By Reny Taylor
“While we may disown the racist caricatures of Black men and boys as super-predators, we simultaneously imagine them as voids, vacuous figures that we are fine not knowing. We do not care about how they suffer during their lives, but love performing outrage at their deaths.”
—Dr. Tommy J Curry
As a young boy, I did not have an understanding that Black boys could experience physical and sexual abuse as violence. I was not allowed to express myself as vulnerable to violence in a world where Black boys are adultified and blamed for the abuse they endured. Because of this, I navigated the world as a survivor, scraping together fragments of a broken heart, without ever breaking the silence.
As a Black man, I’ve never felt particularly safe or protected; not mentally or physically. I was very young when I realized that not one person on this earth could save me from the fear and terror people wanted to inflict on my very being. For me, It's always felt as if it was all simply a matter of time. And though these feelings have always captured me, it appears that I am of nobody’s concern. People are usually more concerned with their own feelings (e.g. “How could you say this?”) when hearing my cry. And with that said, for many Black men, hurt no longer hurts anymore. We would much rather retreat into our own silence and isolation.
Indicted victims in life and death
Calling attention to the misery and social death Black boys and men experience can be painful and arduous. Black males experience what Professor Maurice Wallace of Duke University calls the “monocularistic gaze of western racialism.” Through monocularity, Black males are “enframed” within a narrow lens of understanding and possibility. Whereas many groups are allowed to redefine and shape narratives for themselves, Black males remain mired in their tropes. We are told Black boys are not traumatized by rape because they enjoy it, and that despite the disadvantages targeting them, putting their issues at the center is, according to popular narratives, doing the work of patriarchy.
We have been socialized to believe Black males can experience death, but not pain; can be killed but not hurt. That is to say, the primary accepted form of discourse about Black males, is prefiguration through death and dying (i.e. police terror, homicide, etc). In efforts to correct this framing through terms such as “Black misandry” first coined by Professor William A. Smith from the University of Utah, Black males are further demonized as violent and pathological. In other words, the necessary dedication of time to holding space for Black males and empirically studying their lives registers as violence to those who believe Black lives are already overdetermined by the centering of those Black males. We may recognize them in death, but dare not analyze or understand them in life.
In her book “Bad Boys”: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity, Professor Ann Arnett Ferguson argues Black boys are “adultified" insofar as their expressions of masculinity are taken as threatening, and rarely afforded the assumption of innocence enjoyed by their white male peers:
“At the intersection of this complex of subject positions are African American boys who are doubly displaced: as Black children, they are not seen as childlike but adultified: as Black males, they are denied the masculine dispensation constituting white males as being “naturally naughty” and are discerned as willfully bad.”
In this fashion, Black boys are viewed as intrinsically deviant; walking threats in need of containment (Ferguson 2001). Said differently, on the one hand, “boys will be boys” is a trope used to bolster the idea of masculine traits, and often at the very expense of girls; however, Black boys, due to adultification, are seen as threats that must be controlled and coerced into docility for the comfort of the public’s space. This reality, speaks to what Dr. Tommy Curry defines as Racist or anti-black misandry:
“Whereas Black male vulnerability expresses the actual disadvantage and violence Black males suffer as both Black and male, racist misandry expresses the vulnerability Black men and boys have to the obsessive hatred society directs towards them. In this sense, racial misandry not only expresses the pathological aversion society holds toward Black males but also names the ontological program that is constantly operating to socialize the public into believing that, given the savage nature of Black men and boys, the various cruelties and stereotypes used to dehumanize them are accurate.”
Racial misandry contributes to the phobias generated to justify Black male death. It results in the fetishizing of their bodies while making them appear invulnerable to rape and sexual assault. Racist misandry leads to a kind of disposability for Black males, reducing them to sacrifices and spectacles in the movements built around their deaths. In this regard, the dissemination of Black male death throughout the technologies of our era (i.e. social media, cable news, smart phones) is the reinforcing imagery of who, in fact, should die.
This representation is perhaps better understood as a re-presentation of the desire for dead Black males. David Marriott writes in Photography and Lynching “the photograph represents the climax of an unfolding drama. More than an aid to memory (though it is that too) the photograph is a part of the process, another form of racist slur which can travel through time to do its work.” This hypervisibility of Black male death is inextricably tied to a market of consumption or as Marriott posits “the violated body of the Black man comes to be used as a defense against the anxiety, or hatred, that body appears to generate.” In fact, whenever the gruesome death of a Black male is captured, one can consistently expect at least one outcome: a repurposing of Black males as threats to the communities they live in. In short, the death of Black males is a form of manufactured consent; it is a way for the state to act on behalf of the desires of society.
Indicted victims of sexual violence
Discourse on the sexual vulnerability and rape, regarding Black boys, has failed to focus on Black boys and their experiences. Rather, it pivots to narratives we intuitively believe about them. This shift in discourse allows for blame to displace empathy, thus frustrating the purpose of healing and justice for victims of sexual violence. These boys are thought of as men, not preyed upon by adults, but adults themselves caught in the throes of sexual conquest. As a thought experiment: if one were to hear the words “Black boy” attached to “brutal” or “violent” rape, their most immediate thoughts paint an image of a violent Black boy.
For many, a Black boy will be imagined as inflicting violence without ever considering him as the victim of rape. No example becomes more salient than the near-inevitable victim-blaming when Black men, who were victims as boys, open up about their sexual vulnerability. The idea these men “enjoyed” being preyed upon, and that Black men “celebrate” early sexual debut, is the primary focus of the discourse. Seldom does the discourse turn to the perpetrators who subjected Black boys to sexual violence.
In this way, men who were once victims—or boys who are currently victims—are ultimately responsible for being raped, and the phantom men who “celebrate” the sexual predation upon young men are raised as the facilitators. For what other groups would we be willing to accept this logic?
Often, in instances where women and girls are blamed for being sexually violated (i.e. “being fast”, not dressed appropriately, intoxicated, hanging out late, etc) there exist narratives to resist these toxic, harmful logics, and which seek to fulfill the humanity of the victims. With Black males, no such response is deemed necessary or warranted. This extends to Black men who are also disproportionate victims of “made to penetrate” and ”sexual coercion” violence.
If some Black men suggest they “enjoyed” having sex with older women as children, and we take that at face value, this ultimately suggests an eagerness to believe black boys have sexual agency with adults, while somehow not able to have the vulnerability to be sexually violated. Moreover, this constitutes a clear form of victim blaming. One psychologist, Dr. Carl Bell suggests, “the way that you protect yourself against a horrible incident [of sexual assault] is to develop a sense of mastery or a sense of power around the incident.” If we begin from the premise that Black males are sexual deviants who incessantly desire sex, then we cannot see them when they are in fact victims.
The mythos around Black male sexual vulnerability being viewed as a “rites of passage” persist, even when studies show a far more complex dynamic. For instance, when the perpetrator is female, Black boys have no language or discourse addressing female perpetration; many do not understand it as being preyed on or abused. And because Black boys are perceived to have sexual agency at very young ages, they are not understood to be vulnerable to rape by women, only perpetrators against women. In contrast, there is no shortage of language or discourse of men being perpetrators, when men commit rape—though still drastically underreported and under prosecuted—it is more understood as an act of violence.
Nonetheless, Black men with high profiles have shown bravery in sharing their experiences of rape without lauding it as a form of accomplishment. Actor and martial artist Michael Jai White, as well as Hip-hop and R&B artists Da Baby, Tech n9ne, Bishop Juan, August Alsina, and Lacrae have all come forward with stories of sexual violence perpetrated against them at a young age.
In an interview, comedian DeRay Davis once said, “I’ve had older women, who thought I was not being parented correctly take advantage of me.” Davis’ was raped by a woman at the age of eleven years old. “I remember not having any hair on me, and it was disgusting,” he said of the encounter. Rapper Coolio shared his experience on a televised panel saying “my aunt made me lick her, I was eight years old. I didn't know what I was doing. I used to dream about the devil all the time because my aunt told me that if I told anyone the devil would come from hell and stab me”.
Most recently, during a Verzuz battle between legendary hip hop artist DMX and Snoop Dogg, DMX revealed “At 13, I was fucking a bitch 26, sexual abuse but I was getting my kicks… I used to get beat senseless by mom dukes, so I grew up thinking, that’s just what moms do”.
Similarly, DJ Ghost, a popular social media and Hip-Hop personality said, “This happened to me twice, two different times with two different women.” He says, “I was sitting there crying like a motherfucka while I was getting my dick sucked, and I’m thirteen years old at the time.” DJ Ghost went on to say that he wasn’t attracted to older women at the time. After the rape concluded, he overheard the woman who molested him discussing it with another woman outside the room suggesting it would be easy for her to go and rape him as well.
Though these stories are all public, the broader trend hasn’t warranted a serious enough study on the sexual vulnerability of Black males—although there is data to suggest Black males are one of the most vulnerable populations to sexual violence, according to NISVS data conducted by the CDC. Society maintains that Black males should continue to accrue and signify the embodiment of all fears and phobias. Many of the frames we use about Black males today, rely on old racist theories such as subculture of violence and sex stratification theories.
If the ubiquitous “violent Black male” does not exist as a danger to a specific population, it is socially necessary to invent him. Too often, people define patriarchy (universally) as translating to “all men at fault”, and to fulfill this role, Black boys are adultified, the concept of vulnerability stripped from them, replaced by the responsibility for the sexual acts inflicted on their bodies. The barbed weight is gathered into their arms, a torment burden to be carried for life.
Survey the discussions on Black boys and sexual violence, and the field is replete with discussions on teaching boys “not to rape;” rarely their vulnerability to rape by their babysitters, teachers, and family members. The erasure of the need to proactively teach Black boys about the harms they are vulnerable to (and endure) is as dangerous as erasing the existing approach which teaches boys to identify which behaviors to avoid in efforts to dismantle rape culture.
“Toxic Masculinity” is quite nearly the sole heuristic through which the rape of Black boys can be discussed, regardless of the perpetrators gender. While Patriarchy is a system of gendered violence that generally subordinates women (i.e. sexism and misogyny) and where men dominate, it is anathema to conceive of the racially subordinate male as a victim. The Black male is the canonical rapist. His vulnerability to rape is rendered invisible in the academy, and virtually nonexistent in popular discourse.
If we are to take seriously the conditions of Black males, we must disrupt the monocularistic lens by which we view them; a lens so overwhelmed with death, we pathologize their lives. A lens so overdetermined by a belief in ”super predators” that we see them as invulnerable to sexual predation.
They are also victims.