A few weeks after the 2009 Grammys, photos released of R&B soul singer Rihanna’s face after her then-boyfriend Chris Brown had assaulted her were explanation enough as to why she had not appeared at the Grammys just a few weeks earlier. She had been brutally assaulted by Brown.
In a November 2009 interview with Diane Sawyer, Rihanna told Sawyer that it takes “eight or nine” incidents of domestic violence before one leaves an abusive relationship. Moreover, she told Sawyer that “When I realized that my selfish decision for love could result into some young girl getting killed, I could not be easy with that part. I couldn’t be responsible … If Chris never hit me again, who’s to say that their boyfriend won’t … kill these girls”. Rihanna told young girls, “”Don’t react off of love. F love.”
Conventional wisdom was that the relationship was over — Rihanna would become a role model to women around the world, and through her actions, would demonstrate that no man is worth it.
Fast forward three years.
In an August 2012 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Rihanna told Winfrey that she had lost her “best friend” (Brown) in one moment. She said that “It was a weird, confusing space to be in, because as angry as I was … I just felt he made that mistake because he needed help. [And I wondered], who’s going to help him?” Rihanna continued, telling Winfrey that “No one’s going to say, ‘He needs help.’ Everybody’s going to say, ‘He’s a monster. Without looking at the source.'”
Three months later, in her seventh studio album, “Unapologetic,” Rihanna and Brown recorded a song together entitled “Nobody’s Business.”
In the Jan. 31 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, after officially reuniting with Brown, Rihanna told contributing editor Josh Eells, “I decided it was more important for me to be happy. I wasn’t going to let anybody’s opinion get in the way of that. Even if it’s a mistake, it’s my mistake. After being tormented for so many years, being angry and dark, I’d rather just live my truth and take the backlash. I can handle it.”
Then, last week, to the utter shock and dismay of men and women all over the world, Rihanna, blowing kisses at Brown, accompanied him to a probation hearing where prosecutors argued that he had failed to complete his 180 days of community labor, which he had agreed to after pleading guilty to felonious assault in 2009.
In part, the lyrics to “Nobody’s Business” provide that “It ain’t nobody’s business. It ain’t nobody’s business. You’ll always be mine. Sing it to the world. Always be my boy, always be my girl. Ain’t nobody’s business. Ain’t nobody’s business. Ain’t nobody’s business, but mine and my baby.”
But domestic violence, the propensity of some to accept it, its causes, and its aftermath is everyone’s business.
As a society, we must ask ourselves what is it that happens in the rearing of children in virtually every culture and at every socio-economic level that raises girls and boys who are willing to stay in, or go back to physically and/or verbally abusive relationships.
There are many reasons why women (and men) in abusive relationships don’t leave. Money (the lack thereof); children; child custody concerns; a lack of adequate protection through the criminal justice system; poverty and the possibility of homelessness are all issues that immediately come to mind.
But, what about the case of women of means who can leave and choose to stay? What about cases like Rihanna where one leaves an abusive relationship and then chooses to go back to it knowing full well that this self-bondage puts one at constant risk of physical and/or verbal abuse?
According to Tricia Bent-Goodley, a professor of Social Work at Howard University and author of “The Ultimate Betrayal: A Renewed Look at Intimate Partner Violence,” “What this story tells us is that domestic violence doesn’t discriminate and that it can occur no matter how wealthy you are, how beautiful you are or how smart you are.”
Moreover, Bent-Goodley states that “It is so much easier for us to focus on one individual – why doesn’t she just leave – it is much harder for us to focus on ourselves and our communities – what are the messages we send that keep women being abused in abusive relationships? Our silence and our own inability to champion this issue fosters a sense that domestic violence is not an issue. We need more courageous people to stand against domestic violence.”
Bent-Goodley asserts that what we see with Rihanna and Brown and in numerous incidents of domestic violence is not just one issue, but a combination of many factors. Stigma, not wanting to be associated with domestic violence, fear of losing social stature, cultural beliefs that physical abuse is a normal part of being in a relationship, and romanticizing what your relationship used to be versus what it actually is and whatever is actually going on internally with the individual who has been victimized that leads them to stay (or go back to an abuser), are just some of the many issues we must look at as a nation in order to halt this crime.
As an African-American woman myself, I couldn’t help but ask Bent-Goodley about the complicated issue of domestic violence in our communities. Bent-Goodley asserts that in the African-American community, one of the issues many black, female victims of domestic violence face is not wanting to put a black man at the mercy of the criminal justice system.
As Bent-Goodley told me, “While domestic violence impacts all communities, black women are further burdened with the fear of going to the police and the courts because they don’t want to turn black men over to the criminal justice system. They don’t want to bring shame to the community and they don’t want others to think negatively about them and about black men because they have the added dimension of racism and discrimination to contend with. It can be a crippling burden no matter your economic status.”
After watching Brown watching Rihanna’s performance at the Grammys last night, I couldn’t help but to ask once again what we can do to teach our daughters that no man is worth abuse?
According to Ludy Green, president and founder of Second Chance Employment Services, the first and only employment placement agency in the United States for domestic violence victims, “By helping our daughters understand that we do not need to depend on any man, we have the capacity to do whatever we wish or desire intellectually as well as physically. First, we have to be an example to our daughters to maintain relationships in the home characterized by mutual respect and affection. No man is worthy to take away our peace of mind or distress us on a regular basis. Respect and understanding is key to a well-functioning relationship.”
In 1923, in “Any Woman’s Blues,” jazz legend Bessie Smith sang “Every woman in my fix is bound to feel blue too, cause I love my man better than I love myself … and if he don’t have me, he won’t have anybody else.” Maybe what we need to teach our daughters and sons is that not only is this everyone’s business, the key to happiness is loving yourself first.
Michelle D. Bernard is the president & CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy. Follow her on Twitter @michellebernard