Living In A World Of Rape


From a tiny village in Ghana to a university in West Virginia, the legacy of violence against women is inescapable.



get off the plane at JFK from Ghana, two hours late. I miss my connecting flight; everyone does. My group was invited to Accra by the U.S. Embassy to present a program to honor the legacy of Maya Angelou. After the panel presentation, we conducted a camp for the small children of the Konko Village. We awarded scholarships for three high school girls, and we presented a panel on job counseling at a business college. But now back in the U.S., I am sad, already missing my group.

My sadness is short-lived. I am hit in the face with the leading news story — a video of Baltimore Raven running back Ray Rice knocking out his fiancée by punching her in an elevator, then dragging her across the lobby in an Atlantic City hotel. This beating happened before they were married. Same old story, famous and popular athlete violates a female. Why would this be different? I have three days to get ready for my classes, but the Ray Rice story takes center stage in the public square, especially for those of us who pay attention to episodes of violence against women.

I learn that a former student was beaten and raped while I was away. She tells me this over the telephone. She did call the police and she sought rape counseling. I am horrified. This isn’t the first time I’ve received phone calls from students who’ve been victims of rape. I want to be back in Ghana, not in the drama of the NFL rape culture, or the rape drama around me. I miss the bright and beautiful children of the Konko Village whose spirits shined, even though their poverty is unlike anything I could’ve imagined; and I can imagine a lot, because I grew up in rural Alabama. My elementary school was a three-room building without indoor facilities. Our parents used to dig in trash bins for used textbooks after the white students discarded them. Sometimes “Good luck NIGGERS” would be written all through them. But our parents cleaned the books up the best they could; they wrapped them with brown paper bags and newspaper and made them ours. They would shake their heads, and say, “Lord have mercy.” It wasn’t until I was in high school that we received new textbooks. Most folks in my small community were the same — hardworking, with little to show for their efforts. The children of the Konko Village are warm, polite, and free. The world hasn’t beaten them down, yet.

Going to Africa for the first time is hard, especially touring in the Cape Coast Slave Castle. My group was most supportive. The vileness and viciousness of evil held us hostage as we wept through our tortured history. Most of the group had been through the “castle” before, but they were just as horrified on this visit. The Queen Mother of Konko said she had been through fifteen times, but was just as affected as the first time. There are two dungeons for female slaves; the smallest and darkest one was reserved for the ones who fought back. No sign of light, just thick blackness, cobblestones, and four hundred years of foul stench. The tour guide told us that the soldiers had often raped the females; if they turned up pregnant, they would just throw them in the ocean. Our hotel, The Coconut Grove, sits right on the beach near the castle. I never slept; every time I closed my eyes I heard the screams of my tortured, raped, and pregnant ancestors roaring in the ocean.

The Ray Rice video continues to make news headlines. Questions about domestic violence against women in professional sports are on the lips of everyone. Janay Rice looks forced on national television, apologizing for her role in the attack her husband made on her. Why is she apologizing? She didn’t hit anybody. Not in the video anyway. Not only had her fiancé knocked her out and dragged her through the hotel lobby, but he spit on her. He spit on her.

I am trying to hold on to Ghana; it’s fading fast. Photographs start to arrive from my group; they are stunning. Hope sparkles like gems of the sea in the eyes of the sweet children from the Konko Village. This helps me to remember that I was there and I tried to make a difference in their lives. The sadness in their eyes is also clear. I am reminded of the Kakum National Park, where my group walked across swinging bridges that probably hadn’t been inspected since no one remembered. We cheered for each other, and wouldn’t leave until the last person got across the last bridge. Surrounding myself in my first world with photographs of the beloved children allows me to feel their hugs and gratitude. I see the yellow sun of Ghana in their smiles. The red dirt under their fingernails looks like mine used to when I was their age digging in the Alabama clay. I order books on Ghana, including the novel Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi. I am sure I will learn much. The other book I order is Ghana: A Portrait. I mail gifts to friends and family.

My tennis group had collected a huge suitcase of T-shirts and pencils with erasers for the children of the Village. Such easy and useful gifts that I was happy to transport and distribute among them. Knowing that I would have plenty of room in my luggage, I had planned on buying most of my Christmas gifts on the trip. I had left most of my clothes for the female workers at the hotels. That plan changed. The aggressive tactics of the Ghanaians at the open markets drove me away. I would be talking to one person until three and then five were pulling and yelling, “My sister. My rich sister. I give you the best deal.” I don’t like strange people touching me. I got back on the bus, but that didn’t solve the problem. The sellers beat on my window. I wanted to support the sellers at the markets, but couldn’t. I was too overwhelmed.

Domestic violence among the NFL and other sports continues to occupy the national discourse. The public’s outrage now turns toward management. Of course, they didn’t know about such a video until they saw it with the same disgust as the rest of us. So the blame game begins: Did the owner know? When? Ray Rice was suspended for two weeks. Outrage continues.

My book club is reading Orphan Train, which is based on a true story. Trains carried children to adoptive families for seventy-five years, from the mid-nineteenth century to the beginning of the Great Depression. The children in the novel were overworked and females were often raped. I read it on Kindle; it’s a heartbreak of a story. Ghana has reset my moral compass dial about bad and evil. I try to be quiet. The only interest my clubbers express in my trip is Ebola. One says her husband didn’t believe such a story, as the one in Orphan Train, could have happened in our America. Of course, the conversation turns toward the NFL and domestic violence. The top news story for weeks didn’t show up on the radar of my privileged book clubbers. Other than Orphan Train, they talk mostly about their vacations and grandchildren. One said, “If only Ray Rice had gently picked up his fiancée after he had knocked her out, rather than drag her through the lobby, it wouldn’t have been so bad.” I excuse myself by saying I am behind on my class work. If I stay I will throw up or hit somebody. I feel insulted, even though I know my book clubber is trying to make light of the situation.

I felt equally insulted when a childhood friend responded to one of my Facebook posts. No pictures today. All I can do is weep after touring the Cape Coast Slave Castle. “Ethel, stop your crying; our ancestors triumphed.” I wept not cried. And I’ll continue to do so. It is the least we can do, weep for the souls of our ancestors.

With my syllabi posted on eCampus, I have two days before the beginning of classes. I am excited to be returning to the classroom since I was on sabbatical last semester. I wonder if my students will care about the rapes. Several white female Ray Rice fans have been protesting on his behalf by wearing his number twenty-seven jersey. I stop watching the news and try to get control of my own life. Folks keep asking me about Ebola. Explaining to them that Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea are the affected countries goes unheard. By the time I name the countries, they’ve lost interest. “You know, I prayed for you,” is often their last response.

I want to tell folks that Ghanaian women are more concerned about rape, early marriage, and extreme poverty than Ebola. The real world had wounded the high school and college-age females (if they were fortunate enough to attend school). They want to know: how do they help their village in spite of the abuse and poverty? Or do they try to save themselves and take their education and escape?

Immediately, I am exhausted from my graduate nonfiction workshop class. I’ve taught in the MFA program for fifteen years and more than twenty years at the University, where I am a tenured professor. The workshop is a small class of ten students; all are females except one male. Seven of the nine female students write about being raped. “He choked me, kicked me, and then raped me,” is language I read too often in my students’ work. Others write, “He dragged me, drugged me, pulled my hair before raping me.” I am shocked, but I have to find a place to put my students’ experiences in my own life. But most important, I need to offer my students support and constructive criticism on how to move their work forward toward publication.

The last time I felt this tired from students’ writing was five years ago, when most of them wrote about their own and their family members’ struggles with crystal meth and other drugs. “I had to sleep with a gun and my wallet under my pillow.” “My sister lost custody of her three children because of drugs. My mom can’t afford to take them in and she’s scared of the drugs.” “We put my brother out for the third time.” These were common narratives in my students’ lives. One wrote that she had just bought her stash of heroin after getting paid. Later the dealer broke into her house and took her stash and all of her money. She sat in the middle of the floor and couldn’t stop shaking. That’s when she realized she wasn’t a casual drug user, but an addict. That break-in saved my student’s life. She got help and got off of drugs. At the end of that semester I drove home feeling thankful that I had survived. But I worried about my students. I hoped they would find peaceable and healthy ways to exist in the world.

Crystal meth use no longer makes major headlines. Crack cocaine and heroin have taken its place. Raping women is in the news, especially on college and university campuses. A boyfriend or an ex-boyfriend most often commits these rapes my students write about. Who are the parents of these rapists? Why isn’t there any real education for these angry males? What do women think when their sons, nephews, uncles, cousins, friends, boyfriends, and husbands are rapists? Sometimes female students have to sit in the same class as their rapist. One of my students was stalked in a supermarket, which set her healing process back months. She’s afraid to leave her house alone.

A few years ago, statistics told us one out of four female college students would be raped, probably by someone they knew, before they graduated. Today that number is one in three. With the exposure of the NFL’s rape issues, more folks are thinking about it differently. When there is a rape, the first questions are: what did the female do to provoke the male (just like domestic violence), and how was the female dressed?

Finally, it’s midterm. We’re workshopping a story that isn’t about rape. It’s even funny, and the story gives the class a breather from something as serious and difficult as rape, especially since so many of the class members’ own identities are tied to their abuse. One of my students can’t read the rape stories because she is a rape survivor, and enough time hasn’t passed. I don’t know what to say to her.

The president of Lincoln University, one of the oldest Historical Black College & Universities (HBCU), about an hour south of Philadelphia, said in a convocation for young women, “We have, we had, on this campus last semester three cases of young women who after having done whatever they did with young men and it didn’t turn out the way they wanted it to turn out, guess what they did. They went to public safety and said, ‘He raped me.’” When the video went viral, the social media world went crazy. The president claimed he was trying to teach social responsibility. But after Melissa Harris-Perry wrote him one of her blistering letters of the week, he resigned within days.

To understand domestic violence better, the NFL is putting together a committee against domestic violence. There are even women on the committee.

Some of the children of the Konko Village smile at me every day from their pictures on the screen savers of my phone, iPad, and computers. I dreamed of bringing them home with me, especially when they held onto our legs, begging us to stay or take them with us. When we took pictures of the children, they would rub their hands across our phones. We should’ve brought Polaroid cameras; we could’ve left their photos with them. It was the first time many of the children had seen themselves in pictures. I miss riding on the bus in Ghana, even though it was dangerous because of the rough and often unpaved roads. Just living in Ghana seems dangerous. It’s hard to tell if you’ve traveled ten miles or thirty miles. I was never able to sleep on the bus rides; I talked to whoever was awake and looked out at little children waving to us as we passed through their lives. Goats and dogs and more trash than I’d ever seen were also a part of the landscape. The trash seemed to take on a life of its own after a while. I guess it’s like drinking the water; if you lived there, after a while you’d get used to it. In Accra, traffic comes at you from all directions. I never saw any real road signs, nor did I see any accidents. People, mostly women, wove in between traffic, carrying tubs of water, yogurt, plantains, peanuts, and other edibles I didn’t recognize on top of their heads. They were like walking stores twisting their way through the maze of undirected traffic.

I text a friend from the trip; she texts back. We have a nice exchange for almost an hour. Ghana is back in my sight, and I smell the red earth, red like rural Alabama.

My graduate students are so talented. I am impressed by how they can write about violent rapes with such lyrical and poetic language. They are on a mission, not just writing about their pain but helping other women to heal. I am so proud of them. They are fighting back by getting their work published and speaking out against crimes committed against them, especially rape.

Just as my semester winds down, the explosion of rape accusations against iconic entertainer and favorite dad Bill Cosby blows up in the world of all things media. Every day another woman comes forward; it’s up to more than twenty. Most of the accusations are decades old. Bill Cosby and his wife talk to the Associated Press about their art collection, but when the reporter asks about the charges, he says he has no response. His wife sits by his side and laughs without saying a word.

The women not only accused him of rape, but also alleged he drugged them first. My class should be talking about these issues, but we don’t because the one new rape survivor can’t hear it. I emailed some of my other students a copy of an article written by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic. Regarding an article he wrote in 2008 about Bill Cosby, Coates had this to say of recent events: “The subject was morality — and yet one of the biggest accusations of immorality was left for a few sentences, was rendered invisible… [T]he lack of pursuit puts me in league with people who either looked away or did not look hard enough.”

It is my hope that colleges and universities will and can do better by more than fifty percent of their population — females. It is my hope that by this time next year we will have changed the narrative of rape. And for God’s sake, stop blaming the victims. I wonder if my beloved children of the Konko Village think of me as I say good morning and good night to them each and every day. How I long to go back to Ghana!

Image: Cape Coast Slave Castle in Ghana (Adam Jones/Flickr)

Ethel Morgan Smith

Ethel Morgan Smith is an Associate Professor at West Virginia University and the author of From Whence Cometh My Help: The African American Community at Hollins College and Reflections of the Other: Being Black in Germany. She has published in the New York Times, African American Review, Callaloo, and other international journals. She is the recipient of a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a DuPont Fellowship, among other honors. Follow her on Twitter.



  1. Ethel, this is a painful and powerful piece, and I am grateful to you for writing it. Thank you for your perspective. Wow.

  2. “Touring” those slave castles is terrible. And more so is the fact, that these slaves were sold by their own people, not by foreigners. Someone became rich in using them. What a horrible burden for their conscience

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