My Girlfriend and the Bathroom Door

By Kevin Powell

In his 10 books, writer-activist Kevin Powell has frequently written on race and masculinity, including The Black Male Handbook (excerpted in the Winter 2009 issue), Who’s Gonna Take the Weight: Manhood, Race, and Power in America, and Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and The Ghost of Dr. King. The excerpt below is from his new book, The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey into Manhood (Atria Books/Simon & Schuster, 2015). In it, he recounts the horrific poverty of his youth, his struggles to overcome a legacy of anger, violence, and self-hatred, and his journey to be a man and a voice for others.

I was 25 years old and knew I had to make a change.

But I had no clue what to do other than to write. I had already done some freelance work for Essence, the Black women’s magazine, so I asked my editor, Audrey Edwards, if I could write about what had happened with my old girlfriend, Adera. Ms. Edwards was taken aback, though she supported me on it.

I called the essay “The Sexist in Me,” and Audrey Edwards pushed me hard, demanding more honesty, more rewrites. I was so afraid of writing something like this, of having it in a publication read by millions of women around the world. At the same time, I kept hearing my mother’s voice from my childhood, saying: “The truth shall set you free.” My mother also always said, “A liar is a thief,” and told me to “not be like your father.” But this left me in a horrible situation. Throughout my life, my mother—and society in general—had told me what I should not be, but rarely did anyone tell me what I should or could be. A few older Black men—such as my boss, Sam Anderson—had served as role models here and there, and I had read Malcolm X’s autobiography several times, digging endlessly for new lessons on manhood.

But I never developed any consistent or constructive means of defining—or of redefining—manhood for myself. I was ignorant, but I didn’t know that I was ignorant. I was suffering from a condition called “male privilege.” After spending all those many years screaming about racism, I had never thought about other forms of oppression and discrimination because they didn’t touch my life. Or so I thought.

I remembered the numerous kitchen conversations my mother and Aunt Cathy had had while my cousin Anthony and I were growing up. Yet it had never crossed my mind that I was contributing to the reality that men—most of us, at least—were no good.

When “The Sexist in Me” appeared in the “Brothers” section of Essence in September 1992, the response was immediate and electric. I described exactly what had happened on that day I pushed Adera into the bathroom door, and how easily I had joined the ranks of abusive men in America. For the first time I admitted that I was sexist—socialized to be so since I was a boy. I said that what I did to Adera was inevitable, given the path that I had traveled. I discussed how this confession was a necessary first step, but that I could not stop here, that I not only had to challenge myself, but also other men and boys, especially if they were using the “b” word habitually.

I was stunned by the response. Floods of mail poured into Essence about my essay, much of it supportive. I received graphic letters from women who had been battered, beaten, stabbed, even shot by a boyfriend or husband. Women told me about being sexually assaulted by their fathers, uncles, cousins, or brothers; rape survivors wrote, too. I lost some male friends and some male supporters, and there were both women and men who told me straight up that they would never forgive me “for putting my hands on a woman,” regardless of what I said or did.

My editor told me that Adera had reached out, too, wanting to write her own piece, but was politely rejected, as the magazine did not want to turn this into a back-and-forth. It surprised me that Adera did not try to write something elsewhere about what had happened, but I also imagined what it must have felt like for her, as the victim and survivor of violent and abusive behavior. I longed for the day when I could tell her in person how sorry I was, but I knew that day was not coming any time soon.

Now fully aware of my ability to hurt others, I soldiered on toward a new and different version of myself, to challenge the cycle of pain once and for all. I did not quite know how to go about this, but I knew that I had to try. But I remained sad that this difficult life lesson had come at Adera’s expense. In time my life would become dedicated partly to writing, speaking, and organizing around the need to end violence against women and girls.

In time I would come to question and challenge images of women and girls in every form of American pop culture, including my beloved hip-hop. Feminists bell hooks and Gloria Steinem helped me through the process, and I participated in numerous workshops, conferences, and even one-on-one sessions, all focused around the need to redefine manhood toward peace, love, and a different and healthier way to handle conflict and anger. Adera would personally accept my apology a decade later, but I knew that would never be enough. I had to commit myself, as a man, to helping to rid the world of sexism and gender violence. And that I could never put my hands on a woman again. And I have not.