|Photo of Tai Allen by Taylor Flash|
Tai Allen is a multidisciplinary creative— poet, performer, music and event producer, graphic designer, to name a few of his many hats. He is also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. His recently published chapbook, No Jewels: A Biography (of sorts) Writ in Stanzas, through revelatory poetry uses his violation and ultimate healing to illuminate the staggering statistic that one in sixmen have experienced sexual abuse or assault and offer hope that "pain and trauma do not need to be permanent. Love and contentment are better options.”
Long before he grew into commanding presence, towering height, and manhood, he was preyed upon by rapacious family members older than he (a male cousin and an undisclosed female relative) who desired manly acts from a boy with still "hairless parts." A summer of stolen innocence: locked-door Saturday baths and illicit midday trysts; what child should know of these?
While on a multi-city book tour, Allen spoke to Curly Nikki with guarded frankness about his traumatic experiences, and using his platform as an artist to give voice to those silenced by fear, shame, and stigma.
First, thank you for your willingness to share your difficult story. You were so young when it all started.
Yes, between nine and ten.
By being a relative, your abuser had greater access to you than someone who wasn’t part of the family. Did the person "groom" you for it so to speak?
I’m not sure. If she didn’t groom me before, she was certainly very active in trying to get me to forget about it. And I did for a long time. I forgot about it until I was about seventeen– it was like a eureka moment. She was always so nice to me, lavished me with gifts; I couldn’t figure out why. One day I just remembered. There were actually two situations; one with my cousin, but I punched him in the face and fought him off, and that was the end of that. My female relative was much older, late teens.
Despite her attempt at normalizing her actions, you always knew that they shouldn’t be happening?
Yes, but I didn’t have the language to explain it. I never did until I got older. She was, I think, bipolar. Abuse is usually about power, but when it’s someone who’s not too well, it’s power and a level of insanity.
How did you handle the unexpected re-emergence of your childhood abuse in your consciousness during adolescence?
Not very well. [I felt] disrespected. Betrayed. Angry. Fooled. Gaslighted. Mad. Violent. It took me ten years to fully reconcile how wack both persons were. They both need therapy. And maybe, a good smack.
Although you didn't undergo therapy, you suggest it for others.
Yes, there is even a number to an agency for readers in the back of the book. I did not get therapy, but I had compassionate listeners. Expression and compassion work in unison.
So, how did you find healing?
The assumption is that it was art, everyone assumes that, but it's not true. I am the son and godson of black militants. They were big on character and personality building. Ever since I was young, I was given the tools to deal with white oppression and supremacy and those same tools work when dealing with personal abuse. More than anything else, they gave me legacy. They gave me something to believe in. They made sure I had a real affection for community and the Diaspora.
|Photo of Tai Allen by Azzie Scott, The Dream Dept.|
You may not have come to rely on your art as therapy, but do you think there is some catharsis through art?
Hell yes! Sports, hobbies, art, it is about finding outlets that can return the soul to your center. Finding peace is the goal. I truly believe holding on to distressing experiences will create ailments.
Your experience made you vigilant of your two daughters. How did you teach your girls to protect themselves when not under a parent's watchful eye?
The girls require a conversation that reminds them all people and spaces are not safe. And the danger can come from males who sheep their intentions. I understand power is also emotional and mental; I pray I have informed them that sex can be used against them. From abuse to coercion to faux sympathy. Plus, my daughters are Black. Society is often not fond of Black women.
Although No Jewels directly addresses the experience of a male survivor of sexual abuse, its theme of moving through trauma, from surviving into thriving is universal.
I wanted to write a book that men—and others—could use as proof that trauma can be overcome. That proves pain does not have be wallowed in, no matter how terrible the horror.
Your poem “very afraid” touches on the specter of the abused becoming an abuser, in hiding. The book also shares that although many abusers have been victims of abuse, statistically most survivors do not go on to abuse others.
True, and there should be an acknowledgment for those who did not become generational predators after being victims. I see them.
You offer a downloadable Blues/R&B/Acid Jazz soundtrack to the book. What inspired it?
I am a multidisciplinary artist. Absorbing the project in multiple ways can only enhance receiving its message. I wrote the book using triolet (a French writing style), senriyu (a Japanese form close to haiku) and “song” to resemble the African oral tradition. All three forms scream musicality. I just listened to the call.
National Sexual Assault Hotline Call 1-800-656-4673 Available 24 hours everyday.
How have you found healing from abuse?