How Black Boys Suffer Sexual Abuse in Silence
Disturbing allegations of sexual abuse against hip hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa are testing the black community's ideals of masculinity.
For many African Americans, recent allegations of child molestation against Afrika Bambaataa are deeply unsettling, and not just because they suggest abuse of the lives and bodies of innocent children. The accusations also represent an attack on a hero of the black community, a man generally regarded as a godfather of hip-hop culture. Compared with the Bill Cosby rape saga, there are real differences in scale of the alleged crimes on one hand, and the nature of the celebrity's star power on the other, but it's fair to say some of the same alarm bells are going off in black communities across America.
It should come as no surprise that the social malaise of sexual abuse is colorblind, even if white males are more likely to be perpetrators of sexual assault. Famed Hollywood figures Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and Bryan Singer have been the subject of disturbing accusations of child sexual abuse over the years, but as Molly Lambert recently wrote for MTV News, "Bambaataa's position is more tenuous... because he is not protected financially or insulated from the backlash" in the way many white men are.
As a survivor of child sexual abuse myself, which began at the age of 13 at the hands of a trusted member of the clergy, the accusations against Bambaataa are less shocking to me than the fact that our society continues to ignore the prevalence of child molestation. And there appears to be a willful blindness, in particular, when that abuse targets young boys.
At issue in the allegations against Bambaataa is the statute of limitations in New York State. Despite its reputation as a center of liberal progressive politics, New York has the dubious distinction of having one of the most restrictive limitations on child sexual abuse—on par with that of Mississippi and Alabama. Victims can only sue until they reach the age of 23, and children who allege abuse in public institutions, like schools or foster care, are forced to file an "intent to sue" within 90 days of the original incident.
Ronald Savage, the New York native who was the first to bring claims of sexual assault against Bambaataa earlier this month—at least three others have since come forward—is sharing his story, in part, to bring attention to the statute and boost efforts to overturn it.
"I think the statute of limitations is unfair for victims," Savage told the Daily News. "It took me all of these years to speak about this. I was embarrassed. I was ashamed."
Given the psychological and emotional toll—and time—it takes for a child to admit to being abused, the restrictive statute seems to this survivor like a prima facie case of a law doing more to protect the perpetrator than the victim.
Bambaataa's accusers also seem to offer some insight into the suffering, in silence, of young black boys who are molested, raped, or sexually exploited. That image is not one with which American society in general, or the African American community in particular, has been forced to contend with any frequency.
Our media generally frames victims of sexual abuse as white and female. And the national discourse on the subject of molestation and rape is largely within a heteronormative paradigm. The concept of male-on-male child sexual abuse is seen as something that rarely happens; when it does, the perpetrator is often dismissed as a sexually deviant recluse.
The idea of mainstream, straight-identified men—prominent, successful ones, even—molesting young boys is still deemed an anomaly. That misconception may prove all the more confounding for young black boys in a society in which role models are hard to come by.
In 2013, Rutgers University research found that young black boys—regardless of sexual orientation—feel tremendous pressure to grow up and become strong black men who are "armored to battle racism and social barriers with a veneer of hyper-masculinity." The pressure to be tough, in control, and emotionally stoic is heightened, and in a society that has often rendered African American males invisible—that is, reduced to stereotypes and caricatures—it becomes increasingly burdensome for them to admit to being violated in the most intimate and intense ways fathomable.
Savage's tears, as he described to a New York tabloid his struggles with suicidal thoughts and an inability to maintain intimate relationships, seem to me a legitimate glimpse into emotional scars that never heal.
For his part, Bambaataa's attorney released a statement to Rolling Stone, insisting the allegations represent a "reckless disregard for the truth" and are being made by "a lesser-known person seeking publicity." Savage has since responded that he is not looking for a financial settlement, but instead seeks relief from the dark secrets that have haunted him. Another (so far anonymous) accuser bolstered Savage's claims when he told the same paper, "I know what Ronald Savage is saying is true because [Bambaataa] did it to me."
Another young man, Hassan Campbell, called Bambaataa "a pervert" and remembers being abused as early as 12 years old. For Campbell, the hip-hop icon served as a father figure before the abuse began.
This is the sad truth at the heart of these allegations: Afrika Bambaataa's legendary stature in the community meant people trusted him—a trust he had earned, but it appears may have also betrayed.
Bambaataa, 59, was born Kevin Donovan and grew up in the Bronx River Projects. He became a successful gang leader, but he famously sought a new path after a trip to Africa as a young man. That began with changing his name and disavowing a life of crime and violence, after which he turned to music and DJing—forming what is now the Universal Zulu Nation (UZN). His 1982 song "Planet Rock" and the 1986 album of the same name remain seminal works in the foundation of modern-day hip-hop music and culture. UZN has branches worldwide, spreading not only hip-hop musically, but also messages of empowerment, non-violence, community, and support for the rights of indigenous peoples.
Such is the dilemma for victims of powerful men: In the mind of a child, it is almost impossible to comprehend, let alone confront, the duality of being outwardly good while committing unconscionable evil.
Black Sexual Abuse Survivors (BSAS) is an online support network that allows victims and survivors to share their stories. Dwight, a 36-year-old musician living in Florida and active in the group's online forum, told me about his experience in light of the accusations against Bambaataa. Though he did not feel comfortable sharing his last name, he claims he was molested by a well-known minister in Philadelphia and Delaware, beginning when he was 11 years old. Dwight says state officials initially pursued charges when he was 15, but that the case was dropped for lack of physical evidence.
"As a musician, I have always admired Afrika Bambaataa, but when I read stories like those of the men accusing him, I see myself. I believe in my heart they are telling the truth, because as a survivor, I am finally telling my own."
Meanwhile, the truth remains elusive. Following the initial allegations, Bambaatta has doubled down on his assertion that the claims are false and suggested they're part of a larger plot against him. But due to the restrictive statute of limitations, no criminal trial is possible to bring evidence or discovery that might unveil what happened so many years ago. Perhaps, for this reason, we as a society must ask if the law is designed to protect the innocence of children or the deviance of perpetrators.
As Toni Morrison famously wrote, referring to the violent rape of a young black girl in The Bluest Eye, "We acquiesce and say the victim had no right to live. We are wrong, of course, but it doesn't matter. It's too late... much, much, much too late."
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a television producer, correspondent, and writer living in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.