Open Letter to An American Woman

"Open Letter to An American Woman"
By Kevin Powell

(EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT from Kevin Powell's 10th and newest book, OPEN LETTERS TO AMERICA, available at, or local bookstores)

Monday, May 8, 2009

Hello Kevin Powell:

I read one of your articles in Ebony magazine's May issue. It really hit
close to home. On March 29, 2009, I lost my best friend to domestic
violence. Her name was Kewaii Rogers-Buckner. She was only thirty-one
years old. Kewaii was gunned down in her home by her husband
in front of their three children, ages twelve, eleven and nine. This
tragic event has devastated all of her family, friends, loved ones, and
our community. [...]

For many years I lived with the fear that he would hurt her and, sadly, my worst fear came true. [...]

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Dear Shallon Patton:

It devastates me to have heard stories like yours so many times
these past several weeks since I appeared on The Oprah Winfrey
Show, and since that Ebony magazine article, "Men Can Stop Domestic
Violence," appeared. Let me say, first, my most heartfelt sympathies
and condolences to Kewaii's family, to her children, to you and
your family, and to your entire community there in Wilkes-Barre,
Pennsylvania. I can only begin to imagine the intense hurt and pain
you must feel, given this recent tragedy. And I am not quite sure
what I can actually say to help, truthfully. Violence against women
and girls, in our nation, and throughout every part of this world, is,
without question, completely out of control. Sadly, the cycle of emotional
and physical abuse that Kewaii suffered for years is so typical,
so predictable. [...]

What happened to Kewaii, and the too-many-to-count females like Kewaii whose stories are never told, thus never known, represents a virtual prison based on their gender. As you indicated in your letter to me, Kewaii had been mentally incarcerated for years, dating back to high school. The regular thread in my conversations with women who are domestic violence survivors is their low self-esteem, a feeling that this man, this male partner, somehow validates their lives, their being, even as this partner seeks to control or end their lives. When we talk about "domestic violence" against women and girls, I would submit that it is more
than the actual laying of hands. We've got to extend the conversation to the invisible "hits" they take every single day of their lives, especially if they are undereducated women, or poor women, or women of color. [...]

So many women have never heard of terms like "feminist" or "womanist," will never read the writings of bell hooks, Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler, or Alice Walker. Quite the contrary, most women do exactly what the women in my own family do: make it happen from day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year, by whatever means they can create for themselves. I say this because, Shallon, just as you are grieving the loss of Kewaii, I am grieving the loss of my dear Aunt Pearlie Mae Powell, my oldest auntie and my mother's oldest sister. She, like Kewaii, never had a chance to do, be, or experience real freedom, or real power over her own life. [...]

Shallon, my Aunt Pearlie Mae may never have been physically beaten,
as Kewaii had been, but she was emotionally assaulted, spiritually
castigated, and severely marginalized in some way or another, her
entire life, because she was a woman. The self-liberation theme embedded
in Ntozake Shange's play For Colored Girls.... never touched
my aunt's life. Nor did my aunt know she could use her voice to
sing songs of freedom as Nina Simone had done. History and culture,
when told solely from the perspective of us men, us boys, has an uncanny
way of rendering women and girls invisible, devoid of meaning,
stray branches without a root. So my Aunt Pearlie Mae did not
know that women with "[h]umble" lives like hers had done remarkable
things, had become leaders of movements, of one nation or another.
But when you are bound, as she was, as your friend Kewaii was, by
the forces of an unnatural and unholy alliance between men-kind
and the follies of our power plays, why would you ever contemplate
a universe where you, a woman, could have power, too? [...]

If we are serious about change, then what does that word mean in
terms of how a nation, any nation, treats its female population. Be it
domestic violence, equal pay, sexual harassment in the workplace, or
the exclusion of women from the corridors of leadership, it is always,
again, about power. For example, Shallon, although I supported Barack
Obama for president, I would be lying if I said that I did not feel
very acutely the pain of those disappointed female Hillary Clinton
supporters; women of all races and class backgrounds, who shared
a faint hope that America would finally catch up to nations as different
as England, India, Argentina, Israel, Dominica, Canada, New
Zealand, Ukraine, Liberia, Pakistan, Iceland, Sri Lanka, Ireland, and
Rwanda, and finally dedicate themselves to achieving women's political
leadership in mass numbers. Yes, Rwanda has already eclipsed us
in women's political leadership, [...]

Rwanda's first parliament in 1994 contained seventy seats with eight held by women. In 2003, the new constitution included a quota policy assuring women at least 30 percent of posts in decision-making organs. By 2008, Rwanda's parliament made history when its lower house elected a majority (56.3 percent) of women members. [...]

In contrast, as of 2009, in America, where like most of the world, the population is roughly half female, only ninety-two of the 441 members of the House of Representatives are women, or 17 percent. In the United States Senate, of the one hundred Senators, only seventeen are women. And when we look at chief executive officers of Fortune 500 companies, it is not much different. So we in America must do more. I firmly believe
that a larger percentage of women in leadership positions, across the
board, will mean, once and for all, an end to the assaults and murders
of women like Kewaii, and the instituting of social programs, initiatives,
to be sure, that will help women like my Aunt Pearlie Mae to be
no longer bound by the historical shackles of sexism. Women should
be able to reach their full human potential without fear of harassment
or landmines marking their every step. And we must be more
conscious and question the roles we assign to females from the time
they are children [...]

That means even seemingly minute things, like the American
media's fascination with Michelle Obama's wardrobe should be challenged.
It needs to be stated to girls across America, explicitly, that
Michelle Obama is Barack Obama's equivalent on every single level,
that he needs her as much as she needs him, that they are in a partnership, one rooted in love and respect for each other's lives, each other's leadership, each other's humanity. [...]

The steady hand of male authority in our society fuels violence against
women and girls and prevents them from obtaining the cultural, economic, and political empowerment to end it. That is why Hillary Clinton, when she conceded the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama, referred to her bid for president of the United States as "that
highest, hardest glass ceiling." We would be lying to ourselves, still,
if we didn't admit that Mrs. Clinton was scrutinized in a way no man
had ever been, including Barack Obama. There were juvenile references
to her emotional disposition, to her temperament, to her style
of dress (and rude questions about why she did not wear a dress more
often) as if a woman could not lead a nation. I point, once more, to nations like Chile that have put such myths to rest by electing their first female head of state. But, for sure, Hillary Clinton did get eighteen million votes and did, as she put it, create "eighteen million cracks"
in the glass ceiling. So something is stirring in America, Shallon,
something really is. I heard someone say, once, that if the women
move, then the entire nation will move. [...]

It can be done, Shallon Patton, all of the miracles and changes you
want to see, and all the miracles and changes I want to see, too. I do
really believe that, and I have an everlasting hope that it will happen,
in our lifetimes. We cannot bring Kewaii Rogers-Buckner or Pearlie
Mae Powell back, for they are gone from us forever. But it is in our
hands now, you, a woman, and I, a man, to turn this world on its heels
and spin it in another direction--to place women and men on equal
footing, at long last. Yes, and we must do something even greater
than that. We must free ourselves to experience the kind of happiness
and fulfillment that was denied Kewaii and Pearlie Mae from
the very beginning. We will only be free when we know that the true
measure of power and love lies in what we do during our lifetimes
to place joy where there was hurt and sorrow, peace where there was
trauma and conflict, dreams where there were nightmares, opportunity
where there was despair, and life where there was death.