On many bright Sunday mornings at church in Houston, Texas, I was a small child, sitting next to my Mother on the second pew, seeing my Father sitting on the first pew with other Trustees of the church and the Deacons sitting in front of the pulpit, filled with ministers, flanked on both sides by massive choirs. I have never forgotten to this very moment how I felt. My “home church,” as we used to say in the South, was a massive edifice, dating from slavery—a huge Hammond pipe organ and two Steinway pianos. I always felt safe, secure, and I marveled at what I would come to understand was the acoustical sound. This description was the one most often repeated every Sunday from my infancy until I left my home church when I was 21 to live in Dallas. As a small, only child, cloistered in a tight group of children, we assumed such to be the same at all churches—not simply at our Black Baptist Church. Now, as an adult, I am not so sure anymore.
But, there were “other” Sundays . . .
Not often at all, but so vivid were these “other” Sundays that to this very moment as I am writing, I can see each girl’s face; I remember the long transom in the middle of our church with the scarlet red carpet—which seemed even redder on these particular Sunday mornings, always before the sermon. No sound in this massive edifice. No movement. All eyes on the singular girl walking from the back, always from the very back of the church. My home church had an equally large upstairs gallery; so, eyes were fixed on the girl side-to-side, straight on, once she reached the front where the deacons sat in plush swivel chairs, and eyes from above, looking down on her.
Once she reached the front, the girl would say, “I want to ask the church’s forgiveness. I sinned.” She would then wait until the pastor arose behind the pulpit to say, “We forgive you of your transgressions, (NAME of girl). Let the church say Amen.” The adults said Amen. The girl would walk the long walk back to the end of the church. All eyes fixed. No sound. No movement. What her “sin” was on this Sunday when she had been at church every Sunday was never verbally revealed.
Young children such as I, never understood what was actually transpiring, and more importantly, nor did we ask. What was communicated to each of us silently was “you never want to do whatever it was that warranted your having to do what each girl did.” I saw this same scene repeated until I myself was a young teen; My Father had passed away in 1966. It was only as a teenager that I realized what each girl had in common was then described as “having had a child out-of-wed-lock.” And like Hester Prynne, whatever talent she had contributed to our church was suspended in-perpetuity. And each girl remained in our church every Sunday with her child.
I recount this scene for this Blog because much has weighed on my heart since Dr. Ford’s letter, her necessitated emergence in public, and the response from a bevy of men who should know better—who DO know better but have determined to turn their backs on us—all of us, regardless of our party affiliation, age, ethnicity, culture, religion—in this case only the gender is key.
My decision to share this Blog it has come as a result of reflecting 72 hours on a re-memory that because of Dr. Ford’s experience caused me to flashback to a moment in time that I had put into a place—a place never to forget, but one to just keep. After conversations with my beloved husband and with myself, I have decide to share that haunting, frightening memory. I share because I can no longer be quiet about the necessity for us as women, mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, along with our professional pursuits to come forth and say—enough of the attitude—as has been expressed on some of the news programs and in Tweets, such as, “Well, nothing happened.” Or, as one Senator stated,”He didn’t get away with anything.” Seriously?
As for me. I still remember the man who assualted me in an elevator—a colleague, and an associate, I thought. I can remember every second, in slow-motion. I became acquainted with him through his wife and through his institution’s affiliation with my own in Dallas, Texas. We had planned a meeting-conversation about an idea for students, and he suggested we meet for a glass—a glass of wine—after work. I said, sure. We met, discussed the idea, and I stood to leave. My one glass of wine not in the least finished. He followed me to the elevator, and we both got in.
What I remember vividly to this moment: we were talking, my back was to the wall of the elevator, and in what seemed to me a second, he was directly in front of me, forcing himself on me, tying to kiss me. I was struggling to remove myself, struggling to say stop, what are you doing???? I pushed him off, shouted at him, “Who do you think you are? What on earth are you doing, Don’t even come close to me.” He abruptly stepped to the other side of the elevator, and as the doors opened, I was so angry and frightened, I was shaking. He was following me , pleading that I not tell his wife. I was telling him not to follow me.
I ran to my car. Locked my doors, shakily inserted my key into the ignition and drove fast out of the parking lot.
No, gentlemen and some women, of Congress, I do not remember the date, the hotel, but I have never forgotten how violated I felt and was made to be fearful—even to this very moment. Even after two years had passed, I could not enter an elevator alone if there was a man in it.
Reporting this man to the Dallas police would have gotten me nowhere, as the discussion on the Hill at present clearly illustrates. That said, my Mother and my the love of my life to whom I am now married, helped me and “had words” with the man.
My Father, had he been living, along with my Uncles, would have taken another path.
What I hope now to accomplish by sharing this personal story is to add my narrative- experience to the quilt of painful narratives that some of us have had and continue to bear. We have had to bear the burden of attacks, jibes, touches, etc, far too long—long before Anita Hill whose experience is a beacon on the political scene. Before Dr. Hill, the message had long been silently and visually inculcated into us. The concomitant message, too, is that while we have borne the brunt of being attacked, disbelieved, and scarlet-lettered like the girls in my home church, the “boys” go along under the aegis of “right to passage,” “boys will be boys,” “so they were a little drunk.” No harm, no foul.
Not anymore. We must no longer be quiet anytime, anywhere—there are so many more girls following us, looking at how we stand. Hester Prynne’s Scarlet Letter no longer stands for Adultress but for Affirmation. We as women affirm our collective Voice, our Place, our Right to Be and be Believed. Equity, Ethics, and Equality.
And those men, who tried to take advantage of us, please remember, though you may say you “don’t remember;” we all know, as do you, that in the “wee small hours of the night”—as my Mother used to say—you most assuredly DO Remember. You will never forget what you did to all of us. As Launcelot Gobbo asserts in The Merchant of Venice: “ . . . in the end truth will out” (2.2)
One thought on “Hester Prynne, #WhyIDidntReport, and Me: Now I Stand”
Thank you for sharing this horrible moment so bravely here on your blog. Through luck and grace, I have never been put in a similar position, but reading your article and others this week has convinced me to get involved politically, as I never have before. As a public school teacher for 26 years, I was instructed not to become political in the small Texas towns where I taught. However, there is such power in women choosing to stand together to say “enough.” My prayer is that we also put feet to our conviction through our vote.