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Kevin Powell

Open Letter to an American Woman

Excerpted from Kevin Powell's essay collection, Open Letters to America (purchase book)

Hello Kevin Powell:

I read one of your articles in Ebony magazine's May Issue. It really hit close to home. On March 29, 2009, I lost my best friend to domestic violence. Her name was Kewaii Rogers-Buckner. She was only thirty-one years old. Kewaii was gunned down in her home by her husband in front of their three children, ages twelve, eleven and nine. This tragic event has devastated all of her family, friends, loved ones, and our community. During our senior year in high school (1996), I slowly started to notice small changes in her personality and her need to be with this person every time she got the chance to. Everything she talked about revolved around him. At first, he seemed to be an okay guy, but after we graduated he began to show his true colors. He tried to control everything about her-from the way she wore her hair, the way that she dressed and the people she talked to. And over time, he isolated her from her close friends (myself included), and most of her family. It was very hard to watch someone you've known almost your whole life and loved so dearly get caught up in such a painful situation. We all tried to get her to leave, but it was almost as if he had complete mind control over her. He would tell her that we were just jealous and didn't want to see her happy. In my heart, I lost my friend a long time ago. He knew that I was the closest friend she had and he made sure that he kept us apart. For many years I lived with the fear that he would hurt her and, sadly, my worst fear came true. Just days before her murder she sought an order of protection from her husband and in her statement she wrote that she feared for her life. She did make prior attempts to leave, but he threatened to harm her parents and even his own children. I know in my heart that she didn't want to live that way and she felt that she was protecting her family if she stayed. There are so many women that are in that exact situation and are going through the same thing, living in an abusive situation. My plea is for them to get out, and get out now because it is not going to get better. It will only get worse. Please get out while they have a chance, because my friend didn't. I just wanted to share a portion of Kewaii's story with you because I don't want her death to be in vain and if it can save just one life, I know it won't be. I am so grateful and thankful that you are willing to stand up for women and be the voice that a lot of them are afraid to use. There are so many people who just turn a blind eye to things like this. Thank you so much. Please keep our families in your prayers.


Sincerely,

Shallon Patton

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Dear Shallon Patton:

It devastates me to have heard stories like yours so many times these past several weeks since I appeared on The Oprah Show, and since that Ebony magazine article, "Men Can Stop Domestic Violence," appeared. Let me say, first, my most heartfelt sympathies and condolences to Kewaii's family, to her children, to you and your family, and to your entire community there in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. I can only begin to imagine the intense hurt and pain you must feel, given this recent tragedy. And I am not quite sure what I can actually say to help, truthfully. Violence against women and girls, in our nation, and throughout every part of this world, is, without question, completely out of control. Sadly, the cycle of emotional and physical abuse that Kewaii suffered for years is so typical, so predictable. Doubly sad that when she finally decided to get help herself- which is the key thing for any woman being battered-not even a "temporary protection from abuse order" could spare her life. I am not in the slightest trying to be funny here, but I cannot tell you how many women have said to me, throughout America, that a restraining order is utterly useless. One woman, a survivor of domestic abuse, said at a community forum, her mouth dripping with both cynicism and sarcasm born of years absorbing blows from her then-husband, asked this very pointed question: "What are we women supposed to do with a restraining order? Wave it at the man in hopes that he will stop beating us and run away?"

From what you described in your note to me, and from what I gathered from one of your local newspapers, Kewaii never stood a chance, as her husband thoroughly isolated her for so long. These lines are especially jarring, from Kewaii's petition requesting that order of protection: "Mr. Buckner is very adamant about keeping me in Pennsylvania. He consistently tells me that he will hurt me if I leave him. He takes all the keys to the vehicles that are in my name so I can't get away. He stated if I leave him he will find me and if he doesn't find me, he'll kill my parents." And we now know, Shallon, that Mr. Buckner pushed Kewaii down a flight of stairs in June of 2008, that he pulled a gun on her last October, firing one bullet that pierced the living room couch and remained lodged in the floor long after that gun had been discharged. Ms. Kewaii Rogers-Buckner added in the petition "I am afraid to sleep at night because he is very unstable and I don't know what he will do." And we know, in hindsight, what he will do, Shallon, because he has done it, murdered Kewaii in cold blood in front of her children. What nightmares must they be having presently, and will they have for the rest of their lives? Their father, the man who helped to conceive them, executing their mother as if she were an enemy combatant on some foreign battlefield. But, no, she was no stranger to him, indeed she loved him, loved him more than she loved herself and her own life, and for that she is gone, forever. This is about Kewaii and domestic violence, yes, Shallon, it is. But it is also about love and hate, about emotional abuse and mental illness, and it is about how we males have been socialized to equate manhood with inhuman perceptions of power, control, ego, violence, and, yes, death and destruction. And it is about the powers and possibilities women have, and have always had, to fight back, to organize, and to resist sexism in their lives. Terms like "Yes we can" and "change" and "hope" will forever be empty and stale slogans if they don't, too, apply to half the world's population-women and girls-in every way that you can imagine.

In that vain, Shallon, I want to respectfully disagree with you that I am doing anything remarkable or special. Or that I am a voice for women. I am neither special, nor a voice for anyone other than myself. And just like most males in America, I too was taught, in school, at home, on the streets and playgrounds, at the churches I attended as a youth, and via popular culture, that to be a man is to forever be in a position of power and advantage over women and girls. That flawed concept of maleness meant not only dominating women or girls, but having little to no regard for their health and wellness, for their safety, for their bodies, and as was the case with Kewaii's husband, for their lives. Not every single male acts out in this way, of course, but in an environment of nonstop violence, which is the sort of environment that produced me, it is almost inevitable that a man-child will become violent toward other males and toward females, as I did in days gone by. But, thanks to the grace of God, years and years of counseling, a lot of reading and critical self-reflection, and individuals in my community who could recognize my wounds and sought to aid rather than discard me, I changed, and now I am here, not only to tell my story as I did in that Ebony piece, but to get other males to rethink our definitions of manhood. To do something, anything, to show that we can be allies to women and girls in the struggle to end gender violence once and for all. And to support the voices of women, to believe in and support their leadership, across the board. We really have no other choice at this point, Shallon. Nor do we have any choice other than to continue to speak out, even when there is mad disagreement. For example, immediately after my appearance on The Oprah Show, which was the second of two shows concerning domestic violence in America in light of the Chris Brown-Rihanna saga, I duly noted that while many women generally applauded my remarks about the issue, a very small percentage of men had anything positive to say to me directly. Privilege for certain groups of people is very real on this planet, and we males undoubtedly benefit from women and girls being relegated to second-class citizenship. So many are afraid to confront that fact, to look themselves in the mirror and ask, pointedly, What is a man if it means I have to challenge my fear, my self-loathing, my powerlessness in a world where power is often defined by my ability to control women? More unsettling, still, were the number of men, all races, all educational and class backgrounds, from America and abroad, who've emailed me regularly, who seek to portray themselves as victims, who without fail say that women beat up men, too. Let's deal with this one straight ahead. Yes, certainly, there are cases of females physically assaulting males. But, heck, to be mad blunt, why would a man or a woman want to stay in a toxic relationship in the first place, if there is constant yelling and screaming, constant pushing and shoving, constant throwing of this or that object at each other, or blows being constantly exchanged? And back to my point: the numbers are overwhelmingly slanted toward males assaulting females. In fact, given that statistical reality, any man who makes that argument is just being, well, a liar, and, worse, a coward for suggesting that violence levels are the one area in which the genders are equal. They are not. One such man, a Christian minister whose name I do not care to say, invited me on his nationally syndicated radio show under the guise of applauding my Oprah appearance. He then proceeded to say that I "sounded like a female," that my points on behalf of women were "dumb," and that "way more women are emotional batterers of men." He said that women abusing men is the major crisis we need to address in America-or something to that effect. I was flabbergasted because this man has a radio show with a sizable audience and because he is the pastor of a church. And you and I both know, Shallon, that women far outnumber men at most churches in our nation. So what is this man saying to these women, his followers, about domestic violence, about rape and incest, about sexism and misogyny, when they seek counsel from him? And what perverse pleasure, pray tell, was he getting out of dissing me on his program? I believe at the root of this male ignorance and defiance around discussing violence against women and girls lies a bottomless hatred, amongst many males, not just for women and girls, or for self, but for life itself. Who better represents life than one's mother, grandmother, aunt, sister, niece, daughter, wife, girlfriend, partner, lover? And even if a woman or girl happens to hit a man or boy, or happens to be so tormented herself that she has what one male, responding to my Ebony piece, called "verbal diarrhea," I submit there is something completely lacking in reason and logic with how we define manhood if we males no doubt believe that the only response to a woman who upsets or unnerves us in some way is violence. Such a response suggests we are brutes, that we are beasts, that we have not combed the depths of our minds or souls to find solutions to conflicts that are rooted in peace and nonviolence, that are have not yet learned to use our wits, not our fists.

So, Shallon, in this era of "change," this is what we have inherited: That when it comes to women and girls and how they are treated in their daily lives, there really has been no change at all. Not yet, with miles to go before we can sleep. What happened to Kewaii, and the too-many-to-count females like Kewaii whose stories are never told, thus never known, represents combat against women and, even worse, a virtual prison based on their gender. As you indicated in your letter to me, Kewaii had been mentally incarcerated for years, dating back to high school. The regular thread in my conversations with women who are domestic violence survivors is their low self-esteem, a feeling that this man, this male partner, somehow validates their lives, their being, even as this partner seeks to control or end their lives. When we talk about "domestic violence" against women and girls, I would submit that it is more than the actual laying of hands. We've got to extend the conversation to the invisible "hits" they take every single day of their lives, especially if they are undereducated women, or poor women, or women of color. So many women have never heard of terms like "feminist" or "womanist," will never read the writings of bell hooks, Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler, or Alice Walker. Quite the contrary, most women do exactly what the women in my own family do: make it happen from day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year, by whatever means they can create for themselves. I say this because, Shallon, just as you are grieving the loss of Kewaii, I am grieving the loss of my dear aunt Pearlie Mae Powell, my oldest auntie and my mother's oldest sister. She, like Kewaii, never had a chance to do, be, or experience real freedom, or real power over her own life. My aunt died on Monday, September 15, 2008, just thirty minutes after midnight, and less than a week after I lost my campaign for Congress here in Brooklyn, New York. I was already drained, mentally, physically, and spiritually, from that contest, and when I received the call from my mother, it just took me completely out of my head. "Pearlie Mae is dead," she said, no emotion whatsoever, in that same tone used exactly twenty years before, in 1988, when her mother, my grandmother, died: "Lottie is dead." There was just a kind of matter-of-factness that a life was gone and thus began the ritual, passed from generation to generation, of slowing the time and pausing our lives in that very moment, packing our suitcases, and returning to Southern soil for the "going home" ceremony. This ceremony that would mark the passing of another woman for whom poverty or powerlessness or both had become a prison.

My aunt had been sick (or sickly, as my folks in South Carolina like to say) for years, but her body had been brutally attacked in the last year of her life by diabetes, leading to kidney failure and the need to be in a nursing home fulltime. Death is not something many of us ever want to think about, honestly, and I had pushed to the hidden vaults of my mind my mother telling me in December 2007 that my aunt's time might be near. I tried to forget the awful reality of her impending death because when a loved one passes away, be it a horrific murder or the horrific toll a disease takes on the body, it forces us to examine our own life, our own mortality, the brief interval we each are given on this Earth. And when I think of my Aunt Pearlie Mae's life, which began November 25, 1939, in a two-room shack with her father and mother, I realize that she never really had a chance for an existence beyond poverty and the triple-pronged violence of racism, sexism, and classism. It has been said that my aunt was born "afflicted," that she was "slow," and that in addition to her emotional abnormalities, she would never be able to have children of her own. Indeed, of my grandparents' five children, four girls and one boy, my Aunt Pearlie Mae was the only one who never left the nest. She lived with my grandparents until they were gone-my grandfather in the early 1970s, and my grandmother in the late 1980s. I cannot even imagine the traumas my aunt endured, on that May day in 1988 when my grandmother, still in the backwoods clapboard home they shared for years, succumbed to a massive heart attack and died. For my grandmother was my aunt's anchor, her source of strength, her connection to reality, her purpose for living, and now Grandma Lottie, as we called her, was dead. Aunt Pearlie Mae was nearly fifty and, abruptly, methodically, thrust into the world, alone. Yes, my Uncle Lloyd was there in the area, but he had his own demons to battle, and he would eventually wind up spending time in prison. My mother and her other two sisters were up North, their lives as Southerners long abandoned by a need to be, well, free, of the Old South and how it had held them captive. So Aunt Pearlie Mae moved to the only housing project in Ridgeland, South Carolina and made a new life for herself. I do not know if she ever had a love or a lover in her life, if she had many friends, if she ever experienced prolonged periods of joy and happiness or, like many in my family tree, including me, if she suffered through bouts of depression and loneliness. During my trips to South Carolina in her final years, I recall my aunt as forever childlike, but quick to anger, and paranoid about everything around her, perhaps because of those enduring emotional problems. Indeed, my Aunt Pearlie Mae collected some form of disability from the government her entire life, did not get much schooling, and spoke with the thick, molasses-like dialect of the Low Country "Geechee" folk from South Carolina. I always loved how she would say "umble" instead of "humble" when she spoke of individuals who had humility and respect for her. And I knew that Aunt Pearlie Mae took pride in her siblings' children. Perhaps she considered us nieces and nephews the children she never had.

It was at my aunt's wake, Shallon, at Sauls Funeral Home in Ridgeland, that fragments of my aunt's life drifted back to me. She loved to walk. She loved to laugh. She loved to call other women's babies ugly, in jest. Mostly family members were there at the wake until an elderly White woman, whose name I cannot recall, came up. She was older than my aunt, nearly eighty, but in good health. This woman was a volunteer at Aunt Pearlie Mae's last residence, the Ridgeland Nursing Home, I believe it is called. As she told her fond memories of my aunt, her eyes welled up and she called her "My little Pearlie Mae," because my aunt, a tiny woman, barely five feet tall, had grown frail in the last year of her life. She fought valiantly, held on a year longer than expected, then finally died of a heart attack in that nursing home bed while sleeping. And to learn that her life insurance policy was barely worth $5000 was simply too much for me. It was a policy that had been sold to my grandparents and their children, at varying amounts between $5000 and $10,000 because it was assumed, I suppose, that the lives of poor people from the rural South were not worth much more than this. We family members we had to pool our money to cover the burial expenses and buy flowers. Anyone amongst us who says there is no poverty in this country, who says that this writer exaggerates the human suffering we have on these American shores should simply visit any small country town, or any big urban city, on any given day and witness for themselves how much it costs just to lay down and die. When I went with my uncle to my aunt's room at that nursing home, I was struck by the few remnants of her life stuffed into the drawers of a single dresser: photos of her sisters and brothers and nieces and nephews at various stages of our lives; a couple of jet-black wigs; cheap, dime-store jewelry; undergarments; her Sunday-best dresses for church; and a few legal documents confirming that she had actually, miraculously, existed for nearly seventy years.

It was agreed that I would deliver the family comments on Aunt Pearlie Mae at the funeral inside St. Matthew's Baptist Church. I did the best I could to summarize my aunt's life, to give her in death the praise and adulation I am sure she never received in her life. And I cried throughout the service because I was so extremely sad that there was nothing I could do, at this stage, to spare my aunt's life, to be able to see her one last time, alive. My God, the pangs of guilt were everywhere around me. I sat in that church pew and listened to one mournful song after another asking myself, how I could do this community development work for people, mostly strangers, wherever and whenever they needed assistance, but not call my aunt for over a year, not make an attempt to see her, knowing the pain she was suffering through? Perhaps somewhere in our subconscious, we community organizers find it far easier to help individuals removed from the core of our lives because we can be compassionate while keeping a professional distance when it comes to our deepest emotions. We can erect a wall to shield ourselves from the daily slings and arrows associated with grassroots activism. At least that is what I have done, many times, through the years. But when it comes to our own family life, oh how we avoid the unavoidable. Oh how we ignore the fact that our families suffer through the very same social ills as others on this planet, because to confront our families means confronting ourselves. To confront our families is to confront our histories, the miracle of our lives, and in spite of all, it is to confront the solitary confinement of death. It is to confront our very imperfect selves, stark naked before our families, terrified that they will say something that will expose us for the actors we all are beyond the gated enclave of our family bonds. When it was time to shut and seal the casket on Aunt Pearlie Mae's body, I was confronted with the sad fact that all the work I do for my community, all the activism in the world could not alleviate the pain and suffering of her life. My sadness and guilt climaxed as the small but enchanting choir, led by my cousin Renee on piano, launched into a song I had never heard before, "I'm Free":

I'm Free
Praise the Lord
I'm Free
No longer bound
No more chains holding me
My soul is resting
It's such a blessing
Praise the Lord
Hallelujah
I'm Free

Uplifting, mystical, and, yes, accepting of the inevitability of death in that eerie yet calming way we do in Black communities, it was these lyrics that sent me into a convulsion of sobs, the words so uncomplicated yet so loaded with meaning, pathos, and power. It dawned on me, then and there Shallon, that my aunt was now free to be the woman she did not get to be in life. Except now it would be in a different space, in a different world, one we cannot yet quite visualize, a space and a world, alas, where she could finally be happy-and whole. And as my aunt's casket was lowered into the ground at Richardson Cemetery, right next to St. John's A.M.E. Church, the talk almost instantaneously turned, amongst my other two aunts and mother, from Pearlie Mae to who would be next. A gloomy appreciation came over me that their concerns were so very real when considering the three remaining three sisters: My Aunt Birdie has had multiple heart attacks; my mother has acute diabetes and a very bad leg that forces her to walk with a limp; and my Aunt Cathy had an emotional breakdown a year or so after my grandmother's death, and wound up in both a mental institution and a welfare hotel for a spell. So there these women were, not only marking off the grave plots for themselves and my uncle, but also speaking, with both trepidation and a nonchalant sense of the inescapable, about the time when they will be free, no longer bound.

No longer bound, Shallon, by that very first biblical tale that put the world's problems, moral dilemmas, and faults squarely at the feet of Eve, the woman, while Adam, the man, got a pass. No longer bound by a world that said a girl, a young woman, a fully grown woman, could not aspire to anything higher than being a mother, a caretaker; she could be the boss' secretary, but never the boss herself. No longer bound by an education that whitewashed women from history, save Betsy Ross sowing a flag and Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on that Montgomery bus. No longer bound by the steady bombardment of disparaging images, be it "Girls Gone Wild" or the latest semi-pornographic music video, or the cover of this or that male-centered American magazine. No longer bound by the idea that young girls should be stripped, selling their bodies and souls for the perverse pleasure of us man-children in the promised land. No longer bound by a society that does not value the work of women and, thusly, does not pay them equal pay for work equal to their male counterparts. No longer bound by political or religious zealots who feel it their divine right to tell a woman what she can and cannot do with her body. No longer bound by men who think it a measure of their manhood to manipulate, hit, strike, beat, molest, rape, or murder a woman or a girl simply because they can. And no longer bound by the out of date gender roles women and girls have been assigned to keep us men and boys firmly in command.

Shallon, my Aunt Pearlie Mae may never have been physically beaten, as Kewaii had been, but she was emotionally assaulted, spiritually castigated, and severely marginalized in some way or another, her entire life, because she was a woman. The self-liberation theme embedded in Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls.. play never touched my aunt's life. Nor did my aunt know she could use her voice to sing songs of freedom as Nina Simone had done. History and culture, when told solely from the perspective of us men, us boys, has an uncanny way of rendering women and girls invisible, devoid of meaning, stray branches without a root. So my Aunt Pearlie Mae did not know that women with "umble" lives like hers had done remarkable things, had become leaders of movements, of one nation or another. But when you are bound, as she was, as your friend Kewaii was, by the forces of an unnatural and unholy alliance between men-kind and the follies of our power plays, why would you ever contemplate a universe where you, a woman, could have power, too?

And isn't this what it is all about, Shallon, power? In your letter to me you mentioned how Kewaii's husband tried to control everything about her-from the way she wore her hair, the way that she dressed and the people she talked to. And over time, he isolated her from her close friends (myself included), and most of her family. Sadly, most of us males do not get that it is truly the highest form of powerlessness to use our gender, our physical strength, our mind games, to exert power and control over females. Real power, regardless of the gender of the person with power, should be about spirituality, morality, love and seeing some form of love in every human being we encounter. Real power is about sharing, not ruling and dictating. Kewaii's husband did not love her, Shallon. He never did, because he never loved himself. No one who claims to love someone, yet seeks to harm, hurt, or undermine that person in some way, can truly say he understands what love is. I am finally figuring it out, in my early forties, Shallon. But I am so glad I am not that man who hurt women in the past, and so glad I did not bring children into the world when I was but a child in mindset myself. But think of the many millions of us who have, who believe it is our birthright to maim, terrorize, and murder because we ourselves are so deeply wounded and we do not even know who we are. Most men don't realize that we imprison ourselves when we behave in this fashion; it is ultimately as disempowering to us as it is to women, albeit differently. This is the dilemma, the great challenge for these times. If we are serious about change, then what does that word mean in terms of how a nation, any nation, treats its female population. Be it domestic violence, equal pay, sexual harassment in the workplace, or the exclusion of women from the corridors of leadership, it is always, again, about power. For example, Shallon, although I supported Barack Obama for president, I would be lying if I said that I did not feel very acutely the pain of those disappointed female Hillary Clinton supporters; women of all races and class backgrounds, who shared a faint hope that America would finally catch up to nations as different as England, India, Argentina, Israel, Dominica, Canada, New Zealand, Ukraine, Liberia, Pakistan, Iceland, Sri Lanka, Ireland, and Rwanda, and finally dedicate themselves to achieving women's political leadership in mass numbers. Yes, Rwanda has already eclipsed us in women's political leadership, and we in America certainly have not experienced anything remotely close to what Rwanda experienced in the 1990s, when genocide occurred on a mass scale. The slaughter of 500,000 to one million ethnic Tutsis by Hutu militias in 1994, and the ensuing retributions, left Rwanda with a population that was 60 percent female and 40 percent male. During the genocide many women were raped and others widowed. Apart from their own memories of murder and of rape, they collectively faced a future of poverty, disease, and displacement. With thousands more men jailed for war crimes or living as refugees in neighboring Congo, Rwanda's women, at first by default, took on roles in business and politics. All too often, it is not until war devastates the systems of male domination that women are given opportunities to lead. Although Rwandan women had long enjoyed a relatively higher social status than some in other African nations, they still had weak property rights, and female entrepreneurs were rare. Rwanda's first parliament in 1994 contained 70 seats with eight held by women. In 2003, the new Constitution included a quota policy assuring women at least 30 percent of posts in decision-making organs. By 2008, Rwanda's parliament made history when its lower house elected a majority (56.3%) of women members.

What Rwanda has done, in spite of the loss of huge chunks of its population to violence, is nothing short of remarkable-and historic. Women are now not only the majority in parliament, but also a sizable proportion of the entrepreneurial class, even as the nation begins to recover its former male-female ratio. In contrast, as of 2009, in America, where like most of the world, the population is roughly half female, only 92 of the 441 members of the House of Representatives are women, or 17 percent. In the United States Senate, of the 100 Senators, only 17 are women. And when we look at chief executive officers of Fortune 500 companies, it is not much different. So we in America must do more. I firmly believe that a larger percentage of women in leadership positions, across the board, will mean, once and for all, an end to the assaults and murders of women like Kewaii, and the instituting of social programs, initiatives, to be sure, that will help women like my Aunt Pearlie Mae to be no longer bound by the historical shackles of sexism. Women should be able to reach their full human potential without fear of harassment or landmines marking their every step. And we must be more conscious and question the roles we assign to females from the time they are children. I am not interested in pointing the finger at any one person nor any one institution, but I am certain that somewhere in Kewaii's journey she was told, either directly or indirectly, that women should be submissive to men, that females are inferior to males. And if, Shallon, we are in fact to honor Kewaii's memory, and the memory of my Aunt Pearlie Mae, we must be willing to tell our children the truth, we must teach them to love, and to love hard, to embrace nonviolence as the only option for any form of beef or disagreement. And we must teach them, both the boys and the girls alike, that it is not correct, nor human, for girls, for women, to be viewed and treated as second-class citizens, or sex objects, or punching bags, in our so-called civilization. What are the lessons here for Kewaii's twelve and eleven year old girls, Shallon? What are we going to teach them, and all little girls growing up in America, about self-worth, about self-esteem, about self-love, if we choose to remain silent when someone says, without pause, all men are created equal but never bothers to include women in those conversations about liberty and the pursuit of happiness? We can only insure that Kewaii's daughters do not continue the cycle of abusive relationships and female disenfranchisement if we tell them, forthrightly, about the power that women have. That means even seemingly minute things, like the American media's fascination with Michelle Obama's wardrobe should be challenged. It needs to be stated to girls across America, explicitly, that Michelle Obama is Barack Obama's equivalent on every single level, that he needs her as much as she needs him, that they are in a partnership, one rooted in love and respect for each other's lives, each other's leadership, each other's humanity. And Kewaii's nine-year-old boy must be told the truth of what his father did, not to shock or scare him, but to let him know that he should aspire to break the spinning wheel of violence that claimed his father's sanity and his mother's life. He should understand that his father did a very terrible thing, but that as the next generation, he is free to choose a different path. He need never put his hands on a female, verbally or mentally abuse a female, or feel that his major function in life is to control, dominate, and terrorize women or girls.

The relentless cycles of male authority in our society fuel violence against women and girls and prevent them from obtaining the cultural, economic, and political empowerment to end it. That is why Hillary Clinton, when she conceded the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama, referred to her bid for president of the United States as "that highest, hardest glass ceiling." We would be lying to ourselves, still, if we didn't admit that Mrs. Clinton was scrutinized in a way no man had ever been, including Barack Obama. There were juvenile references to her emotional disposition, to her temperament, to her style of dress (and ignorant questions about why she did not wear a dress more often) as if a woman could not lead a nation. I point, once more, to nations like Chile that have put such myths to rest by electing their first female head of state. But, for sure, Hillary Clinton did get 18 million votes and did, as she put it, create "18 million cracks" in the glass ceiling. So something is stirring in America, Shallon, something really is. I heard someone say, once, that if the women move, then the entire nation will move. No, nothing can bring back the life of Kewaii Rogers-Buckner. Nor can anything bring back the life of my dear Aunt Pearlie Mae Powell. These women both lived the lives that they were handed, they meant no one any harm, and they both, I am sure, believed mightily in God, in some higher power, to sustain them. And they both, for very different reasons, died very sad, lonely, excruciatingly painful deaths. But what we must do, we who believe so firmly in the possibility of change and hope, is not allow their lives to be in vain. What we must do is first acknowledge that women have always been leaders, have always been powerful and, acknowledge, too, it is not merely exceptions to the rule, as some would suggest, like Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama, but the incalculable, anonymous women, down through history, who have built and created, fought back, organized and, yes, used their voices to resist the sexism and the various forms of violence in their lives.

What is her name? That woman is you, Shallon Patton, and Kewaii's mother, who organized a domestic violence candlelight vigil in Kewaii's honor. What is her name? That woman is Myra Drake, relative to Lechea Wiggins Crawford and Lechea's sister and tiny children, all murdered by Lechea's husband in Cleveland, who has created a website to not only memorialize them, but to also serve as a learning tool for other victims of domestic violence. What is her name? That woman is Lourdes Loradin, whose cousin Monica Paul was gunned down in front of a Montclair, New Jersey YMCA. Lourdes is leading the charge to pass "Monica's Law" in her home state, a law that would put forth four specific changes to current laws around domestic violence, and help other women going forward. What is her name? That woman is my dear friend Erica Franklin, who suffered through a marriage of emotional abuse, neglect, and little to no financial or moral backing, while raising two little sons, seemingly on her own. Erica could have given up, could have broken down, and I would not have blamed her one bit. But she did not. Instead she survived a nasty divorce, charity from relatives and friends, many days and nights of trying to find money for food or gas, and obtained her Ph.D., against all odds, and is now a college professor at a major American university, in a state far away from the aches of her past life. What is her name? That woman is Ai-jen Poo, lead organizer for Domestic Workers United, a coalition of Caribbean, Latina, Asian, and African housekeepers, nannies, and elderly caregivers in New York. These working-class women toil in some of my city's wealthiest neighborhoods, yet they have been isolated and excluded from almost every major labor law. Their mission: A Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. They use their collective voice to lobby lawmakers, to rally and march, to host training sessions and teach-ins, and to provide services ranging from legal advice to help with navigating language barriers. What is her name? That woman is Farrah Fawcett who, despite her very personal battle with cancer, allowed us into her life by means of a sensitive and touching documentary and, as a result, gave millions of others battling cancer the strength and courage to march forward. What is her name? That woman is Lynn Nottage, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, whose hypnotic dramatic piece Ruined is the story of the heartbreaking impact of war on women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. What is her name? That woman is my mother Shirley Powell, and that woman is my aunt Catherine Powell, both of whom were forced to raise two boys, my cousin Anthony and I, by themselves, after our fathers shirked their responsibilities, and moved on to God only knows where. If we had known that the commonly held belief was that two undereducated and poor single mothers could not possibly bring up two boys on welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, government cheese, and within the confines of run-down apartment buildings run roughshod by rats, roaches, and the piss-stained smell of mayhem and madness, I doubt seriously, Shallon, I would be writing this letter to you this very moment. But those women, my mother and my aunt, are leaders, and leaders figure out a way out of no way, leaders make do with what they have, and leaders do not hear the naysayers, do not see the doubters, do not believe that the impossible is not possible. My mother and my aunt rejected wholesale the perpetually lame argument that single mothers cannot raise boys to be men. I realize today, in this adult form, how much I internalized the voices and the energies of my mother and my Aunt Cathy as a child. If I speak for anyone else in this letter, Shallon, it is them, or perhaps it is their voices speaking through me, saying We are proof that it can be done..

It can be done, Shallon Patton, all of the miracles and changes you want to see, and all the miracles and changes I want to see, too. I do really believe that, and I have an everlasting hope that it will happen, in our lifetimes. We cannot bring Kewaii Rogers-Buckner or Pearlie Mae Powell back, for they are gone from us forever. But it is in our hands now, you, a woman, and I, a man, to turn this world on its heels and spin it in another direction-to place women and men on equal footing, at long last. Yes, and we must do something even greater than that. We must free ourselves to experience the kind of happiness and fulfillment that was snatched away from Kewaii and Pearlie Mae right at the very beginning. We will only be free when we know that the true measure of power and love lies in what we do during our lifetimes to place joy where there was hurt and sorrow, peace where there was trauma and conflict, dreams where there were nightmares, opportunity where there was despair, and life where there was death. When we can do that, Shallon, and do it consistently, for ourselves and for others, then we will be lifted up, as my Aunt Pearlie Mae's casket was elevated to the sky by that song of freedom. And we children of you women, we children of this earth, will remix the words and chant, in unison, Praise the Lord, I am free, I am no longer bound, there are no chains holding me. And so it will be, Shallon. And so it will be-

Sincerely,
Kevin Powell


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