether or not they deserve the honour which is automatically bestowed upon them as part of the course in many of African-Caribbean communities.
I am in awe of the horrors through which many of the older people in my family and community have fought, survived, and sometimes fallen. It inspires me and lifts me up to understand their strength and to absorb the lessons learnt from their struggles. I am grateful and I do not underestimate the wisdom that they have to share.
But I am tired of being silenced by elders who do not deserve respect. I am tired of feeling broken and choked by the notion that age automatically gives people power over me and my autonomy.
As a child, I was taken into the hospital and my father made me kiss the recently deceased body of his uncle. I cannot have met my great uncle many times before. I could hear his widow, my great aunt, wailing in the background. She had been dragged away by relatives, probably to be sedated, but her voice echoed through the hospital.
The repeated, heaving wails were harrowing to my confused ears.
I was too small to reach the hospital bed, so I was lifted up by my father before I even knew what was happening. The body was cold and his face was already sunken. I must have wriggled, or maybe I did not. He was an elder, after all – even in death. I was four.
In the same year, an elder in my family raped my sister and me. It had been instilled in us that our bodies were not ours to own. It had been beaten into us to be polite, to not argue, to be seen and not heard. When we attended the GP, our vaginas were swollen and red. The only thing that we said was that it hurt. We did not speak that which to this day remains unspoken.
Throughout my childhood, I watched another elder in my family abuse his partner and child verbally, physically and sexually. Naturally, my sister and I were also abused by him. We had learnt by then that politeness trumps everything. These abuses remained unspoken.
My sister recently told me that another elder, unrelated to us by blood, but related to us in the sense of community, used to make her sit on his lap while he ground his genitals into her and told her stories. She was too polite to get down or say anything. I wish I had known, because maybe I could have pulled her off on the pretext that I wanted to play with her. Perhaps it is some kind of sick blessing that I did not. Perhaps now I would be carrying the burden of guilt that I had been too ‘respectful’ to intervene.
There were many other elders like him, in both our lives and the lives of family and friends.
Now, as an adult, I often see these elders in family gatherings. As tradition dictates, I must kiss and hug them in greeting and in parting. I must smile and nod and accept their criticism of the life that I am leading post-Cambridge.
I must thank them for their invasive compliments on my appearance and answer their questions on my weight loss in an even, carefree tone. There is not a single part of me that does not squirm with fear and disgust when I am faced with this task. I call them by their familial titles, tokens of respect that burst in my mouth with their bitterness.
My father is a lion. He is mighty and he is fearsome. In the past, this was a blessing, especially when we needed protecting. We grew up in hardship, poverty, surrounded by violent racism.
The violence did not stop at our door. When he is angry, he shouts. He used to slap us and beat us with objects when we needed disciplining. He punched a hole through the door when on one occasion he attacked my mother. I can remember his shouted misogyny when they argued.
When he shouts at me these days, adult as I am, I am reduced to a shaking wreck. He is angry with me now. He feels that I should have consulted him on a recent decision of mine, despite the fact that we have been essentially estranged for five years.
My beloved grandmother (an elder who I respect and honour more than I have virtual ink to express) has been chanting the mantra to me ‘honour thy mother and father’. She counsels me to apologise to my father for owning my body, my relationship, my life.
At this point in time, I cannot honour a man who has done so much damage to me. I cannot honour the elders who have been so detrimental to the health and happiness of my sister, my cousins and loved ones.
My forearm has yawned open wounds that spoke my heartache when my mouth was unable. As they have closed and knitted in raised bumps that remind me daily of my silence, my tongue has caught fire. Slowly but surely I am emboldened in the company of others. Today I went to work without a cardigan and the fucks I didn’t give are still in my coat pocket.
I haven’t the skin and the blood and bones left to piece myself back together again, so I am stitching myself a childhood from a patchwork quilt of cinnamon hugs, duvet-heavy sisterwhispers, secret hand squeezes, dances, laughter and song.
It smells of vanilla and cocoa butter and feels like the ache of freshly washed and tightly cornrowed Sunday hair. It is sprinkled with bloodstains and breadcrumbs.
Into the significant patches of corduroy and light blue denim I have woven the words of my favourite authors. It has a nightlight attached for midnight reading, of course, and it can make me (in)visible at will.
In this moment, now, arbitrarily respecting elders is blown out of the waters by the respect I have for my sister—who in all her youth offered me a pure love which burns fiercely in my belly when darkness threatens to overwhelm.