Memoirs of childhood sexual abuse are by their nature confrontational. They lay things bare. They air the painful memories and lasting effects. And after they do so, one simply cannot imagine what family reunions would be like, with all these ugly truths out in the open. This is exactly what happens with Kenneth Rogers’ recently published Raped Black Male, which points an accusing finger at so many relatives, either for what they did or should have prevented. Divided into three parts—“raped,” “black,” and “male”—the memoir covers what it means to Rogers “to be black, a father, a teacher, and a survivor of sexual abuse.” While it contains pieces of fiction, the book focuses on the author’s childhood and adolescence in Peoria, Ill.
Rogers notes that the words “raped black male” are rarely together (in that order) in the same sentence. As homicides of black boys and men at the hands of white police officers continue to rise, the words usually strung together by the media are “armed black male,” “convicted black male,” “imprisoned black male…” But a story very different from those mainstream media narratives appears in this memoir—the story of how sexual abuse stripped a child of his ego, how his eight-year-old stunted self is locked away and can never grow or experience the world, and how that pain and isolation cause repeated breakdowns. Rogers describes these episodes and the almost-exhilarating relief of medication, laying bare the damage done to his schoolwork and later, his life, by each crippling panic attack.
“Either Kenny’s going to be gay when he grows up or marry a white woman,” Rogers once overheard his relatives laughing about him. So, partly because he was a nerd, he worried that he wasn’t “black enough.” To cure this, he believed he needed a black girlfriend. An avid viewer of the TV show Family Matters, he was convinced that he was the geeky Steve Urkel and had to become the suave Stefan Urquelle. Well, that didn’t exactly happen, nor did he prove his relatives wrong: He married a white woman.
Rogers, who now teaches in an inner city Baltimore school, was homeless for the last two years of high school, when he and his mother slept on day beds in friends’ or relatives’ basements. That experience scarred him and contributed to his first breakdown, in college. But it led him to empathize even more with the children he teaches now. Of the charter school where he works, he writes that the students’ lives mirror his in high school—they are homeless and have either only one parent or none. He tries to be a model for these kids, to hold them to expectations, someone different from “the large majority of middle class white teachers who enter the profession for two years… and head off to law or medical school (yes, I am talking about Teach For America).” These transient pedagogues from another world only further convince their students that education is pointless and leads nowhere.
For Rogers it did not. He finished college and graduate school. He became a writer, a teacher, a husband, and a father; the middle class dream. He “made it.” But as this resolutely honest memoir shows, he never forgot—never could or will forget—where he came from.