LeAnna M. Washington is busy at work these days like many of her colleagues in the state senate, looking to push through Pennsylvania’s budget, finally freeing needed dollars to strapped social service agencies that aid the most vulnerable.
Washington once was among them.
Well before she was called “senator,” looking to right wrongs, she was called “Cookie,” looking for love. When she was 18, she figured she found it.She became a married woman, with a black eye as a honeymoon present from her new groom – the first of many.
“It was the big secret,” Washington told BlackAmericaWeb.com. “But women being beaten was not unfamiliar to me. And I got used to being beaten.”
As have many black women across the country.
While the sensational incident between pop stars Rihanna and Chris Brown recently snagged headlines and electrified airwaves, the struggle against domestic violence among African-Americans is an age-old and often silent battle. Those fighting to end it hope the spotlight from Domestic Violence Awareness Month will draw recruits.
It’s not just about donning purple ribbons or playing celebrity public service announcements. It’s about absorbing the reality that close to five in every 1,000 black women aged 12 and up are victims of domestic violence, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. It’s understanding that among those abused aged 15 to 34, murder by a husband or boyfriend remains a leading cause of death.
More importantly, it’s about actively working on changing those outcomes, said Dr. Oliver J. Williams, executive director of the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African-American Community.
“We have to figure out ways for our communities to own it,” Williams said. “We have to devise ways to get communities to see what actions and activities they can do to be engaged and involved, to develop solutions to it.”
First observed in October 1987, Domestic Violence Awareness Month evolved from a single day of unity to a month-long endeavor to spotlight a social condition that was considered taboo for polite conversation.
Verbal, sexual and physical abuse are forms familiar to a large swath of black females. Historically so, Williams said. These are the scars of slavery, lack of education, discrimination, unemployment and other frustrations that have been exacerbated among African-Americans.
Poverty tends to be an indicator for abuse, though violence is not confined to one social class. The difference is having options and resources to escape – options not always afforded by those struggling to survive day-to-day. Feeling trapped leads many women to stay put – and in peril.
For Washington, those days seem like a lifetime ago, but the memories still make her cringe.
Like when she and her young children would barricade themselves inside a bedroom, dresser against the door, and remain huddled together until they heard her husband’s truck pull away in the morning.
Or the time she tried to exact revenge after a beating by tossing a pot of boiling water at him, and instead he dumped the hot water on her.
Or the day he unexpectedly stepped in puppy feces, dragged her to the spot, twisted her arm and shoved her face in the smelly mess.
But the beatings were the constant, followed by the apologies, the promises to change. Until the next beating.
“A lot of people ask me to come and share my story,” Washington said. “The toughest woman will stop and pay attention, and that’s because it’s not just unique to me. We all know this story, but just with different players.
“Sometimes I laugh when I hear myself repeating the stories, asking myself, ‘Why did I take that?’ But it was real life. And it happens all the time.”
And cycles continue, through generations. Boys watch daddy pummel mommy and start practicing their shoves on sisters and cousins. Shoves elevate to punches, now foisted on girlfriends and wives. To curb that cyclical violence, prevention education emphasis is falling to not just entangled adults or even teenagers, but to elementary school students, where impressions begin.
“We don’t always want to equate domestic violence in other conversations we have, like HIV/AIDS, housing, unemployment,” Williams said. “Even if it’s not called ‘domestic violence,’ it’s present. It’s a challenge for us to get our heads around. But we need to look at it from a holistic perspective of making sure our community is healthy.”
He has seen advances in his 30-plus years as an advocate. From literature to counselors that reflect the African-American, and later, the Latino and Asian and Pacific Islander, experience, he can document progress.
In 1993, he and his cohorts were pioneers in tailoring domestic violence prevention efforts for African-American audiences. Today, they find themselves in the company of others, community efforts taking root from Atlanta to Los Angeles, with successes budding, lives being saved.
But it’s still not completed work. Shelters have been a good start and a proven method for some, but may not be the most accessible outlet for every woman. African-Americans still need to dig deeper, look at barriers raised by class and culture and develop their own networks and remedies to address them, he said.
And while wider society is beginning to accept and support those trying to survive abuse, the National Women’s Law Center reported in 2008 that in nine states – Arkansas, Idaho, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wyoming – and the District of Columbia, it is legal to reject survivors of domestic violence for individual health care coverage, citing the abuse as a “pre-existing condition.”
On many fronts, it’s still part education, part action in the battle against domestic abuse.
Washington is working on both ends. On Oct. 24, she will host her second walk in Philadelphia to raise money for the hotlines in the area that direct women in need to crises support services, a lifeline for many fleeing for their lives.
She suffered her abuser for nine years, but it wasn’t until 14 years later that she recognized and understood what she had endured. Once she did, she began speaking out.
Washington will continue to do so, urging other women to chose other options.
She is still “Cookie” to those who knew her when, and “senator” for those who know her now. But she is a victim no more.
Today, Washington is known as an advocate, a voice, a survivor. And more than anything, she hopes other women will walk alongside her, not just this October, but every day.