In recognition of Domestic Violence Awareness month, we offer an abridged version of thefollowing contribution by CM. The author—a male prisoner incarcerated in a maximum-security prison—reflects on the theme of violence against women by engaging in a close reading of 2 Samuel 13, the horrific story of Amnon’s rape of his sister Tamar. (Read the entire essay here)
“Tamar’s Tears” by CM
I am a 40 year old man who has been in prison for 22 years. I have met men who have committed some of the most horrific acts one could possibly imagine, and many others who were indeed falsely accused. Yet, one thing that is true for everyone in a maximum security prison is the fact that our presence on this side of the wall represents a victim on the other side of the wall; another human being, victimized by his or her fellow man, even if not the man charged.
As one who finds solace in the words written in the Bible, I turn to the text of scripture to discover a way to make sense of this experience and grasp this dynamic relationship. This interplay between perpetrator and victim. The workings of the mind that grants one the proverbial green light to move forward and alter another's peace.
I turned to the text of the Bible because I discovered a roadblock to my progress when seeking the same in plain old confrontation among my fellow prisoners. That roadblock was the notion of circumstantial justification. Things like tribal vengeance, self-defense, mutual combat, peer pressure, group think, and just plain old following orders when it comes to gang structure. It almost never came down to a plain old – “I was wrong, I'm sorry”- type owning of full responsibility, even if it came down to blaming drugs or society.
All of that was so – UNTIL – the subject of violence against women came up. Surprisingly, no one had a problem fully owning the fact that they had at some point been violent towards a woman. So much so, that for many, the notion of an external contributing factor that mitigated their responsibility was an insult to their manhood.
For some, it actually provided an opportunity for them to examine their past violent behavior and recognize it as simple cruelty mixed with a lot of ego. Some spoke of it as normal, that smacking around women was simply part of the natural order of things. One inmate, “Big S.”, said that, “the only reason why it's a problem now in the Black community when a man goes upside his woman's head, is because some white woman said it's wrong to do so. The Black woman bought in, and the Black man hasn't had a happy home since.”
Now, granted, this is a PRISON population from which these statements are coming, so one is bound to hear some outlandish things, just trust me when I tell you that such truly represents the minority. However, from the outlandish, to the more sensible there was still a missing element. Even where one could find contrition, there waslack of acknowledgment of the fact that the way the woman against whom the violence or mistreatment was perpetrated – actually mattered – the woman didn't matter.
They were sorry, but sorry in the way one would be sorry upon realizing they'd been cruel to an animal. The cruelty made them [the perpetrator] look bad or degraded. “I'm better than that,” says the man who kicks the dog; damn the fact that the dog was in pain. So, I found myself back at square one in regards to this dynamic, but with more mental material to work with.
Something “Big S” said stood out to me regarding the different ways Black women and White women respond to violence. I recognize the impact of media images and the way they shape our thinking, but I started thinking about what I saw with my own eyes growing up on the south side of Chicago when it came to domestic violence. Black women with black eyes and busted lips coming from the hands of men who were supposed to love them and those same women staying with those men more often than not, and then when you pass the battered women's shelters you see white women who simply wouldn't take it anymore in droves, having found a way to get out of that bad situation, more often than not.
One can say that city and social resources were made available pursuant to institutionally racist motives, but there's something else at play that I believe is behind this. An imbalance in the perception of personal power. Where poor black women weren't brought up to perceive their own power in terms of Gender, the type of power they did embrace was based on factors in which the reigns were more often than not, held by men.
So, I started thinking, if it is true that black women let themselves believe that racial discrimination and gender discrimination are the same, it would explain a lot. But could that actually be so?
I observed a dynamic on two fronts at play. For men, comfort in the disparity of gender roles in the Black community, and among Black women, a normalization so thoroughly ingrained in the cultural zeitgeist that they don't even realize that the disparity exists. A normalization of an arbitrary inequality among a significant portion of the Black populace.
So, I searched for parallels in Scripture. A social example in which the gender roles were put on clear display and the disparity staring us in the face, pointing the finger of shame, and demonstrating the ingrained power of our own vices on the issue of gender. And I found a young woman whose story is told in 2nd Samuel, chapter 13. Her name is Tamar.
Absalom knew, and David knew, the Government knew, what happened to Tamar, and yet, she's the one who lived out her days as a desolate woman. While Amnon gets to go about his life as though nothing has happened, just another normal day, every day for two whole years. Chris Brown didn't get that kind of treatment when he had a fight with Rhianna! And while Absalom was plotting revenge, and King David was angry, it was business as usual for Amnon.
In verse 19, Tamar is left in the aftermath of her rape, crying. According to the Hebrew law, a woman who cries out upon being raped has a means to receive justice, otherwise it is assumed that she consented to the act. Where Tamar wasn't an engaged woman, things could have gone one of two ways. (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) “If a man is caught in the act of raping a young woman who is not engaged, he must pay fifty pieces of silver to her father. Then he must marry the young woman because he violated her and he will never be allowed to divorce her.” However, v 24 establishes the woman's innocence by her act of crying out.
So, why did Absalom tell Tamar to stop crying? He told her not to make a big deal about it. I find it reveals that Absalom's motives for killing the Crown Prince of Israel had its source in more sinister origins. I think this was a political assassination. Absalom was of true Royal blood, both on his Father's and Mother's side, where Amnon's mother, Ahinoam, was a woman David married while he was on the run from Saul, a woman of no particular noble blood. And if we follow this story over the subsequent chapters, Absalom felt it was his right to rule because of his lineage, and his brother was standing in his way. Had Tamar cried out and been heard, an argument could be made that she'd have had a structure to stand on for justice. As it turned out, all we have is a scandal. A scandal which provided social circumstances that created sympathy for Absalom when he murdered Amnon. This in truth, reveals probably the worst victimization that Tamar suffered, to be used as a political pawn, by her brother Absalom in the furtherance of his power hungry ambitions.
In every aspect of this story, there was a physical violation suffered by Tamar which could only take place because there were social/psychological structures in place which placed women, an entire sector of society, in a weakened, diminished, second class status, unprotected, and devalued. Ultimately, that whole society ignored Tamar's tears, and it was such a natural occurrence that she, in the midst of her own pleas, spoke in terms of her relative value rather than her inherent value.
So I ask the question, in what ways do Black women sacrifice their inherent value, in their gender, and substitute it with the value of race, or the relative value of functions in the lives of others; and how comfortable have Black men become with accepting that sacrifice as a social norm? It is a stifling of the human spirit and devaluing of the feminine.
Of course there are voices addressing this issue, but it is the idea, if held by any, that my words are controversial, that compels me to speak them.
We hear political schtick concerning the social position of women during every election cycle. We hear terms like “legitimate rape” and “binders full of women” spoke by men who feel they have, or should have, the authority to determine the direction of our lives. We see rulings coming down from our highest courts chipping away at the exclusivity of a woman to exercise power and authority over her own body. Rooms full of men are holding conference somewhere right now in stratagem about issues that concern women. And therein lies the problem.
To bring this back to my initial premise for a moment, that which pricked a nerve with me regarding that internal green light for one to move against another, to alter one's peaceful condition; I see this warped view that difference equates to the inherent right to dominate as the root of this problem. On one level, this drive is played out forcefully via decisions made by men with authority - “You can”, “You can't”, “You must!” An authority which is one directional and imbalanced; once the decision is made or the decree sent, that's that. Under the color of legality, moves are being made in an effort to do with the pen, what the criminal does with a gun. Exercise power over another. In reverse, the criminal imitates the politician, doing with the gun what the politician does with the pen.